Care About Equality? Be a Female Steward

I’ll admit, I feel reasonably empowered. I’m a female founder of a diverse startup of both men and women, and I grew up in a household where gender was not a determining factor for achievement. But reading Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book on the unique, shifting role of women in the workforce, was a game-changer for me.

Sandberg highlights the gender workplace inequality that still eludes us today. Although I feel empowered, I realized that many, many other women do not. And among the ranks, it is up to this generation to take a stand for true equality — that means women and men.

Her writing is a call to action that is particularly relevant not just for female executives already at the top, but also for the young women and men climbing the ranks (or the jungle gym, as she describes the modern-day equivalent). It’s a call to action for this freshly-minted, post-college group that’s recently flooded the workforce. 

I want to take that call and encourage other 20-something women and men to do the same. Here are the principles I want to live by to be a proactive part of advancing other women toward their goals and ensuring true equality.

1. Embrace the role of a female steward

When I talk heatedly of supporting other women, I’ll often backtrack and sheepishly admit I’m a bit of a feminist. My concern? That I’m associated with an outdated movement that seems more focused on bashing men than it is about supporting women.

I’ve crafted a different term, since there are weighty connotations of feminism (with historical roots I know little about). I want to be a female steward. That means I safeguard and champion the values that women may not be willing to do on their own. I like the concept a lot because stewardship recognizes that what’s on the table is worthy of protecting. It means men and women can come to the table to steward and truly be leaning in.

What values are we stewarding? We’re looking to create a world of true choice for women. I champion women who decide that they want devote their full time and attention to their family and children, even opting out of their jobs. I also champion women who want fulfilling careers and families where their husbands are just as involved in domestic duties as they are. At the end of the day, I want to be a steward for real female choice. To me, that is the path to equality.

The problem with modern-day standards is that women aren’t given a real choice. 40% of women in this country are now the primary breadwinners for their family — this is likely due to a poor economy and single-parent households where mothers typically take reign. And yet, women still suffer from 70% of the pay that men earn, inflexible maternity leave benefits, and social pressure that tells them to just stay home when they simply can’t afford to / may not want to.

I argue that for women to take the second choice, let’s make it a fair and exciting choice.

2. Recognize your own bias

In my Women 2.0 post on Fundraising Like A Girl, I reference a term thrown around in Silicon Valley called “pattern-matching.” It’s a computer science reference to finding exact patterns in a sequence. Applied to people, it’s the basis for stereotypes and applying behavioral patterns of one group of people to another. Investors often fall into this trap with dangerous implications for female founders, who fundraise in an environment where few women do it.  Although the intent here isn’t malicious, the results can be devastating for women who lack representation in tech and upper management.

But one thing I failed to admit is my own “pattern-matching” bias. One quick question sussed this out: who are my role models in business? I think of incredible founders like Russell Cook and Matt Munson, respected entrepreneur-writers like Reid Hoffman and Tony Hsieh. The only woman on my short list is my former internship manager, Carrie Kommers.

Carrie is the role model for my interactions in business: she’s authentic, warm, and incredibly direct and efficient. But my other role models are the ones I refer to for business success and metrics-driven focus. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t internalized a female role-model who represents business execution and revenue generation. Maybe I have limited exposure to women business leaders (another vicious cycle), but it forces me to look again at my own gender bias.

Sandberg writes about a talk she held at Facebook that gave way to Q&A. At the end of the session, even she failed to notice the female hands that went down in the audience when she announced taking just a few more questions. After it was brought to her attention, she noted, “If we want a world with greater equality, we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up. We need institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this behavior by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women. And women have to learn to keep their hands up, because when they lower them, even managers with the best intentions might not notice.”

We may have the best intentions and the most uncovered bias. Recognize it first.

3. Call out when gender bias is in play

It’s pretty clear that both men and women have internalized gender bias. So the most disruptive way to bring this to the forefront is simply to cite it when you see it. Call it for what it is!

I had a recent conflict with a service provider. I talked it out with a friend over coffee. Just as we were standing up, he said, “I hate to say this, but I hope they aren’t taking advantage of you because you’re a woman.”

It was actually the last thing I was thinking. And it wasn’t the primary reason for the conflict. But in this conversation, it had a place and needed to be teased out. He sniffed out a bias that I would otherwise have avoided bringing up myself.

This is quite the opposite of playing a victim syndrome, which is the other end of the spectrum. But if it’s appropriate, we should point out inequality and champion women. That action is hopefully the beginning of giving someone the courage to do it for herself.

*4. Be authentic and inspire*

Nothing hits a message home like living it. Sandberg does an incredible job of sharing personal stories that show her less-than-confident and more-than-real human side. I’m all for being human, but when you’ve got a reputation of scale, it’s a much riskier prospect. Her vulnerability makes her relatable, especially to someone just embarking on this kind of journey.

A good steward should be able to champion others through example. I notice my own tendency to apologize for things that don’t require it. We ran out of disinfecting wipes? So sorry to inconvenience you. This calendar time won’t work for us? That’s my fault.

It’s a small thing, but I want to save my apologies for times when they are valued and need to be shared. Otherwise, like many women, I bear the burden of any decision that is less than harmonious even when I don’t need to spend energy on it.

~~~

I have a group of 4 girlfriends in LA that we’ve affectionately nicknamed “Food & The City” (after one too many Sex & The City marathons combined with an intense love of dessert). One of my friends and I have seen our friendship flourish from middle school to college, flowing through to our first several years in the workforce. The other two and I have known each other from college and blossomed from graduation to today. What we’ve built is a special support network that not many people have.

I encourage women to find peers they trust, to be communicative, and to be stewards for each other’s success in our personal and professional lives.

If you’re a 20-something entering the workforce, I downright challenge you to 🙂

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