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Stop Squawking; Embody The Change

To embody something, you become the expression of the idea. It’s the difference between saying you support gay marriage and taking the time/energy to throw the party for the couple that had to wait 20 years to get married. It’s the difference between saying speakers at conferences need to be more fresh and then spending 3 hours to nominate one you think is worthy (and now she’s so famous you can’t even get a lunch appt anymore). It is the difference between saying women entrepreneurs matter and putting your money where your mouth is. It is hard to embody things in general. It’s why many of us think our leaders suck; they say one thing but their actions don’t match up. And, it is even harder when “the idea” is not yet mainstream; then embodying it puts you into the realm of “being the weirdo”.

So as I see posts like this recent one by Mark Suster remarking and asking questions on “Why are there not enough women at ____ (fill in the blank conferences, boards, or in tech)”, I wonder what it will take for this issue to move beyond talk to something embodied in action.

I applaud the fact that Fred Wilson, Eric Reis, Brad Feld and Suster have all written virtually the same posts arguing that women diversity matters. Those posts are all “Yeahness”; maybe they are helping educate the few people on this earth who haven’t read the research, statistics that says that diversity of opinions improves the performance of any workgroup. Perhaps they counteract the “women just want to have babies” or “women don’t take risks” posts out there.

Because the facts of performance tied to this issue are incontrovertible. There are some good stats in this post on the topic of diversity tied to performance, and this one on Board governance, which shows that diverse-board companies outperform those without diversity. You might check out this fabulous piece of research showing what makes a team smarter – women. Facts compiled by Tara Tiger show that female-led start-ups lead on revenue per invested dollar here reinforce that this issue is a no-brainer.

Yet, women remain underrepresented in investments, start-up land, executive boardrooms, the C-Suite, in governance and on stages. What will it take to move this issue forward? As Paul Simon says in his song, Hurricane Eye, are we stuck in a culture of inaction? Is it that we “want to talk, talk, talk about it. All night squawk about it….” but not do anything about it?

Talk won’t change the situation of systemic bias.

The net-net of all known research is that this is an issue of a systemic bias. Systemic bias means it is so built into every pore of the ecosystem that it’s hard to see it at work even by those at the disadvantage. This gender wage gap overview by Visual.ly gives a historical perspective.  To solve the problem, women need to be “discovered” and a pipeline created. The CEOs I talk to about why they don’t have more women on their corporate boards all state the same thing: “I don’t know of any”. Of course, there are plenty of qualified women. One recent instance of this conversation and I figured out 3 people who were well suited for this company given their domain strength and capabilities. This anecdotal experience is validated by how networks work.

If Mark,or Fred, or Brad wanted to actually see things change, they have to be willing to be changed. They have to have their networks changed. They cannot stay in their current circles, talking to the same people they already talk with, and then imagine they will run into more women to invest in. They cannot expect things to change by asking “boy, I wish things would change”. That’s a gesture. A politically correct gesture, sure, and maybe it gives the warm fuzzies, but accomplishes little else. It is certainly not embodying the necessary change. To move from impossible and unattainable to possible and attainable is more than chopping off a few letters. It means we need to embody the change.

What Embodiment Would Look Like:

So here’s the post I want to see next that would embody their espoused beliefs. It would be titled something like “Sponsorship Available”.

“Every year I pick one woman to sponsor. I encourage everyone to find someone to apply. I’ll pick one person that I think I can most influence because of the match between what they say they need, and what I care about. I’ll work with them for an entire year, committing to meeting at least once a month, and doing an hour of introductions and connections in between. I will give them honest feedback of how they come across. I will push them to get their message tighter. I will use my rolodex to make good connections. I will make sure my press contacts at Fast Company and Inc get a chance to hear their ideas. I will expand their network in the process and use my time and power to do something. I cannot guarantee that this 20, or so hours of my time will make a meaningful difference, but it’s time to put my time where my words are. This will help my sons and my daughters know that I not only believe in closing the gender gap and #changingtheratio, because I am actively going do something about it. I’m going to make this my 1% act that I know will compound over time. If I can 3 people more known in 3 years, and those 3 end up having an impact, this will scale. I won’t invest in you financially during the year because I want the focus to be about making you better at what you do; I reserve the right to invest in you over time. I won’t meet you in potentially compromising situations because I know your professional reputation will not get the catapult it needs if people suspect we might have anything other than a professional relationship. I know this will be invisible work that my investors and partners won’t see the immediate return for, but I believe over time I’ll get a better set of contacts into untapped markets so I’ll spin a yarn to explain why it makes sense in the long-view. I’ll take the risk cause I have the professional credibility now and I can afford to spend some of it here. I am willing to see if I can be a catapult for a few key women leaders to see if we can finally fix the systemic issues women face in equality.”

