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.

Sunday Reflection – Looking in the Mirror

Recently I had an epiphany about something in my personal life. It’s not something I’m ready to share, but it was a good reminder about how important it is to engage in self-reflection. I talk a lot about self-reflection in terms of leadership, and it is a vital component of any effective leader, but it’s also critical for all of us, in any dimension of our life.

We live in a very overwhelming world, and it’s often so easy to fall into the pattern of acting on impulse. And part of what can make self-reflection feel daunting is the idea that it takes a great deal of time and intention.

But the great thing about self-reflection is that it doesn’t actually take very much at all. Just a willingness to engage your own mind. A willingness to look at your own actions and behaviors, as well as the actions and behaviors of those around you. A willingness to let thoughts stream through your mind, without directing their flow.

And of course there are things that help. Solitude helps. Nature helps. Writing helps. Talking to trusted people helps. But none of these things are required. Just you, and the willingness to look in the mirror.

Amplifying Voices – Ali Thompson: How Can We Tell When a Weight Loss Study is Unreliable?

I’ve talked before about how data can be misrepresented and misused, especially when there is profit to be made. A huge example is the pharmaceutical industry, which routinely pays for biased studies to promote new drugs, but you can find this kind of faulty science in pretty much every field.

I like this quick and easy breakdown on the common flaws in studies by Ali Thompson. She is talking about weight loss studies in particular, but her questions around credibility can be applied to many different study topics.

This isn’t just about being an informed consumer. A great deal of this kind of information is used to discriminate or harass people. Before you look at someone and think you know everything you need to know about them and their health, perhaps a little critical thinking is in order. And above all – who stands to profit?

Sunday Reflection – Little Boxes

Recently, an actor promoting a TV show was asked about being in a Marvel movie, and he said he saw those films as being “for grown male nerd childs”. And when some Marvel fans got upset, he proceeded to double down and claim that is was just his “belief”.

Now, on one hand, this particular person is known for playing up the role of cynic for his career, and this is probably part of that.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking about someone promoting the idea that it’s possible to believe that a certain kind of story or narrative is only “for” a certain group of people. Because to me that’s not really a belief.

You can believe that the stories in Marvel movies are underwritten, or juvenile, or silly. But can you really believe who an audience is?

This is something that’s a bit sensitive for me, as a woman who has long loved things that are considered to be in the male domain. And the truth is that women have always been interested in things like video games and action movies. But we were always told that it wasn’t “for” us.

I was catching up on Twitter and someone posted a fabulous story about introducing her 75 year old grandmother to playing Dungeons and Dragons. For those of you who are unfamiliar, DnD is a type of table-top role-playing game where a DM (Dungeon Master) plays the role of narrator and guides players through a collaborative make-believe scenario. It’s traditionally seen as part of the domain of the geeky and the young.

The granddaughter was marveling at how easily and quickly her traditional, non-English speaking grandmother took to role-playing, and how fully and happily she embodied her character of a forest-loving little gnome.

All of this is to say that I think anyone should be able to like anything that they want to like. That you can absolutely believe that something isn’t for you, but it’s a small-minded thing to believe that you can decipher who it is for. That you can see the inner workings of all people to know who is drawn to what.

It’s so easy to fall into stereotypes in this world, but we all should know better by now. A grandmother can like playing role-playing games, a Black woman can write comics, a gay man can direct an action movie, and a non-suffering artist can create a masterpiece.

Art is for whoever wants it. It’s not for the rest of us to decide.

Amplifying Voices – Like Stories of Old: The Philosophy of the Fall

As much as I dislike YouTube as a company (and I hope this lawsuit against them from LGBTQ creators is successful), I do have to admit that via the platform I have been able to find a number of really amazing and creative channels.

One channel I really enjoy is called Like Stories of Old, with a creator who looks at the life lessons that can be gleaned from cinema.

Stories can be such a powerful framework for human thought, and I think all of us have experienced stories that have helped us gain new perspective or tap into emotions we can’t always easily express.

This is one of the shorter videos on the channel, but covers a movie that I think about frequently, called The Fall. Along with being one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen, there is so much depth to the content of the story. And Like Stories of Old does a beautiful analysis.

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.

Sunday Reflection – Gratitude Check-In

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude this week. Last weekend, I was struggling to tap into my feelings of gratitude, so it was interesting timing to see this interview between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert. Both men have experienced a great deal of loss in their lives, and engage in a really fascinating discussion on suffering, faith, and humanity. I highly recommend watching the whole thing, but here’s a clip of what Colbert has to say about gratitude.

I can’t say that I completely agree with Colbert on the idea of being grateful for everything. In some ways that feels like a bit of a privileged position. However, I do really admire his perspective on finding the gift in what has been lost. It’s an objectively terrible thing to lose someone you love, and yet, it does enable us to tap into a deeper aspect of humanity. We can empathize and support one another if we understand that we are not the only one who suffers.

So today, I am grateful for conversations like this. I am grateful for people who are vulnerable and open. I am grateful for people who choose empathy and who use their empathy as a power for the greater good. And I am grateful for all of my experiences, good and bad, that have made me the person I am today.

Amplifying Voices – Hannah Gadsby: Three Ideas. Three Contradictions. Or not.

Comedian Hannah Gadsby rose to prominence this past year due to her amazing comedy special on Netflix, entitled Nanette. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet had a chance to see it, but I will say that she takes the rules of comedy, and deliberately breaks them to send a message to her audience. It means that there are moments of discomfort, and it’s on purpose.

There are some who have criticized her show as not being “real” comedy. Most of these people are the sort to loudly exclaim that there should be no rules in comedy, and that it’s bad for comedians to be “politically correct”. Yet when a woman, in particular a lesbian, non-gender-conforming, neurodivergent woman, has the audacity to do things differently, suddenly rules about comedy are paramount.

Of course with this kind of criticism, it’s not about the art itself, but rather the gate-keeping of who gets to participate. Who gets to control the room. Who gets to tell their story.

This Ted Talk by Gadsby is another example of why I like her so much. She once again takes a very specific, set format, and refuses to follow the rules. It’s a great reminder that value comes from what makes us think – not in how perfectly it conforms to expectations.

Sunday Reflection – Finding the Balance

I haven’t done a gratitude post in a while, and I started to write one. But I got stuck.

Normally it’s a quick and easy post to write. I have so much to be grateful for in my life, and I do believe that gratitude is an important tool in dealing with the challenges of our current world.

And yet, today, I just couldn’t find the words.

A long time ago, I read a great book called Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It was around the same time that I first started experiencing serious anxiety, where the feelings would hit out of the blue. My natural inclination was to always push back at how I was feeling, to talk to myself about how ridiculous I was being. And it was this book where I first came across the idea that you didn’t have to fight your bad feelings. That pushing back just made the fight last longer. That you could acknowledge, accept, and just let them pass through. And it for me it works.

I do still forget, often, and need to remind myself to practice this. Even today, I was trying to force myself to write something about gratitude. I was telling myself to push through the hesitation. But like all feelings, I think having a day where I just don’t feel like being grateful is ok.

So often we minimize feelings to good and bad, but it’s really about degrees. About balance. All feelings have validity, and all feelings can be taken to extremes. But pretending they’re not there doesn’t help.

So today I got a gentle reminder that my feelings are ok. I’m accepting where I am, I’m letting the feelings pass through, and maybe next weekend, I’ll be ready for that gratitude.

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