Equity & Inclusion

Hiring for Diversity

I imagine that most women are familiar with the feeling of reading an article, whether it be on women in the workplace, or women in sports, or women in media, and just having an immediate feeling of exhaustion. 

Bone-deep, weary, how-long-do-we-have-to-keep-hearing-this-same-BS exhaustion.

Here we go again...

Last month, at a computer graphics conference, two white men sat down to talk about the lack of women in the video game industry. They plaintively discussed how very hard it is to find qualified women, and how much it distresses them to have so few women on their team. They even talked about how they put out job announcements with “heavily feminised wording”, and yet it still didn’t work! 

Side note – I would really love to see their interpretation of feminised wording. Because of course, all women are exactly the same and want the exact same thing, and we are just like a video game character, where if you select the right dialogue options, you will get exactly what you want from us!

Next, reportedly, they mentioned how a different group at the conference expressed a desire for 50/50 representation within a couple of years, and how it was so very “interesting that they set themselves such harsh challenges, instead of letting it more naturally grow”. 

Yes…so interesting that a company would set goals rather than rely on something naturally correcting itself. Because women patiently waiting for our patriarchal societies to self-correct for equity has proven to work so very well in the past, and we have never, ever had to fight for what we wanted.

Don't mind me, just patiently waiting for the patriarchy to go away all by itself!

Both men did acknowledge that the problem runs deeper that job announcements, and solutions must be implemented at a deeper level. At which point they apparently decided that the answer was education, and better diversity in schools. “And then, hopefully, in a few years we’ll start seeing the results from that.”

So close…and yet, so far. 

I’m using snark because otherwise I’d be banging my head on my desk, and that’s a much more difficult way to write.

I just can’t believe we’re almost to 2020, and we still have to put up with this kind of “dialogue”.

But we do. So let’s talk about hiring for diversity.

Every time the conversation turns to improving representation within organizations, a contingent of people, usually primarily white men, will cry foul. The popular argument is that you should just “hire the best person for the job”.

There are certain phrases in our culture which are immediate signs of someone’s understanding of institutional inequities, and “best person for the job” is a huge one. As soon as I see or hear that phrase, I know I’m dealing with someone who thinks that white men are dominant in the workplace because they just “happen” to be naturally better at everything (hence why it’s usually white men saying this – who wouldn’t want to believe they’re just naturally superior). 

“Hire the best person” is on the same plane as wanting something to “naturally” correct itself. It completely dismisses bias, systems built to exclude, lack of opportunities, and straight up harassment. These issues are present everywhere, and are absolutely present in education as well, hence the ridiculousness of relying on schools to correct the problems of industry.

It takes so much more to build representation. It takes work.

"Hey, I used female words in the posting! What more can I do!?"

Who makes the rules

The men in the interview above talked about how they couldn’t ask for women specifically because of hiring laws. This is a very common response to accusations of discriminatory hiring practices. A stepping back, a brushing of hands, a “what can I do” kind of attitude.

It’s a good reminder that many of these laws, well-intentioned or otherwise, are still in service of the status quo. It’s the kind of attitude that claims that colorblindness is a good strategy, that no kind of assumption ever kicks in when seeing the name on an application, that the people conducting the interviews are completely and utterly devoid of bias.

I should note here that even with these anti-discrimination laws in existence, they vary greatly depending on location, and there are still a number of very vulnerable groups that are often unprotected, including LGBTQ, disabled, and fat individuals.

But whenever someone talks about following the law, it’s important to ask – Who made the law?

"It's just all so baffling! They should be applying in droves!"

Last year, there was a really interesting interview with Stephen Colbert. Like the games industry, the late night talk show realm is highly dominated by straight white men. And like the games industry, many of these white male hosts talk about how much they want a diverse writers’ room, and how hard it is to get it.

Jay Leno was recently questioned about the fact that he had zero female writers when he left the air, and responded, “I hire them based on material,” Leno said. “People just come up and give me the jokes and I read them and I decide whether to hire ’em or not.… One guy was so handicapped he couldn’t leave his house, but he wrote good jokes so it didn’t matter to me. A lot of times, I got a few female writers out of it.”

It’s the good ole “what are ya gonna do” argument, the “hire the best person” practice. And it’s trash.

Contrast this to Colbert’s discovery, when he actually committed to hiring women writers.

We would say, you know, it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said, ‘No, only women’—then I got 87 women. And I thought, ‘Where were these people before?’ And that was sort of the realization of my naiveté, that it’s not enough to say you want it, you have to go to the not-ordinary step.”

Colorblind doesn’t work. Genderblind doesn’t work. Every part of the process, from who has the connections, to who gets taken more seriously, to who gets the interview, to who is hired, is all tainted. And it has to be consciously dismantled. The “non-ordinary” step.

Listening to the right people

I think what mostly makes me want to headdesk myself after reading the game conference dialogue is that both men talk in theoreticals about why women aren’t applying, and yet not once does either one of them mention actually talking to women about it. They talk in broad terms about industry and education, but they’re not talking to the people who are most affected. They mention adding “feminised” language, but they don’t mention who’s writing these announcements, who’s reviewing applications, who’s conducting interviews. 

