Gender conversations over chai

I used to host this “salon” at my house called “Chai with KP” on Friday mornings. It was a time when people could get together and talk about different subjects, strengthen relationships and gain insights. One Friday morning, the topic of gender issues came up. It was a fascinating discussion that was completely eye-opening for a lot of the men in the room.

Just to back up a little, before meeting my girlfriend I used to say “girl” a lot. I’d said things like “You need to meet the new girl on the team” or “What girl are you talking about?” or “Are you girls going to lunch?” Stuff like that. I didn’t mean any disrespect at all. Honestly, I just didn’t know any better. But when my girlfriend entered my life, she schooled me on certain “dos” and “don’ts.” First up? It’s not cool to call women girls. She said, “You’re a good guy. But you haven’t been coached. You don’t know what you’re doing.” So, I stopped.

During the gender discussion, someone brought up the idea that when a boy wants to climb a tree, grown ups generally encourage them to just go for it. But if a girl wants to do the same, she’s cautioned to be careful. Then one of the guys blurted out, “I’m a terrible Dad!” He shared that he consistently warned his young daughter to always be careful and to avoid risk.

In the adult world, how does this translate? Let’s say there’s a job opening citing ten specific skills that the applicant should possess in order to be a successful candidate. In most cases, a man might have only three or four of those skills and think, “Hey! That’s pretty good. I’m going to apply.” But women (at least from my very unscientific survey of the women in my life) might typically say, “I only have a few of those skills. I’ll pass.”

What came out of that salon, for me, was that good men don’t want to throw up obstacles for women. Sometimes, we’re indoctrinated to treat girls in very specific ways that might undermine their success later in life. We all told that Dad, “Hey, you’re a great father. Don’t beat yourself up. We all need some coaching on this stuff.” It’s hard to admit your shortcomings, especially when those flaws may have negatively impacted people you care about, or an entire group who just doesn’t deserve it.

What I know is that you have to give people short hops on their journeys to become better people. If you’re open to being coached about areas of great nuance like gender and race, then you’re more than halfway there.

So here are some tips on not being a sexist jerk in tech company environment — or anywhere else:

  1. Think Before You Talk: Being yourself and being transparent is not license to do whatever you want. That’s just common sense. More important, question why you are the way you are. Growth mindset. It’s good for you. For example, my girlfriend and I used to work together. But before we became a couple, when Monday mornings rolled around, the guys would get together to discuss our weekend exploits. With my future girlfriend within earshot, we would recount our experiences with the ladies, almost like a sport. When we finally did get together, she told me, “What’s horrible is that you’re not that person. You’re acting like someone you’re really not. You help create the culture of this company. You guys are just trying to impress each other. So stop the Monday morning play by plays.” I did.
  2. Ask For Help: Earlier in my career, a lot of young women worked for me. It was my policy to always have the door to my office open and never closed with women in the room. I was so paranoid. It had been grilled into me that it was not safe for a man to have a woman in his office alone for fear of being falsely accused of doing anything that would be deemed inappropriate. Because of that I was preoccupied with having shield up with my female employees. One day, one of my key employees came into my office to tell me her grandmother had just died and she wanted to close the door. I was only twenty-seven years old and I didn’t know what to do. Being from the South, everyone hugs. So in that moment, I made such a simple decision. I just looked at her and asked, “May I hug you?” She said, “Of course.” If men admitted more readily that they simply don’t know what to do, it would change gender dynamics forever. Ask for permission. Ask what the right thing to do is. Ask if you’re being a jerk or not. Just ask. And remember that “Don’t Know” is a perfectly great response when you’re in a situation that’s out of your practical or emotional depth.
  3. 3. Keep Learning and Don’t Take Things Personally. What’s most important is that guys can make a commitment to understand women’s perspectives and learn about their challenges and struggles. If you’re one of the few who still delude themselves into thinking “I don’t see gender” in hiring, promoting, paying and even creating products and services, then you’ll soon be in the minority. Because gender bias is everywhere, and within everyone. And it’s on its way out.
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