For some time now, I have wanted to write an article about standing with the middle-aged white man; about understanding the accidental forms of discrimination and subjugation of women: Those men who will not “speak that way in front of a lady,” or who believe certain careers are “no place for women,” are not necessarily bad. Unenlightened? Yes. But not bad. I got close to it with Binders Full of Women, but something kept me from leaning all the way in.
It would be a slippery slope to excuse the behavior of the men who just don’t know better. These are the same men—like my father—who teach their daughters that it is the responsibility of the woman not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; to stay in rather than go out alone; to remain unexposed to the wily ways of the world and the evil that may be lurking. They do not acknowledge the alternative approach of teaching women how to live in this world rather than hide from it. They do not accept responsibility for improving it into a place more suitable for all humans, nor do they hold others accountable when theyobserve them bringing it down. I hope by now you have seen the post by Rachel Pross, recounting her experiences at CUNA’s GAC. Her observations include not only the blatant bad actors, but the many bystanders who dismissed what they saw because… Boys will be boys… Those guys are from a different generation… He had too much to drink… He meant it as a compliment… Insert your own favorite dismissal here.
Rachel’s post was courageous. Even after #MeToo (and some might suggest more so), women are afraid to speak up about their experiences. There are consequences to being a woman known for speaking out about sexual harassment, especially in male-dominated fields. Fortunately, Rachel’s post received an outpouring of support that was both encouraging and frustrating: It is great that people thanked her for speaking up; concerning that there is still such a clear need and so many people who acknowledged their own silence on the issue.
Since joining the workforce in 2001, I have heard repeatedly how lucky I am that I do not have it as badly as did the mothers or grandmothers of my male colleagues. That may be true. In their generations, they may not have been able to ascend to the ranks that today’s women achieve, and even those who did were often regularly subjected to harassment and discrimination with no platform to address the behaviors like Rachel did. Rachel also points out the reality that the gender balance we boast about in credit union CEO positions is not real balance: Women are significantly underrepresented as CEOs of the largest, highest-paying financial institutions. But, hey! At least these days we get the chance to be the CEO so we can attend conferences like the ones Rachel describes, right?
I don’t mean to mock the progress we have achieved in diversity. It’s a beautiful thing. But it is not enough because we are failing miserably in inclusion. Rachel’s post offers proof that diversity without inclusion lacks an impact.
How does diversity without inclusion look?
I facilitated a planning session last fall where we addressed the topic of Board succession planning and diversity. The Board discussed the challenges they faced when they brought in Board members who were different than the current board. They described people lacking commitment, not having time, not being as loyal to the credit union as previous generations and lamented high turnover in positions when new Board members were added. I asked for more information on how these Board members were treated when they voiced different ideas from the way things had always been done. The Chairman proudly stated that they encouraged and awaited assimilation to the mainstream.
Let’s be clear: In his example, mainstream thinking meant thinking like retirement-aged, college-educated, American-born, white men.
I was embarrassed for him. He did not know to be ashamed of himself. He attempted to check a box for diversity without understanding the benefit. He did not see the addition of new, diverse viewpoints as critical to advancing his credit union; he just knew that he had heard diversity mattered for succession planning, and he figured they should give it a try.
Diversity without inclusion also looks like hiring your first female CEO in your organization’s history, then failing to respect her like you did her male predecessors. She may be tasked with administrative roles her male predecessors were not; Board members may fail to interact with her in the same manner as her male predecessors (either by not including her in the same invitations they previously extended or by misinterpreting invitations she extends); and she may be evaluated more harshly and/or by factors that have little to do with her executive performance. (In other words, her performance review may be influenced by whether she has the traits of a “good woman” over the skills of a “good executive.”
And diversity without inclusion looks like women attending a conference in a male-dominated industry, only to be objectified and disrespected in the way outlined in Rachel’s post.
It is damaging. It causes newly recruited Board members to walk away because they feel irrelevant. It causes female executives to opt out of a career path they wanted so badly. It doesn’t always blow up in headline-making sexual harassment or discrimination scandals—most people walk away quietly, humiliated that they didn’t handle things better—but it compromises the future of the industry. It limits the possibilities of innovation, critical thinking, and succession planning. And when this happens? Those “mainstream” individuals in the first scenario may feel affirmed rather than responsible. They tried to diversify and all it did was waste time and reinforce the idea that this was a man’s job, after all.
What does inclusion look like? It looks like removing qualifiers before the title– not just in speaking, but in thought. It means not having Black CEOs, or Female Executives, or Young Board Members. It means avoiding tokenizing one individual or tasking someone with the responsibility of being the voice of an entire demographic. It means honoring and respecting individuals as executives and viewing them through that lens in professional settings.
In Rachel’s post, she calls to the carpet some of the most blatant and visible forms of sexual harassment, misogyny, and gender discrimination that emerge in male-dominated industries. Jim Nussle was swift to act and add his voice to the calls that we can do better. And we definitely can. We definitely must. If our industry has a future, we must listen more carefully to the underrepresented voices in our executive ranks, be thoughtful about how we socialize during conferences, and consider what factors beyond executive performance enter our minds when we evaluate and interact with leadership.
My oldest niece turns 13 this week. When she enters the workforce in about another decade, I hope the progress has been so great that it never occurs to her to ask me what it was like to be a female executive in a male-dominated field. I hope she has it so easy—that she is treated like as much of a human as any other executive– that she assumes that is how it has always been.
If she has complaints, though, I will be prepared with a better answer for her than, “At least you don’t have to deal with what I did.” I will teach her from the lessons I learned, tell her why courage matters and what difference it makes, and point to examples like Rachel’s post. I will show her that my generation of women had the courage to raise our voices. I will hope her generation has the men who have moved beyond seeking diversity to embracing inclusion.
***Jill was a recent guest on The CUInsight Experience podcast: Listen here***