This reminds me of all the times we see conference panels on gender that are entirely made up of men

At no point do they talk about the rampant sexual harassment and discrimination that infuses the games industry. They don’t talk about the fact that women developers are harassed online much more than men. They don’t discuss the crunch culture of the industry, how workers are being driven to extremes of mental health to keep up with corporate goals. They don’t talk about how women leave STEM education paths due to a variety of cultural, social, and economic factors. They don’t even remotely acknowledge how these factors are enhanced for women working through intersectional oppressions, whether it be based on race or disability or gender expression.

But if you had a diverse panel of all women on the stage? They could tell you a great deal about all of these things.

So why are we talking like there’s no way to know what’s going on?

"How in the world will I ever find out why women don't want to work for me?!"

Just making excuses

Shortly before I left my job, there was a great deal of talk about improving the equity of the organization. It was great talk and I loved hearing it, until I realized there was very little to back it up.

This was highlighted when a special high level management position was designated to be focused on diversity. And they hired a white woman.

Now, I am a white woman. And I like to think that some of us are capable of understanding a great deal about oppression and bias. 

That being said, we cannot be truly intersectional when it comes to gender and race. Sorry if that’s disappointing to hear, but that’s part of what white women have to come to acknowledge. We can support women of color, we can make space for them, we can ally with them, we absolutely cannot be intersectional in the same way that they can.

And if you are hiring someone to be in charge of diversity for your organization, it should not be someone white. Not now.

When questioned, the director who made the hiring decision said that the diversity manager was hired because they “couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t white”. 

Look, I know I live in a very white state, but this is just a completely asinine response.

It’s an excuse, just like saying you’re following the law, or hiring the “best person”. You can find qualified and talented people in all arenas of life.

You just have to put in the work.

"Look, I know you have excellent skills and graduated top of your class, but I don't know if you quite fit with our office vibe."

In the end, it all comes back to the same thing.

Do these people bemoaning lack of representation truly want to create change, and make life better for people of all backgrounds?

Or are they actually comfortable in the status quo, and with the privilege they enjoy, and just see the benefit in sounding aware?

This is why I wrote about ethics last time, because these are things that every person has to answer for themselves. We all make the choices that lets us look at ourselves in the mirror, and if someone doesn’t truly believe equity matters for all of us, nothing I say will change that.

But what I’m really done with are the people who are half-assing this entire process. Talking the talk, and yet walking the path that just keeps reinforcing the status quo.

If you truly want more women on your team, hire more women. If you want more people color, hire more people of color. Stop passing the buck, stop waiting for “natural” progress, stop relying on systems outside of your own to create the fixes.

Do the work. Or stop talking.

 

The Ethical Consideration

“Why choose to be good every day, if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on, now or in the afterlife? I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”

– Chidi Anagonye, ‘The Good Place’ 2×12

I’ve been working on the next piece in my series regarding power differentials in the workplace. I wanted to write something more positive, more proactive, that talks about steps we can all take to fight imbalances. And yet, I keep getting stuck. It’s not that I don’t have ideas about what can be done. I probably have too many. It’s not that sometimes I think the best solution might just be dismantling the entire system, although that’s also true. 

The problem, I’m discovering, is ethics. 

Because I don’t think we can talk about disrupting systems and how to improve them without acknowledging the fact that we all have a moral choice to make.

Eleanor: “Oh, so now I’m supposed to be nice and make friends and treat her with mutual respect?”
Chidi: “Yeah!”
Eleanor: “That’s exactly what she wants me to do, Chidi, wake up!”
Chidi: “That’s what everyone wants everyone to do.”

– ‘The Good Place’ 1×3

**At this point, I should make a disclaimer that I have a tendency to use morals and ethics somewhat interchangeably. By definition, in way oversimplified terms, ethics are supposed to be more driven by an external source, and morals by an internal. I’ve found articles online where the authors argue that we shouldn’t even use either term in the workplace, because people can get stuck on the word instead of focus on the discussion.

But I think this highlights part of the issue of not discussing these ideas at work. If we’re so scared of an individual word that we have to tapdance around it, we’re not really talking about it.

Personally, my ethics and morals are so interconnected and interlinked, that for me, talking about one is talking about both. This may not be the case for everyone.

There’s also the tendency in our culture to conflate morality with religion. I’m personally agnostic, so have never had an issue with understanding morality to be a separate entity. I still believe in being a good person, regardless. But I know there are those who struggle deeply with the idea that someone would do good things or try to behave with kindness towards others without the influence of religion. 

Anyway, my point is I’m going to talk about being ethical, and moral, and I’m doing it without any religious affiliation.

End disclaimer.**

Eleanor: “All those ethics lessons paid off. Whoever said philosophy was stupid?”
Chidi: “You did, many times, as recently as this morning.”