Things will change when we move beyond words. (I use the term sponsorship, not mentoring as a way of saying you’ll step into the fray with the person, and risk something of yourself as you back this person. Sponsorship means you have some skin in the game…even if it’s only an emotional commitment.)

Change will come when we stop debating the need for the change. Change will come when we say it’s not enough to believe in progressive thinking but now it is time to act, and embody these progressive beliefs.

But What About ..

One thing I haven’t touched on yet…don’t women have a role to play in this? Of course. Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL recently wrote a post on HBR about women needing to be more “dissatisfied”. Yes, we need to get better at self-promotion (including submitting our names for conferences as Sarah Milstein eloquently wrote). Yes, they need to step up to the game. Yes, they need to stay in the game more as Sheryl Sandberg argued so well during her TED talk in 2010. Yes, they need to apply to things like YCombinator as a way to #changetheratio. (Rachel Sklar has been sponsoring /embodying this so well.) Yes, women could comment more on blog posts.

Bottom line: there is no getting off the hook to own the power one actually has; no one can give power to you. There is no getting off the hook to do the work. The truth about power is this: Those who believe they have it, do. Those who don’t believe they have it, don’t. It’s a non-discriminatory, but self-fulfilling belief system.

But putting all the burden on the group that is being systemically biased against, in a “just try harder kind of way”, seems like a bad call…ya know? Systems always change because of multiple shifts in the system. And systems change because people step into it not knowing exactly how their “small act” will make a difference but doing it anyways.

Each of Us Can Play A Role

It shouldn’t be enough anymore to say “hey, this women’s inclusion thing is important” until we see it backed up by embodying behavior. Maybe Wilson, Reis, Feld, Nayar, and Suster are doing specific things already and it’s just not very public. If so, bravo! (***See note below of work Brad Feld is doing.)

Until we move to embodying the idea, we are only pandering to the issue, not effecting the issue. Pandering is like a little pat on the head to say “one day it’ll happen”. Maybe we, as an extended community, are not at the point to move to action. Perhaps we’ll just keep applauding each time we see one of these posts (check out most of the comments in Suster’s or Vineet’s post), and sigh with relief that another influential person “gets it”. Maybe that’s just where we are at. But, at some point, I hope we will do more, so we can move forward.

In the meantime, there is something that each of us can do and it’s probably worth pointing out – pipeline issues exist at every level. You can help make someone’s idea better so their idea resonates with a bigger audience. You can nominate a good thinker to speak at conferences. You can coach someone who lacks grace and help them see their style is getting in the way of their goals. You can nominate people for awards or highlight them to journalists. You can make sure you reference their ideas (and attribute it). You can sponsor people without them knowing, or with their knowledge. You can send their bio to someone who is on a board search committee, and say “keep an eye out for this leader….the kind of talent your company could use” so that the seeds for people to advance are sown. Advance the cause by spending 1 hour a month on it, don’t just talk about the cause.  Maybe pick one person you are committed to and then find a way to sponsor them consistently. And please don’t think “it’ll take care of itself” cause it’s clearly not.

While I chose a women’s issue to discuss this topic of embodiment, realize it is not just limited to this topic. The broader point is that we need to all be doers, not just talkers.  And it doesn’t need to be “big”, it just needs to be something.

Whenever any of us embody whatever change we say we believe in, we give permission to others to do the same. That creates a domino move — and if you look at how all change is made, it is this model of action. This is truly how the world is made better, not by some quotas, or by talking about stuff…. but when each of us steps up to act.

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18 Responses:

  1. Jean Russell. October 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm  |  

    Thank you for this Nilofer. I especially like the suggested statement paragraph. I find people who are talking but not walking often lack an awareness of how to take action. So if you can invite them to one or more ways to move into action and get unstuck, we might be surprised and delighted with the results. Are there other ways, in addition or besides sponsorship, that this can be embodied?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 12, 2011 at 8:30 pm  |  

      One thought… there’s a pledge for board chairmans/CEOs to sign (voluntary) that says they want to have a 30% mix of women. They then get reports back to learn how they are doing. Over time, that is an interesting feedback loop. First in choosing the intention then in getting data. What if all these people who espouse the belief just had a simple “pledge” that they all signed up to. You could see it at conferences, etc. We’re not saying that they would do an unnatural act of choosing unqualified over qualified but that their intention is to find a way to fix the pipeline issue — through their own individual actions…Then over time, the facts could be reported. Intention is a funny thing. Once we say we’ll do something, we will. So far, all I’m hearing from these influential people is “wow, that problem over there looks like it needs to be solved”. Which is insufficient for real change.

