“In 2018 there is no earthly reason, biological or otherwise, why men should have more power than women.”
This was the opening statement by writer Hanna Rosin in a recent New Yorker issue dedicated to the topic. Yet the reality is that the gap between men and women’s power is vast.
Despite the exponential progress made in the last few decades, we’re very far from true equality. And there won’t be true equality until women and men have equal power.
Based on my experiences, two things are key to narrowing this gap: Addressing unconscious biases, and having the gate-keepers of power structures open the door and invite more women in.
Power has many facets, so let’s examine the quantifiable ones.
In his speech to the European Commission in 2016, Carlos Moedas, a notable economist, discussed how gender equality isn’t a woman’s issue — it’s a human one. He points out that there are only a few women in CEO positions of Fortune 500 companies (in 2018, there are only 24, or just under 5%); and he characterizes the idea that you simply “can’t find any women to fill those roles” as nonsense.
According to another New York Times article, fewer women run big companies than men named John or David.
Think about that for a moment.
The power gap extends beyond the business world, into politics, sports, and everyday life. And what makes it even harder to close the gap are the double standards and biases that we all have when it comes to how women are supposed to behave when they do have power.
No woman is exempt from the double standard.
Look at Serena Williams. She’s a record-holding Olympic athlete who advocates for African-American women’s health issues and gives inspiration to aspiring athletes all over the world. But the second she stands up for herself on the court, her professional space, she’s reduced to the stereotype of an angry woman.
Compare that to the numerous times male tennis players broke their racquets on the court without receiving harsh penalties. Their behavior was simply viewed as an expected (and accepted) emotional reaction in a high-stakes game.
There have been countless times in my own career when I was subjected to the same treatment Williams endured at the 2018 U.S. Open.
As a woman in technology — as a woman in power — I am constantly reminded in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we have a long way to go to reach equality. Which is why I make it my business to command a space for myself. And I believe it is crucial that more women do the same.
In order for more women to speak up, we, as a society, have to make it a priority not only to listen to those in power who are already vocal; we must also stand with them.
Unconscious, unexamined bias against women in power cuts across all industries.
Regardless of where we work, women in power face what’s known as the double-bind dilemma.
US Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to win a seat in the Senate back in the early 90’s, explained this double bind well: You’re either a puppet or a shrew, and the line you walk between the two is impossibly thin.
When women act in ways consistent with the stereotype of a leader — strong, resolute, decisive — this conflicts with the stereotype of what is culturally expected of a woman: to be kind and accommodating. As a result, women are perceived as competent or likable, but never both.
Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t.
As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book, Lean In: “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty.” All because women are perceived as aggressive, which is inconsistent with the social stereotype expected of them.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been called aggressive when I acted no differently than a male leader would have acted in the same situation.
Rather than get angry, I usually ask the person who is labeling me as aggressive to imagine if a male leader they admire would have done the same thing. Would he be labeled as aggressive? That usually changes the judgement.
In my experience, this judgment happens subconsciously, and we all carry these implicit biases — men and women alike.
But it’s high-time we challenge these biases openly.
I’m shocked at the genuine disbelief many of my male friends and colleagues display when I explain this concept in detail. I am shocked that they have not understood this sooner.
Judging from conversations I’ve had with some of the most supportive and progressive men I know, most don’t realize how bad the double-bind dilemma is. So we should talk about it more, not less.
I try to do this whenever I get the chance — especially in the moment.
Too often, to avoid getting called out for wrongful behavior or being labeled as aggressive, I bring these incidents up jokingly. Laughter helps.
So let’s pause every time someone displays a bias or a double-standard, and bring it to the surface. We can’t fix anything if we don’t acknowledge that we do have double standards and biases in the first place.
Changing the culture is everybody’s problem.
Keeping women out of power hurts everyone, whether that’s in a company setting or in our society as a whole.
If we stand with women in power, we stand to completely change our culture.
This means massive opportunities for women in corporate culture, but also in the bigger picture of our culture as a nation.
Women are already pushing this movement forward. This year, there was a record number of women on ballots across the country in various offices. That can mean better representation for women’s health issues and worker rights, as well as stronger, more frequent voices when it comes to mistreatment at every level.
While women are making significant progress at the lower levels of the power structures, to be truly powerful, one has to be invited to (and allowed to exist in) the top power structures by the people currently in power. And in the vast majority of cases, that means being invited by men.
As Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, said in her interview with The New Yorker: “The people who opened the door for me were men. The reality is that most positions of power right now are held by men, and so men need to be the ones who are opening the door.”
What I say to my male friends and colleagues in positions of power is this: If you truly want equality and diversity in your organization, think about how to promote and open doors for women. This doesn’t mean special treatment, and it doesn’t mean giving the job to a woman who is not qualified.
It means not overlooking the women who are qualified.
It means identifying and addressing our own subconscious biases of what a leader looks like.
This plea is not new. Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist, attorney, judge, and feminist, said in 1837: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.”
This quote was recently revived by one of my present-day heroes, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka Notorious RBG) in a CNN documentary of her life and career.
To paraphrase the 200-year-old plea: We are not asking for favors. We are asking for the opportunity to be judged and treated as equals.