– ‘The Good Place’ 2×11

Shortly after I became a manager, I had to attend a number of required trainings. One of these was Ethics. Although some of the trainings so far had been tedious (I’m looking at you Contracts), I was looking forward to Ethics. I was managing in an office that worked in social services, I’d witnessed many ethically gray behaviors in my previous time as an employee, and I wanted to get advice from an expert on how to approach ethical quandaries as a supervisor.

The class was a complete waste of time. It was such a basic, preliminary discussion of ethics, including the oft-overused “people are icebergs, and much is hidden” metaphor. My main thought leaving the class was that if the organization thought I needed this level of education on ethics, they should never have hired me to be a manager in the first place. 

But then it wasn’t actually about the ethics, was it? Realistically, who can cover a topic so deep and complicated in one half-day training. And like all trainings, there was no follow up, no mentoring, no debriefing. It was another check on a list, so if I ever got in trouble, the agency could dust off its hands, and shrug. “She took Ethics”, they’d say. “She knew what she did was wrong.”

I don’t think my experience was unusual. I don’t think many companies or agencies have regular talks about ethics. I don’t think most employees get any support in dealing with ethical quandaries. I definitely don’t think executives put ethics first in their decision making. I think that’s a problem.

“Ha! How do you like them ethics? I just ethics’d you in the face, Chidi!”

– Eleanor Shellstrop, ‘The Good Place’ 1×7

One of my favorite TV shows of the moment is The Good Place. For those who haven’t seen it, essentially it’s about four people navigating the afterlife. There’s many twists and turns, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of my reasons for loving the show so much is that there’s a lot of discussion about what it is to be a good person. There’s no religious component, no faith is determined to be right or wrong, it’s all based on individual behaviors and actions.

What is especially refreshing is seeing people talk about what it means to be good. What it means to have principles and adhere to them in the most challenging of times. What it means to sometimes compromise those principles for something bigger than yourself. And above all, how we will all fail, over and over again, and yet have the opportunity to decide to try again anyway.

And the amazing thing about seeing these discussions play out via a sitcom is that it shows how we shouldn’t be scared to talk about these things. That there’s nothing to be defensive about. That all of us are continuously learning and none of us have all the answers.

That no matter where we are, at home or at work, what we do and the choices we make have impacts.

Eleanor: “But everything I do blows up in my face…”
Michael: “…Come on, you know how this works. You fail and then you try something else. You fail again, and again, and you fail a thousand times, and you keep trying, because maybe the 1001st idea might work.”

– ‘The Good Place’ 4×2

So what do these rambling thoughts on ethics have to do with inequities of power?

I still plan to write a post about what we can do as individuals to work against inequitable systems. There’s always something we can do, however small.

But the first step is a conscious moral choice. A choice about what you believe and what you feel is worth fighting for.

Here’s the thing. I can’t determine what the right ethical choice is for you. I have beliefs. I believe that we have an ethical responsibility to stand up for the oppressed. That those of us with privilege have a moral obligation to acknowledge our advantages, and use them to lift up those who are marginalized. I believe that we should speak up even if it makes others uncomfortable. I believe that we should fight back against racist and sexist and other oppressive systems, including in our own businesses and workplaces and even families.

Yet all of us come from different backgrounds and different experiences. All of us are in different stages of our journey. In such an overwhelming and challenging world, I can’t fault someone who wants to care for themselves first. I can’t judge someone who needs to check out for a time. I can’t blame someone who has suffered from these systems from deciding they’ve had enough.

However, as a caution, just remember that if you’re thinking you don’t need to make a choice, you’ve already made one. There is no neutrality when it comes to human dignity.

But the very best part about being a human, about choosing to be a good person, to care for others, to live up to your inner code, and value doing the right thing?

It’s never too late to start.

“…But I think we have one move left: We can try.”

– Eleanor Shellstrop, ‘The Good Place’ 3×4

 

“I mean, what do you have to lose by treating people with kindness and respect?”

– Chidi Anagonye, ‘The Good Place’ 4×2

Power at Work

Judge: I hope counsel does not mean to imply that this court is bigoted.

Henry Drummond: Well, your honor has the right to hope.

Judge: I have the right to do more than that.

Henry Drummond: You have the power to do more than that.

Inherit the Wind (1960)

This past week a story broke about the screenwriters for the movie Crazy Rich Asians, and its upcoming sequel. Writer Peter Chiarelli, a white man, was the first brought on to adapt the book into a screenplay. Once director Jon M. Chu was onboard, he hired Adele Lim to co-write the script.

Considering the massive success of Crazy Rich Asians, a sequel was an obvious step, as was bringing back the same two writers. 

And here is where the power dynamics come into play.

Chiarelli was reportedly offered between $800,000 to $1 million for his work. Lim received a starting offer of $110,000. 

Lim, once she found out about the discrepancy, walked from the project.

To me, the most telling part of all of this is the quote from the supposed industry insider who says the salaries were “industry-standard established ranges based on experience and that making an exception would set a troubling precedent in the business.”

Because once again, this is the perspective of many people in power, and once again, they are deliberately ignoring the reality of power differentials in the workplace.

