Is it possible to go forward and backward at the same time?

Issue 56 — July 7, 2018

Excuse my beach brain today. A week of vacation on Cape Cod, walking on the beach every afternoon has put my mind into Margaritaville without the hangover. The sun, sand, and ocean waves spark ideas. Sometimes diametrically opposing ideas.

A day at the beach

For example, I’ve been thinking about how women seem to be moving both forward and backward when it comes to social, political, and economic power.

On any given day, we can feel a bit like the Dr. Doolittle fantasy animal, the Pushmi-Pullyu.

It has two heads on opposite ends of its body and thus the ability to do two things at once such as talking and eating. Yet, because the two heads might want to go in different directions, the beast effectively can’t make progress.

My beach reading in preparation for my July 11 Virtual Happy Hour has been Allison Yarrow’s piquantly written book 90’s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality. It documents in piercing detail how the media-driven pop culture of the 1990’s decade objectified the female body and commercialized feminism. In effect, it did a U-turn on so many of the advances women had made thanks to the women’s movement second wave.

Simultaneously, I’m catching up on leadership expert and former Morgan Stanley COO Europe May Busch’s writings. That includes her book Accelerate: 9 Capabilities to Achieve Success at Any Career Stageand her smart weekly blog posts. These are always packed with useful tips on how to succeed in one’s career despite bumps, barriers, and insecurities that are endemic to the human condition. She’s always optimistic and her perspective seems to be on the positive ways people can move forward in their careers rather than the impediments that push us back.

What’s interesting to me is that May has typically not applied a gender lens to her work. She has advised powerful men such as Michael Crow, president of one the nation’s largest and most acclaimed public universities, Arizona State University. She has been highly successful in the finance industry renowned for being male-centric. Thursday, July 12, at noon eastern time, Take The Lead will have the privilege of partnering with May in her first webinar applying her leadership wisdom specifically to women’s career advancement.

Allison and May (I’m using their first names because I’m fortunate to call them both friends) each describes one of those Pushmi-Pullyu trajectories and they are both right.

Taken together, they illustrate that it is possible and maybe even probable that women are simultaneously moving forward and backward.

How does this happen? Can we be both accelerating toward parity, which assumes we can solve the problems of structural barriers and culturally learned biases, and going backward, while at the same time being held back by those barriers and biases, whether of policy or custom or internal blocks inculcated by the social learning? And if so, how can we ultimately make progress?

Newton’s third law says that when a force acts on an object, there’s an equal force (called a reaction) acting in the opposite direction. This law is sometimes written, “action and reaction are equal and opposite.” It’s like those oscillating Newton’s cradle toys that once set in motion keep going back and forth seemingly forever.

In my speeches and workshops, I often ask participants how they imagine the world will be different when women have reached #parity in #leadership at the top. This week, The Economist suggests a provocative scenario where though overall companies led by female CEO’s perform better than those with male leaders, the backlash against women’s ascent to leadership equality is enough to turn progress around to its opposite force:

Rather than making workplaces safer and more inclusive, the 50/50 commitment fed further segregation as senior men declined to mentor or sponsor junior women. In a few particularly incompetent firms, poorly enforced targets fueled resentment among men overtaken by less-qualified women. Several men won high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuits.

The backlash spread. Violence against women spiked; groups of angry men around the world organized “male marches” and gathered online, grumbling that their rights were being trampled, their jobs stolen and their dinners no longer prepared. Male-rights groups allied with nationalist, anti-migrant political parties, boosting them in the polls. Several countries introduced regressive policies, restricting access to contraception and abortion.

But the fact that the magazine used a graphic of fancy high heels to symbolize women leaders shows they might not have thought far enough outside the box to see beyond their own implicit biases.

I’m working on my own speculative vision of #parity and would love to hear from you in the comments section for possible quoting in my next book.

The truth is that making social change that shifts the balance of power as profoundly as gender parity, no matter how wise, just, or good business it is, will inevitably cause resistance. And sometimes that countervailing force can be cruel, even violent. But that’s no reason to pull back from working toward it. Instead, that’s exactly the time to be at our most courageous and intentional.

Strategically, as in a chess game, we might choose to take what looks like a backward move in order to come back strong and checkmate those who would love to deter progress, but we must never stop advancing to the goal of leadership parity.

Back to the beach to think some more. See you July 11 and 12 for some awesome conversations with May and Allison.