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.