The “industry-standard” is that white men make more. Standard is not the same as good, just, equitable, or fair. But what’s worse is the idea that raising Lim’s salary would have set a “troubling precedent”. We can all read between the lines here. It’s not a subtle code. What is so very troubling to the highest level executives in the most lucrative industries is the idea that they might have to actually pay women, people of color, and especially those who are both, what they deserve.

It’s not about talent or experience. It’s about the power.

"I know you've been here longer, but he's just such an impressive worker!"

Recently a study on gender equity in the sciences found that although women make up half of the students in the life sciences, when it comes to career advancement and influential positions, the number drops sharply. 

The findings back the view of many women in science that more must be done to address the problem of the “leaky pipeline” – where women leave the profession due to problems such as harassment and issues around promotion and pay.”

In other words, what happened to Adele Lim happens to women throughout multiple industries. And it has an impact.

I feel like this quote from Dr. Wade in the article encapsulates the issue so perfectly. As she says, “There is no point in encouraging more girls into science if the system is set up to exclude them.”

This isn’t about specific sexist or racist individuals. This is about a system. This is about all the varying departments, policies, and procedures that exist within a framework that was never designed to be truly equitable.

And there comes a point where we all have to face the fact that relying on the goodness of the people benefiting from that system will never be enough.

"I don't know what she's complaining about, he's always been so kind to me!"

There’s a very common response whenever someone comes forward on social media about experiencing harassment or discrimination at work. 

“Why don’t they just go to HR?” is repeated over and over again. It’s the workplace version of “why don’t they just go to the police?”. The suggestion that the simplest and easiest action to take when being victimized is to go to a seat of power within your organization, and place your livelihood and safety in official hands.

It’s no coincidence that the people most likely to repeat this refrain are those who benefit the most from existing power structures. They get treated well within the current system, so for them it’s a no-brainer.

But for everyone else…it’s not so simple.

"Everyone's saying that I'm the problem! I feel like I'm losing my mind!"

If you stay with the same organization long enough, chances are you will have some encounter with HR. 

A few years into my employment with my agency, I ended up testifying in a legal action on behalf of a former boss. He was suing for wrongful termination, and I was asked to come speak about my experience as his employee. I was extremely nervous, so I don’t remember a lot of details. But I do remember answering a question as to my understanding of state policy, and then looking to my left, where the head of HR was sitting. And he made a face.

It was one of those exaggerated “oh, really” kinds of faces. The kind of face you might make if someone bragged about their ability to juggle while riding a unicycle through hoops of flame. He immediately started writing something on his notepad, as if I’d just spoken some shocking revelation, rather than just saying I wasn’t familiar with a particular policy.

I was an admin employee, way below him in the chain of command. I was in a vulnerable position, but trying to speak honestly. And the most powerful person in HR made a face at my words.

But if I’d gotten harassed at work, he’d be totally safe and believe me, right?

This experience ended up being the tamest of my negative HR interactions, but it taught me very early one in my career to be very careful around those with power. And yet, I had all the protections of my privileges. I made it ten years. I know a lot of people who didn’t.

"HR is here for you! Unrelatedly, we're transferring you to Alaska."

There’s a common narrative in how hierarchies are supposed to work in business. If you have an issue with an employee, you go to your supervisor. If you have an issue with your supervisor, you go to their supervisor. And if none of that works or is possible, you go to HR.

But this narrative operates from a critical assumption. That those who are not actively harming you have your best interest at heart. That there is nothing inherently wrong with the system itself, and you just need to find the right well-meaning advocate to protect you.

It’s a faulty assumption. Systems of power and inequity are everywhere, and if you don’t have people in power explicitly working against them, then they are supporting them. 

The truth is, in our current system, HR is not there to help you. I’m sure there’s a great many really nice HR workers in the world, but the system itself is there for one thing – to protect the organization. And if that means silencing a worker making waves, that’s what’ll happen.

The same can be said for a great many managers. They didn’t get to their positions by being bold and brave. They got there by toeing the line. 

In most organizations, the majority of those at the highest levels do not have your best interest at heart. And they will not willingly disrupt their own power.

So we have to do it for them.

The (Im)Balance of Power

I was twelve years old when Disney released their animated version of Beauty and the Beast. I utterly adored this movie. I was the perfect age for a charming fairy tale story, and still young enough to believe in the idealized happy ending narrative.

My favorite part was always the very beginning. There was something about the combination of David Ogden Stiers deep-voiced narration, the beautiful score, and the stained glass images that seemed utterly magical.

It was a movie that was highly acclaimed at its release, and is still beloved. Yet over time, partially thanks to the advent of YouTube and a number of channels that rely on nitpicking movies to gain followers, people started to talk more about plot holes in the movie. I use the term “plot hole” loosely here, as I don’t consider something being unexplained the same as a flaw in the story, but others do.

Anyway, two of the biggest complaints were that 1) the beast was technically a child when he was cursed, and 2) all of the servants were also cursed. To many, this seemed unnecessarily cruel on the part of the enchantress.