      Reply
  2. Todd Gorman. October 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm  |  

    The other day, while leaving the grocery store, I saw a t-shirt that said Warning: Educated Black Woman. Since I live in a college town, the wearer could very well have been a university student. I didn’t get the chance to strike up a conversation, but I bet that behind that t-shirt choice is an interesting story.

    I consider education a tremendous asset, of course — and it can be an equalizer — but as you pointed out, capability (and the degree) are necessary but not sufficient for advancement. That is based on something more complicated to define: who we see as equals.

    In earlier decades, your post would have been primarily about sexism and bias (= about the more explicit factors), but today, your post might well be called The Power of Tribes.

    I think the disparity between talk and action on some level is a reluctance to admit that there is a problem any longer. Taking action means to acknowledge that even today, there are some legitimate reasons ambitious, intelligent, very capable people (who happen to be female) don’t make it to the top.

    This post points out that people do not want to be labeled as complainers and that most of the time, confronting is not as bad as women think.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/heidi-grant-halvorson-phd/sexual-harassment_b_1004995.html

    In my limited observation of your community, you have a large proportion of active women posters. Sometimes I even feel in the minority.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 12, 2011 at 8:27 pm  |  

      Yes, but you are so, so welcome.

      Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm  |  

      By the way, Todd, I hate writing about womens’ issues and when I told my husband I wrote this post, I said that I fought it for a whole week but then just couldn’t write anything else. I even thought about not naming names and doing it without referencing the men involved but then… well, I try and go by the “write what you must” adage …so write it I must. I appreciate you weighing in, as always.

      Reply
      • Jennifer. October 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm  |  

        I don’t know if this is really a women’s issue if you frame it in the context of diversity is tied to performance. If companies, communities or startups perform better when there is more equality in their make up then isn’t this a possible path from which everyone benefits? I know I’m simplifying my view but then I don’t think reminding your community of this gender skew with suggestions to remedy it is strictly a women’s issue. Thanks for sharing your ideas and I hope you continue to write about these very human issues.

        -Jennifer

        Reply
  3. Todd Gorman. October 13, 2011 at 12:34 am  |  

    re: searching for a case study

    I thought for sure I’d find an analogous situation of leadership where women are better represented.

    Thinking of Ann Richards, Jane Byrne, and Hanna Gray, I looked at governors, mayors, and university presidents.

    All percentages fall between 10-20.

    Confirmation of the same contributing factors, most likely.

    Guess I could part with an Ann Richards quote: “If you give us the chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

    Reply
  4. Brad Feld. October 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm  |  

    Great post. I agree that we have to “do”, not just talk. For your reference, here are some of the things I’ve been DOING about this issue.

    1. National Center for Women and Information Technology (http://www.ncwit.org). I’m chairperson and have been actively involved since inception six years ago. I’m incredibly proud of a number of things we’ve done, including our Aspirations in Computing award and our new Entrepreneurial Alliance.

    2. Active involvement with many female entrepreneurs. Note that two of the five TechStars Managing Directors are women (Nicole Glaros – Boulder; Katie Rae – Boston).

    3. Availability for anyone who reaches out to me. Or at least I try.

    4. Mentor for things like The Pipeline Fund (http://pipelinewomen.tumblr.com/) and Women 2.0 (http://www.women2.org/)

    5. Plenty of writing over the years about this with specific activities, call to action, and progress (or lack thereof) – http://www.feld.com/wp/archives/category/ncwit

    And yes – there is a lot more I can and will do.

    You also called out Fred Wilson in your article. He’s also done a ton over the years such as most recently participating in the Women Entrepreneur Festival – http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/01/women-entrepreneur-festival.html

    And of course we are massively inspiring (and supportive) of what Fred’s amazing wife Joanne does (http://www.gothamgal.com)

    Thanks for pressing on the issue of “doing” rather than just “talking”. It’s an important reminder.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 13, 2011 at 6:56 pm  |  

      Clearly you are a supporter of the cause (yeahness). And clearly, you are do a bravo!

      Two follow-on questions that pop to mind…

      Are you sponsoring specific people where your reputation is tied to their success? Mentoring is different than sponsorship of course.

