It wasn’t always obvious to me that there was a problem.
Adrienne Rich, the groundbreaking poet, gave a talk at the Radcliffe Institute my junior year of college. I had just been accepted into the creative thesis program in poetry, and my advisor, Peter Richards, made me go. He also invited me to a small fireside chat with her that week, with other poetry thesis writers.
Her compact body was almost insignificant from where I sat in the Radcliffe auditorium. But her voice — all fire and brimstone — bowled me over and filled the space. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember the urgency with which she read her work. She read as if the words were meant for now, even when they’d been written decades ago. I was baffled and put off as I tried to take it all in.
At the fireside chat, the chair swallowed her up, but her body teemed with rage. She was raging for equality for women, in literature, in other professions, in American society, and in the world.
I wanted to correct her, and clarify that perhaps she was only referring to somewhere else. I wanted to have her look around the room at the female poets to my right and left. I wanted to march her around the campus and let her know that her work was done, to hold up myself and my diverse female classmates as example specimens. Here we were, on the path to becoming doctors and artists and lawyers and historians and economists and biologists and computer scientists. We had every opportunity available to us, and if we continued to work so hard, I believed, we always would.
It feels blasphemous now to confess that I did not “like” her then. (I’ve since learned that this is a common reaction to women and people of color who surface uncomfortable truths—to label them unlikeable or crazy.)
But I bought an anthology of her work, because its mystery piqued my curiosity. I wanted to understand where she was coming from, and what the world had looked like to her when she wrote “Diving into the Wreck.”
I graduated in 2009 and went to graduate school, where I had hoped to take cover and wait out the recession. In the spring of my first year, I took a doctoral seminar in Romantic poetry. To my utter shock, I was the only woman in the course. I was extremely self-conscious. I avoided wearing dresses all semester in the hope that no one would notice I was female.
I had never been the only woman in a class. I figured it was a fluke. In fact, it was not. It was my first taste of the rest of my life.
In my last semester, in search of a breather, I took an introductory course in art history at the college. Studying for the final exam, I found myself in a panic. Normally adept at memorization, I could not match artists with their work to save my life. I made flash cards and practiced again and again.
In search of patterns, I started sorting them in piles, by first name. Peters and Piotrs here; Pauls and Paulos there. Johns and Jans here; Michaels there. Marks over here and Lukes over there.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. In a course that ostensibly covered the most important artists from all of European and American art history, over hundreds of years, only one woman was mentioned, briefly. She was also the only non-white artist, as far as I could tell.
I lamented this remarkable inequality to a classmate, over sandwiches at Panera. I felt as if my eyes were opening to something that had been right in front of me all along.
“The class is taught by a white man and the book is written by a white man and now a whole class of students are being taught that there are no women in art!”
I had just discovered the patriarchy.
“It’s because there are no women at the top,” I went on, grasping for answers.
He was skeptical.
I asked him to name any business at random, and I bet him that there would not be any women at the top. He named Panera. I looked it up.
It was as expected. Only one of its 20 top executives was female.
As Sheryl Sandberg and others have since made widely known, inequality among business leaders is staggering. According to Fortune last June, “women now hold a paltry 4.2% of CEO positions in America’s 500 biggest companies.”
I have been the only woman at many a conference table since. I eventually came to realize why it had been so significant when Drew Faust became the first female president of my alma mater. It’s why now I’m so proud to work for Padmasree Warrior, the CEO of NextEV.
It’s why I give to the Global Fund for Women and Planned Parenthood. It’s why we interview primarily women on the Should We podcast. It’s why I’ve worked to create equal slates of male and female job candidates and hired a team that was 50% of each.
I’m doing my best to change the reality around me, but I know there is much more I can do. Our businesses will be healthier and our products will be better when the decision-makers — not just the support staff and the lowest -paid workers—reflect the diversity of the society we live in.
The burden of creating this change cannot be left to the few women and people of color who are already here. It is hard enough to perform at one’s best while being different. To add to that the burden of transforming the environment you’re trying to survive in is often too much. Sometimes showing up and doing the work, and continuing to show up and do the work, is an accomplishment in itself. We need more of the people who are in the majority to actively look for inequality, practice the courage it takes to name it, and persevere long and hard and radically enough to change it.
I have many men and women to thank for betting on my potential, for mentoring, teaching, and encouraging me, and for literally and figuratively making space for me at those conference tables I’ve mentioned. It takes a lot of brave people to lift one person up.
It’s been about eight years since I met Adrienne Rich. She died in 2012. Now I wish I could thank her for sparking the fire she started in me. The least I can do is raise it up, so that it might catch wind and spread.
I’ll leave you with her reading of “Diving into the Wreck,” which you can also read here. It rings true today, as ever.