For me, personally, these things weren’t actual issues. Anyone who’s read their fair share of fairy tales knows that it’s not about the particulars, but the overall moral of the story. Yes, the enchantress cursed a child and all of his servants and then disappeared, but let’s face it, the fairies and witches in fairy tales are not there to be likeable – they’re there to move the plot into motion. And who’s to say the enchantress was perfectly good? Maybe she was having a really bad day. Maybe she didn’t like rude little children. Who cares why, when it makes for a good story?

Well, apparently, Disney cares. Because when they remade Beauty and the Beast into a live action version in 2017, they decided that both of these things needed to be addressed.

The first item, the age of the Beast, was solved by making him an adult when he was cursed.

The second item was “explained” by these lines of dialogue:

Belle: But he’s cursed you somehow. Why? You did nothing. 

Mrs. Potts: [ashamed] You’re quite right there, dear. You see, when the Master lost his mother, and his cruel father took that sweet, innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him, we did nothing.

Let’s sit with this for just a moment.

The servants were cursed to be household objects because they didn’t stop their master, a literal king, from abusing his child. Should we think about how that would have gone for a moment?

A Servant enters the throne room, nervously turning his cap in his hands. He is shaking with fear.

The King frowns at being approached by an inferior. “WELL,” he barks. “OUT WITH IT!!”

The Servant doesn’t dare make eye contact. “Sir, most royal majesty. We’ve noticed that you’re treating your son…”

At the mention of his son, the King turns red with rage. He gestures to the guards. They rush in and pull the Servant away. He is never heard from again.

Or, maybe it should have gone like this:

The servants are all huddled around the table in the kitchen. One of the maids is crying as they speak softly about the poor Prince and his terrible father. 

Finally, the Cook has had enough. She slams her fist on the table. “That’s it!!! I’m calling Child Protective Services!!!…in two hundred years, when that becomes a thing!!!”.

In all seriousness, please do tell me, how would you expect a group of servants to interfere with the behavior of a King?

What we have here, dear readers, is a power differential. And it matters.

I just love the view from up here...

Now, who’s to say, maybe the enchantress thought the servants should have set off a revolution to save the Prince. It was France, after all. But to call this an explanation of why they were punished is to be deliberately naive about what power dynamics mean for the people on the bottom.

(And yes, I get that Disney is using modern mores in their movie, and promoting the message of speaking up when something wrong is happening. But they did it badly.)

On the surface this may seem trivial. But this kind of naivety is representative of something extraordinarily common. Whenever someone talks about the treaties signed between Indigenous populations and the American government as anything other than a tool of oppression. Any time someone claims that Thomas Jefferson had a romantic relationship with Sally Hemings, despite her being his literal property. The fact that people write romances between Nazis and Jews. Complaining that people who work two or more jobs should “just find higher paying work”. The idea that people who are part of marginalized groups can just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. Whenever people criticize a person of color for not speaking up about the harassment they’ve endured. Any time people blame a woman for not leaving an abusive relationship.

If you do these things, you’re not paying attention to the power.

Well, what are you all complaining for? Come up if you want to come up!

On August 7th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven poultry plants in Mississippi, and arrested 680 workers on suspicion of not having legal documentation. Now beyond the fact that ICE planned for the impact on the local community as well as they plan for anything, which is not at all, there are some interesting facts to consider here. 

The first is that although there appears to be clear evidence that the plants knowingly were hiring undocumented workers (and good grief, they have to have known), there is minimal doubt that the owners and managers will face very little consequence. They rarely have in the past. 

The second is that these plants were places where the workers, together with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, were attempting to increase union activity, had fought to hold the companies accountable for racial and sexual harassment of Latina workers, and were generally trying to improve conditions for people working in a very difficult and low paying job.

Now we can’t say for sure that Koch Food Inc deliberately called in ICE officials to scare their employees into staying quiet. Maybe the decision was exclusively at the federal level. But there does appear to be a connection between a company being investigated for worker abuse, and a company being raided by immigration.

The result? Employees don’t speak up, about wage theft, abuse, harassment, or unsafe conditions. And the owners and managers, with maybe an occasional slap on the wrist, go back to business as usual.

Yeah, we don’t know for sure. But look at who has the power.

I don't know why you're all acting like this is so hard...

There’s a famous quote from the movie The Usual Suspects that says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.“.

When you start to recognize power differentials, it’s amazing just how much effort those with the most power put into trying to convince everyone that the differentials don’t exist. Every company that claims diversity and inclusion is their top priority while covering up employee abuses. Every politician who says he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body while promoting policies that hurt marginalized communities. Every millionaire who asserts that he truly cares about the world while balking at raising minimum wage for their workers. Every man who tells his wife that she’s just being too darn sensitive, after the millionth time she’s had to pick up the slack at home.

There’s so many people with so much power and privilege, and they want to convince us all that we are imagining everything. That we are all equal, and it’s just our own flaws that keep us back.

And in the end, that’s the real fairy tale.

Awww, bummer! Guess y'all didn't want it bad enough!

Next post, we’ll talk some more about power differentials in the workplace.