      Any ideas for how to spread this idea? The first thought what that we could have a voluntary “i am committed to #changetheratio” pledge… could become a little button you put on your website/blog and ultimately it becomes a way to signal intent which of course becomes self-fulfilling (and/or allows for negative feedback loops)…

      Reply
  5. Brad Feld. October 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm  |  

    Based on your definition of “sponsoring”, absolutely. But I don’t differentiate the way you do – anyone who I “mentor” has full access to my network and my view is that if I commit to mentoring anyone I’m signing up to put my own reputation behind them and on the line for them.

    I don’t think the buttons on the website will do much – it’ll get lost in the clutter. I think it’s steady, consistent drumbeats, call to action, posts like this one, and reinforcement of real activity.

    Reply
  6. Nilofer Merchant. October 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm  |  

    Brad – spread the word, baby, spread the word.

    Reply
  7. Terri Griffith. October 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm  |  

    Jean’s comment opened my eyes to some options: Yes, when we are in a position to sponsor we should do so. I appreciate Nilofer’s explicit suggestions and think we need this kind of clarity and modeling to be able to take first steps. That said, there is also great power in embodying the change horizontally (and even vertically!) I think I’m building off Todd’s idea about tribes here. We also need to recognize sponsoring opportunities across our tribes. I’m feeling a think globally, act locally vibe here. My commitment: Each week I will make at least one sponsoring action for Hoa Quach, a recent Santa Clara MBA graduate and my huge support throughout my book writing and launching process. I also commit to making at least one peer action — I’ll think of this as more tribal.

    Folks just coming into the conversation — what commitments can you make?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm  |  

      Like the idea of commitments … thanks for modeling this, Terri.

      Reply
  8. Emily Lutzker. October 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm  |  

    Brava, Nilofer! So few real actionable suggestions are ever voiced on how to make tangible changes in this area.

    One thing I have noticed is that there is something lost in translation between men and women in business. Perhaps it’s one of the “legitimate reasons” that Todd Gorman mentions of the continuing inequality, but something worth touching on here. What people in power (mostly men) hear, and what myself and other women around me say, are often two different things.

    Stereotypically, I often hear the startup guys going around enthusiastically proclaiming that they and their products are “awesome.” Super. Great. More power to ‘em. But can I imagine myself saying that? Absolutely not. But somewhere in there, I’m expected to say it, not just be it or show it. Modesty, in the startup community, seems not to be valued.

    Another example that I hear, is the advice to refrain from saying “I think” as part of a sentence which I believe to be true. Am I to understand that “thinking” actually diminishes the value of whatever is going to come out of my mouth next? That’s what I’m told.

    But from my point of view, If I heard the phrase “I think” as the intro of a proposed idea, I wouldn’t assume that the speaker was any less sure of the facts, only tentative about my (the listener’s) response. I might even find it smart (they are trying to feel me out), or tactful, or even empowering. As an educator, I always got a better outcome telling my students I thought they might do well to change something in their papers or projects, rather than commanding them to change it. Not only did they make the changes, most of the time, but they learned something in the process, and didn’t simply make the change to obey me. Leaders empower the people around them and don’t simply toot their own horns.

    Regardless, I am doing business in a man’s world (at the moment), and so I do my best to speak their language. The real question here is this: Do we have to behave like men in order to be on the same level with them in the boardroom? It’s a paradox: bi-gender teams have greater success, as you point out. I can’t believe it’s because the women on those teams act like men.

    Reply
  9. Jacqueline. November 4, 2011 at 7:02 pm  |  

    This article and post is fantastic! I went to a CEO Summit conference and Lynn Tilton, one of the few women billionaires, championed the need for women to help other women. In my mother’s generation, women were pioneers and often had to act like men to get the respect they deserved. While working for PINK magazine, Cynthia Good, the founder and CEO, exemplifies what it means to be a powerful woman. She doesn’t have to give up her femininity or all the characterisitcs that make a woman a woman to be successful in the business world. In fact, those characteristics are what is setting women apart in business today, in the best sense of the world.

    Moreover, because young women like myself had mothers and fathers who pioneered the path for equality in business, we have the opportunity to be who we are, male or female, and to be respected for what we bring to the table regardless of gender. Granted, there are still strides to make, but like you said, it’s about being the change, and the more of us that are doing what we love, writing what we want to, saying what needs to be said, the more opportunity there is for a better world.

    Thank you for your innovation, strength, and and inspiration for many!

    Reply

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