I readily admit what many men might be afraid to say: I fundamentally do not understand women. Not on a personal level, a professional level, a relationship level or really any level. The more I learn about women, the less I actually understand.
I think most women who know me would agree with this statement.
I know things. I know, for instance, that women on average make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. I know that women are a minority in leadership positions in government and business. I know these things like I know that Jacoby Ellsbury is a pretty good centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox. I know, but I do not understand the how or the why.
What Did I Understand? Not A Damn Thing
So, when I found myself sitting at the Harvard Club in Boston listening to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talking about her new book Lean In, I told myself that I know what she is talking about.
You know what? I don’t know a goddamn thing.
Without knowing, I cannot understand. I cannot understand why there are less women in the field of technology. I cannot understand why there are less women technology journalists. I cannot understand that women face different external perspectives than a man in the work place and that, in turn, changes the dynamic of how they attain leadership or are perceived by coworkers.
Sandberg asked for a raise of hands from the crowd at the Harvard Club. First, she asked the men, “Has anybody ever told you that you were too aggressive at work?” A few men, including me, raised our hands. Most did not. Then she asked the same question of the women in the crowd.
Nearly every woman — a group filled with startup employees, marketers, public relations people and developers — raised her hand. This was a surprise for me. I am either completely naïve or conditioned to the gender stereotypes of our time. Probably both.
What Did I Learn? A Lot
Sandberg related a story about a performance review of a woman employee at Facebook. The performance review had labeled the employee as “too aggressive.”
“I took that performance review back to the people that gave it, both men and women and I said to them ‘can you tell me what she did that was too aggressive?' And they answered," Sandberg said. “Then I said to them, if a man had done exactly those same things would you have thought he was too aggressive? And to a person, they said no.”
Lean In is filled with anecdotes like these, presented to drive home how much of the inequality facing women in the workplace starts with misperception based on gender stereotypes and social conditioning.
Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional — or worse, sometimes even a negative — for women. “She is very ambitious” is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishment comes at a cost.
In order to change something, you first must understand it. That is not always easy, especially when it comes to centuries of conditioned behavior such as gender stereotypes. It takes a high degree of self perception and awareness to realize that you don’t know or understand something. Sometimes that realization comes as a hard smack in the face, as it did with me listening to Sandberg speak at the Harvard Club.
“As men get more powerful and successful, everybody likes them better. Men and women,” Sandberg said. “As women become more successful, everyone likes them less. If we can begin to understand that, we can change it.”
Photos by Britta Schellenberg courtesy of Brightcove