Our Anger is Valid

I want to talk about anger today. This may seem contradictory to my last post on kindness and empathy, but it’s not. Because guess what? We can be kind, we can be empathetic, and we can also get angry.

Anger is an interesting issue, particularly for women, because we are socialized from the very beginning to suppress our anger.

It’s not uncommon for tears and anger to be paired for many women, and so we get called hysterical or told we’re out of control. Instead of accepting crying as a normal part of the experience of anger for some women, it’s labeled as weak or unprofessional. Most men don’t do it, therefore the assumption is that it shouldn’t be done (Note – I’m deliberately not delving into all the social reasons for why genders express emotions the way they do).

Men get to coach a sports team and scream at their players, all while being called good leaders. Men can throw tantrums on the court. Men can be testifying under oath, and rant and rave about the injustice of how they are being treated.

Put a woman in the same place, and see how people react to them.

Women are socialized to “be nice”. I don’t like nice. Niceness is about suppressing your own feelings to make someone else comfortable. And time and again, women bury what we’re really feeling in that desire to be nice. We allow others to violate our boundaries, because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We’re told we have to take prioritize the needs of others, especially men, before ourselves. But our feelings matter, and we have every right to express ourselves.

They told me not to do anything...

And the same is true for so many marginalized groups.

Anger is used as a tool by dominant groups. It’s wielded as a weapon. Those with privilege get to police who is allowed to be angry and who has to be nice. And it works amazingly well.

White people are able to get angry and call the police for Black people simply existing in the same space. And yet recently a Black woman tried calling the police when a neighbor threatened her with a shotgun, and the police assaulted and arrested her instead.

Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim-American politicians in Congress, is being constantly harassed for speaking out. Literally every word she speaks is overanalyzed to a staggering degree, merely because she’s Muslim. There is not a single white, Christian politician who faces the same kind of scrutiny.

Over and over again, members of marginalized groups are dismissed or targeted. They’re told that their anger isn’t valid; that any anger is inappropriate, and unprofessional. That they need to sit down and shut up, and let the white men keep talking. That the comfort of those who are male and white and straight and able-bodied is the default, and everyone else should conform to it.

...but this doesn't feel right.

There was a video game released last year called Detroit: Become Human, about androids (i.e. robots) gaining sentience and fighting for equal rights with humans. Although it was wonderfully acted and beautifully designed, one thing that really stood out to me was how strongly the game pushed the narrative that anger is a bad choice. You can make the choice to fight, but the game highly emphasizes the idea that staying calm, even when your people are being shot in the streets, is supposed to be the morally superior decision.

What made it even worse was the fact that the game borrowed a great deal of imagery from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. The androids rode in the back of the bus, they could use slogans like “I have a dream”, or symbols like the raised fist that is associated with the Black Power movement.

Media like this emphasizes the harmful idea that if oppressed groups just focused on fighting for rights in a “nice” way, then the dominant culture would happily give them more rights. That if oppressed people just would stop being so darn angry, than we could all live together happily.

The game doubles down on this concept by having the androids who follow the “peaceful” path gain the support of the government in their bid for equal rights, all within a matter of days. It completely disregards the fact that the real world has institutional racism and oppressive systems that hurt and kill people, in favor of a narrative that insists we can “all just get along”.

And the sad thing is that you see this narrative everywhere in our culture. Whenever members of marginalized groups get angry, people with privilege fall back on the “inappropriateness” of their message. “It’s not that I disagree with them,” they’ll say. “But they just did it in such an unprofessional way!”

It’s just one more way to keep power dynamics the same. Because if you make a bigger deal about how someone is saying something than what they’re actually saying, you don’t have to listen.

Ah, f*@k it!

This is why I prefer the concept of kindness over niceness. Because I think that calling others out for oppressive and dominating behavior is kind. It’s thinking of the greater good. It’s prioritizing those who need advocates and allies. Kindness validates the anger of those who are suffering. And above all, when we fight back for what we need and deserve, we’re being kind to ourselves.

There are a lot of things I love about getting older. But one of the best is learning to not care what other people think. To not let other people’s discomfort hold me back from speaking my mind. And as I break through those limitations, I’ve learned to stop trying to hide my anger. There are things in this world we should be angry about. I’m going to be angry about them. And if someone doesn’t like that, too bad. They don’t get to tell me how I should feel.

I’m angry that every woman I know has a story of sexual harassment or assault, but so many people still worry about the impact of the MeToo movement on men.

I’m angry that despite thousands of people dying from gun violence every year, our country can’t pass common sense gun reform.

I’m angry that the Catholic Church has the utter gall to demand an apology for a joke on Saturday Night Live when they won’t take responsibility or accountability for all of the lives they’ve destroyed.

I’m angry that there are children who are still kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ.

I’m not going to stop being angry about these things. I’m not going to stop talking about them.

Anger is not the purview of white straight men. Dominant culture will do everything it can to convince you that it is, but it’s a lie based on the fear of what will happen if they’re not always in control.

We shouldn’t be afraid of anger. Anger is necessary. Anger can spark change. It’s what we do with that anger that matters.

