“How many of you think you have to be seen by men before you can be seen?”
Nilofer Merchant asked this question at a fantastic conversation/salon I attended in New York earlier this year led by Merchant and Ellen McGirt. The topic was women, work, and visibility—and the concept of “onlyness”—our unique contribution as women and as individuals, in the workplace and in the world.
In a room of maybe 75 people, I raised my hand along with just a few others, then very quickly realized this was a rhetorical question. The idea of course was that we shouldn’t need men to feel seen, know that we already are seen, or put ourselves and our work out there to be seen.
But I heard a different question. I heard something about our connectedness to each other. And partly out of ignorance, partly out of protest, I raised my hand high. Yes, I do want to be seen by men. Men are in power right now, they are half the world, they are my fellow human beings. I don’t believe the world will shift for women without men. This was the feeling, and while it was/is a legitimate one, it wasn’t the conversation we were having.
Or was it? This is where I get tripped up/really interested in whatever is coming next in the women’s movement—when the conversation turns to the role of men.
Because the most interesting part of that evening, as much as I appreciated hearing from Merchant and McGirt, was when Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project stood up, expressed his support of women, spoke about how he advocates for women, and shared his thoughts on where we are in the women’s movement. I remember he said part of the trouble simply has to do with awareness: “The dominant group doesn’t know that it’s dominant.”
And then he went on to ask powerful questions about how men and women can work together to change things for women and men alike.
In that moment, listening to Schwartz chime in on the conversation, I noticed my shoulders drop and immediately smiled. Here was a real advocate for women who took the time to come to a conversation about women, marketed to women, about so much more than women. It meant a lot and it reminded me that there are great people out there (who happen to be men) working on behalf of women because they get that women’s equality is about all of us, not just women.
In her book In a Different Voice, psychologist Carol Gilligan writes “To have a voice is to be human. To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act.” She goes on, “Men and women tacitly collude in not voicing women’s experiences and relationships around a silence that is maintained by men’s not knowing their disconnection from women and women’s not knowing their disassociation from themselves.”
Merchant is right, we don’t need men to do good work, to be seen, to put ourselves out there. That starts with us and us alone. But in our work to achieve gender parity in leadership, we do need men as allies and advocates.
I wonder, who are the men who are listening? Who are the men starting their own conversations about gender balance and new visions of leadership?
To the men who have already joined us women, thank you and keep doing what you’re doing. To the men who have joined us in theory, but not in practice, we need you and invite you to start talking and working with us. And to the men who don’t know why this women’s leadership thing is a big deal, but are wee bit curious, we need you, too.
As Cindy Gallop says, “You have no idea how much happier you’d be in a world 50% designed by women!” Join us.
Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.