Sunday, November 15, 2009

Free Speech: Trade Venus/Mars for Common Ground

I bike downhill with my brakes on. Early in my career, my firm hosted a day at a formula car racing school. Starting #2 in the line up, I was soon so far behind I found myself alone -- until, in my rearview mirror, I saw all the other cars coming up behind to lap me (turns out I was supposed to accelerate beyond 80 mph).

While embarrassed for myself, I was thrilled that the only other woman at the race track (a fifty-something working-mom lawyer) made a fine show of female machismo -- she was one of the first to pass me. I fit the stereotype of the cautious female but I have plenty of women friends who jump out of planes and hang from cliffs. I’ve attributed my own whimpiness to environment (growing up in an uncoordinated body with protective parents). So I’ve never bought in to the idea that my physical risk-aversion is a function of my sex.

But this week, I was reminded how it often looks like women are too cautious in areas that are far more important. And that we need to push ourselves to look for environmental factors that can free women to take the risks they need to.

Speaking up in class gets you better grades - but there’s still a view that women don’t say as much as their male peers, even in competitive business schools. “How can this still be?” we asked a group of female students. They offered a thought-provoking reply: The real problem is male B.S. - guys who are happy to take up air time without much basis for their point of view.

I was talking to a political consultant who told me a variant of the same thing. That editorial editors around the country complain that if they ask a female expert to write about breaking news, they often get this response: “Well, I’m not sure how much I know about that, I’ll need a week to get the facts together.” Call a man with the same expertise and you get an op-ed on your desk in the AM.

Journalist Katie Orenstein discovered that women send in only10% of the opinion pieces submitted to newspapers. She founded the Op-Ed Project -- to help more women feel entitled to speak out and engage in the public debate. A big part of her magic is helping women see that we are expert enough (by male standards) to say a lot more than we are saying. Her training sessions around the country attract female academics and executives alike and have generated hundreds more female op-eds.

How much precision is good? We have a problem because social norm encourage men and women to do different things. In rough terms, we ask men to “be a man about it” and step into the fray. We raise women to be “good girls” and have all the details pinned down. I once worked with a guy who was happy to walk into meetings unable to account for hundreds of millions of dollars -- since we were talking about billions, he’d say his numbers were “directionally correct” and was quite comfortable with that. I’ve also worked with clever women who dutifully read out every statistic to the 2nd decimal place. As we discussed in Getting to 5050, we have problem communicating a single boy/girl standard of what’s OK.

At a recent dinner, a self-impressed man (we’ll call him Hank) was holding forth, peppering his assertions with numbers. A few people questioned Hank’s argument and were brushed aside with more “facts”. Smelling a rat, another man asked, “Hank, did you know that 73.64% of statistics are made up?”

If we can stop over-focusing on gender difference, if we can drop the boy-versus-girl superiority contests, we’ll better see what really matters: That we can change environmental factors that cause both sexes to underperform. By getting on the same page, men and women can do a lot to help talented voices to speak up -- and blowhards to pipe down.

By Sharon Meers

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