**Note: Right after I had written this, a friend sent me this article by Robin diAngelo for The Guardian: “White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not.” It’s a very good read.

The Message Matters

This weekend, a friend and I went to see the local ballet perform Cinderella. And naturally, the dancing was phenomenal. The sets and costumes were beautiful. The symphony was flawless. And yet, I walked away with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

For a long time, Cinderella has been a problematic fairy tale for me. Largely due to the concept of the “ugly” stepsisters. Of course the point of the tale is that inner beauty is what matters – the artistic director of the ballet even came out ahead of time to emphasize this.

Yet for the majority of interpretations of the tale, the “ugly” qualities of the stepsisters are not just in their behavior. It’s yet another example of the trope that not being conventionally attractive on the outside equals an unpleasant or immoral inside.

And in this case, the ballet takes this even one step further. They cast male dancers.

Now, to be clear, I think a ballet where men get to play traditionally female roles and vice versa would be amazing. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a rendition of Oklahoma last year with two female leads, and I find that kind of interpretation so refreshing.

But that’s not what was happening here. This wasn’t out of the box thinking. They were cast because it was a shortcut. An easy and predictable way to emphasize the otherness of the sisters. A way to tap into the social assumption that there is something inherently hilarious about the idea of a man with feminine attributes.

The sad thing is that when it came to ugly qualities, the behavior of the sisters was immature and occasionally unkind, but the majority of the joke was how they looked. They danced badly. They fell down. And other men would shudder when they saw their faces.

And the audience ate it up. Why wouldn’t they? Our culture has decreed that men in dresses are for laughing at. Women who don’t meet society’s expectations for attractiveness are supposed to be mocked. If you’re not inherently talented, you’re funny for trying. And we only want to root for the graceful, pretty, delicate “real” woman to win the prize. It’s the message that’s all around us, all the time. Why would we question it?

*cue laugh track*

So what does this have to do with leadership, you may be asking?  A lot, as it turns out.

In the leadership program I ran, we used an activity called “Stepping Into Someone Else’s Shoes”. We would hand out a survey for participants to fill out anonymously. We’d collect the surveys, mix them up, and hand them back out for debrief. This way every person knew they were representing someone else in the room, but didn’t have to disclose any information about themselves.

These were a few of the items on the survey:

  • I have minimized my cultural differences to fit in or get along.
  • I keep my disability hidden to prevent discrimination.
  • I feel pressure to fit in or assimilate to minimize conflict.
  • I have felt excluded based on my race.
  • I am required to use a bathroom that doesn’t match my gender identity.        

And in every session we did, when we tallied the results, every single one of these items had been checked. A couple were checked by one or two people. A couple were checked by nearly half the room.

Do you see the connection? What they all have in common?

They’re all about hiding, assimilating, going with the dominant crowd.

We’ve all done this at some point in our lives. Laughed at the joke that hurt, brushed off the comment that stung, even parroted toxic words to show that we’re a part of the crowd. Because standing out isn’t safe. And this happens in the workplace all the time.

When I was a manager, I learned that one of my employees had been in a stall in the restroom when a couple of other staff had come in, and without knowing she was there, started laughing about her weight. They had talked about how awful they thought it would be to look like her. She had been devastated and taken sick time for the rest of the day.

I was livid. And I wanted to know who they were. But she wouldn’t tell me. They were workers in a higher classification, and she didn’t want to rock the boat. She didn’t want to stand out. She didn’t feel safe. In the end I asked our branch manager to send out an office wide email about unacceptable behavior. But it wasn’t the same as true accountability. And I very much doubt that any behaviors changed. They didn’t get hurt. Why would they think about their message?

Why yes, I was designed by a man, why do you ask?

If you talked to the manager I had when I quit, he would tell you that he cares a great deal about equity and inclusion. And I believed that for some time. Until I had a conversation with him where he asserted that women were as much of a problem as men in the workplace when it came to the issues of MeToo. His evidence for this?  Conversations he’d had with other men in the elevator.

As a woman in the workplace, it was a gut punch to hear that from the man directly in charge of my professional life. But I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

Later on, another co-worker who wanted to be supportive ended up telling him I had been upset by this. His solution was to call me into a conference room, with no heads up on the topic. He started by apologizing, then ended up doubling down by saying he had been googling articles on the topic that supported his stance. Needless to say, I left that meeting feeling even more crushed than before.

The sad thing is, that first incident, it wasn’t intentional. He was just chatting. He didn’t think about the bias in his words. He wasn’t considering the message. He was just going with the dominant narrative, his narrative. Why would he question it?

But here’s the thing. If you’re a leader – you should.

We live in a world where you cannot pretend that your messages don’t have an impact. And let’s be clear – they’ve always had an impact. It’s just often been easier to ignore.

And this isn’t just about one joke or one comment. It’s about all of the jokes and all of the comments. It’s about a world where a person in power who is racist, sexist, and corrupt will still be insulted for how he looks more than anything else. Where a woman who speaks out gets called ugly and fat, because that’s considered the worst possible insult. Where people who are trans are misgendered and disparaged. And where, just like at the ballet, children are watching it all.

