I wish we had been more tolerant of Mitt Romney’s binders full of women.
This summer, a colleague proudly shared the agenda of a conference he hosted. I scanned the speaker roster and fired back an email, asking why he had not engaged women. I worried he may feel attacked and respond with defensiveness. Instead, he asked for help: Could I refer more inspiring female speakers for him to draw from in the future? I began working on a document that I entitled (as a joke to myself, because maintaining a sense of humor matters) “Binder Full of Women,” and my mind wandered.
If someone I know to be a strong male ally needs support on his path toward inclusion, how many others do, too? How common is uncertainty about what to do, even in people who know something must be done? How often is that lack of awareness criticized rather than handled constructively?
When Romney acknowledged the limitations that prevented him from knowing the most capable female candidates for cabinet positions, people mocked him. He indicated he was willing to work toward gender balance and he was shunned: Why did he have to work toward it? Why didn’t he have the wisdom already? Why did he need a binder full of resumes gathered by people who worked for him instead of drawing from his own, already-established diverse network that represented this country’s people? We laughed him off as a man who was out of touch with more than half of our country.
While one could argue that (at least historically), a candidate for our nation’s highest office should have been held to higher sensitivity around gender issues, we taught men the wrong lesson. We should have demonstrated a willingness to support men in their growth, sending a message that it is okay to be where they are now, as long as they are willing to move forward.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized the need to offer this support when she was appointed to the Supreme Court. She accepted that her role was not to force a feminist agenda on the other justices, but to educate them about the ways inequality created challenges for both men and women. She did not resent them for their ignorance; she provided appropriate tools to help expand their understanding.
When a person lives their entire life exposed only to one world, it does not matter if there is a realm beyond that. They cannot know what else is out there. It is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. (Quick Philosophy 101: Prisoners lived their lives chained to a wall inside a dark cave. They were only exposed to shadows, so that became their reality.) The prisoners should not be faulted for not knowing about the objects that cast the shadows or the sun that creates the light to make this possible. It was the only world they had known. The test comes when people are exposed to a world beyond what they have known: Do they marvel in the new world? Do they deny that it is reality? Do they acknowledge that this world does exist, but prefer the shadows and the security of the world they have always known?
There is a heightened awareness today about gender balance: I am more likely to notice a speaker docket full of men at a conference, a Board of Directors that is more than 75% male, an Executive Team that boasts only one token female, and I have begun asking why. Sometimes, the answer makes me shake my head… If someone tells me women aren’t qualified to serve, I move on from those conversations. They represent the prisoners who may see a world outside the cave, but refuse to believe it may be reality. Investing in their awareness is unlikely to change their views.
Most of the men I engage in conversations about gender balance want to learn more, though. They are shocked to hear about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways women remain subordinated: The actions women feel they must take on a daily basis to avoid being sexually assaulted or harassed; that women still get asked in job interviews about plans for babies and childcare; that a declining number of women are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. They want to live in a world where inequality is not a reality, but do not necessarily know their role.
These are the Romney’s of the world. They are the prisoners who left the cave and believe in the new reality, but do not yet know how to become part of this new world. They will benefit from grace, instruction, and support in their growth.
Over the past several months, I have heard an increasing amount of references to the declining popularity of the middle-aged white man. I listen with apprehension. I have not seen men’s lives ruined in the pursuit of equality. It brings to mind a Sarah Grimke quote popularized by the aforementioned RBG: I ask no favor for my sex; all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.
While we continue to seek male allies to help create equality, we can also be female allies who enthusiastically encourage and support the growth of men who are open to learning more, regardless of where they stand in their journey today.