Casting men in the roles of the stepsisters has long been a tradition in ballet. And most productions follow suite. It’s not due to any malice. It’s just how things are done.

But that’s not a good enough reason to keep doing it. Gender fluidity and trans people are not jokes. How someone looks has nothing to do with their skills, abilities, or values. It’s time for a new narrative.

The message matters. What’s yours?

All in favor of a plus size superhero?

 

**For a fantastic perspective on this topic, please check out Council of Geeks video on The Problem is Patterns in relation to LGBTQ+ representation.

Controlling the Narrative

I want to talk about Tomb Raider today. This may seem strange for a leadership blog, but it’s relevant, so stay with me here.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tomb Raider is the title of a series of video games that began back in 1996. The protagonist, Lara Croft, is an obscenely wealthy British woman. She’s an archaeologist, which in video game lingo means she solves puzzles and picks up loot (hence the name). In the original series there wasn’t much depth and Lara’s design was clearly intended to appeal to a young male demographic.

In 2013 the series was rebooted. This reboot was a big deal for focusing more on realism and creating a more in depth Lara Croft. Her proportions were no longer cartoonishly rendered and she was a much more emotional character. She had more selfless motivations, often related to helping others and defeating a shady organization of baddies.

Lara engaging in the well-known archaeological practice of hiding in trees.

However, as we moved into the modern era, it was getting harder to escape the fact that Lara still broke into ancient crypts and took items (often with a good dose of destruction on the way). There was little acknowledgement of the increasing awareness of the damage done by White Americans and Europeans to other cultures in the name of archaeology.

Lara’s less savory activities were somewhat tempered by the framing of the first two games. Although clearly inspired by actual history, the first game took place on a fictional mystical island, and the second took place in a fictional valley in remote Russia. The people and cultural artifacts she encountered felt realistic, but did not associate strongly with any current real world cultures.

Last year, the third game in the series was released, with the majority of action happening in Peru.

As reported by Variety, the developers stated upfront that this game would be the first to “tackle the political tension at the heart of the series“. In other words, they wanted to acknowledge the reality of a wealthy white woman hunting for treasure in a foreign land. Narrative director Jason Dozois also stated in an interview with VG247 that the game was “about learning that archaeology is also culture, and history, and language, and that involves people.” The developers included cultural elements of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec people in their game design, and utilized historians and cultural advisors. It is clear that a phenomenal amount of work went into this project.

And the result is, to be blunt, appalling.

Lara was always the hero of the story, but now all of sudden she’s surrounded by people of color telling her how amazing and brave she is, and how lucky they are that she’s there to save the day. She roams through their villages and goes freely into their homes, picking up items without any consequence or reaction. When locals fail at important tasks, the people turn to Lara, who performs perfectly and returns successfully each time.

And when she’s in trouble and needs to hide from the antagonists of the story, she dresses in a native costume, which is apparently so very convincing that none of the antagonists seem to notice her pale skin and British accent.

Lara, mistress of disguise.

One of the best characters in the story is a native Peruvian, Unuratu. She’s the leader of a hidden village and is in conflict with her brother-in-law over the future of their people. She’s intelligent, compassionate, motivated, and a fierce fighter. She’s the key to stopping the antagonists.

Until she’s shot and killed, so Lara can step in to save the day again.

Unuratu, also known as a woman who deserved better.

So what happened? We had developers who were aware of the minefield of running a game series called Tomb Raider. They listened to previous criticisms of a cognitive dissonance between Lara’s stated goals and her actions. They brought in experts to advise them. I believe them when they say they genuinely had good intentions.

The problem? In the end, they still made a white narrative.

They put a lot of work into adding elements of Indigenous cultures, but it’s not an Indigenous narrative. Every person of color in the game exists either to help Lara, or die in service of her story.

The truth is this shouldn’t even be Lara’s story. This should be Unuratu’s. It’s her culture, it’s her people, and it’s not up to some wealthy white European to be swinging in to save the day.

Literally swinging.

This isn’t just about a video game.

This about the organizations that will hire diversity experts and promote diversity training. They will appoint a few people of color to high level positions. They will talk boldly and openly about the need to do better. And in the end, they will still reinforce the exact same message as before: the white narrative is the one that matters.

Because the problem isn’t just a lack of training or a need for different leadership. The entire system is flawed. And if you really want to change things, you have to break the system.

At this point, some people will be scoffing. “Seriously?” they’ll say. “What do you expect? Are they just supposed to implode their own series?”

Well, yes.

Imagine a developer who is able to look at their material and say, this is not the world we live in anymore.

Imagine a developer who shows their protagonist making big mistakes and being confronted with the colonialism of her actions. Who is not welcomed, but sees the anger of those being affected.

Imagine a developer who allows their protagonist to step back and pass the torch to someone else.

Maybe it would implode the series. Or maybe it would launch something much greater.

Who can be sure?  We’ve yet to see someone try.

"Here. This isn't mine. It never was."
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