So a Guy Walks into a PTA Meeting (Understanding Women’s Fear of Speaking Up at Work)

About once a week, I go out to lunch with one of my girlfriends from work. We typically request a table in the back, mostly as a courtesy to the other patrons. Because we’re not really there to eat lunch, but to connect, share stories and laugh.

All of which we do very loudly.

Then we go back to the office, sit through staff meetings and committee meetings. Listen, nod our heads and smile.

All of which we do very quietly.

I’ve often wondered about this contrast in behaviors. And felt frustration with myself (and other women like me) for our collective silence.

While we might think it’s hundreds of years of oppression manifesting itself around a conference table, it probably isn’t.

We’re all bored, so a good idea would be a welcome reprieve, regardless from whom it originates and what their gender might be.

And while the “manterrupter” is a very real thing, I’m not seeing this happen. Mostly because it’s hard to interrupt women when they’re not talking.

And lastly, this silencing also happens to men. Men who haven’t experienced years of silencing and not being heard (let alone believed). Men who have the confidence to speak on any topic, even things they know nothing about.

Except when they walk into a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting.

For those of us who have not attended a PTA meeting, it’s a committee of parents, a few exhausted teachers, and a school administrator that drew the short straw.

With rare exception, the group is entirely female.

Now imagine a dad. He wants to get involved so he rolls in for his first PTA meeting. Excited to contribute and support the school.

He’s a parent, so he’s got every right to be there, but as soon as he enters the room, his confidence wanes.

Everyone there is a woman.

So he sits a bit off to the side, because he doesn’t want to look like he’s being “too friendly with the ladies,” and pretends to look at his phone.

He hopes someone will sit next to him, but when they don’t, he just smiles and fidgets with his pen.

The meeting begins, and in between talking about the next Bake Sale (he doesn’t bake) and wondering if so-and-so had her baby yet (he’s never been pregnant), he becomes acutely aware of his male identity and starts to feel a bit insecure.

He loses confidence. He starts to doubt his ability to contribute.

Then the PTA Chair asks, “What film should we watch for Family Fun Night?”

Just as he’s about to suggest Beauty and the Beast, he chokes. He second-guesses himself.

He wonders if proposing a girl-oriented film will sound weird coming from an adult man.

Or if he should remain quiet, lest the women think he’s dominating the meeting as men are wont to do.

So he sits there, worrying and ruminating, until the conversation shifts to a new topic and he is left behind.

Silent.

Sound familiar?

There is something powerful that keeps us silent, and it’s called stereotype threat. I realize the words “stereotype” and “threat” are equally intimidating, and bringing them together sounds like a huge bummer, but please, bear with me.

In this example, the dad is facing the stereotype of men being sexist or worse. And it is this threat that keeps him from speaking.

For anyone with a marginalized identity, stereotype threat is the equivalent of dark matter, the invisible and mysterious but very real substance that makes up the universe.

While scientists are still trying to understand dark matter, we have a deep understanding of stereotype threat and its impact on people.

We know that the fear of fulfilling a stereotype undermines performance, whether it’s African-American students taking a math test or white men playing basketball.

We know that the common stereotypes associated with women (dumb, emotional, pushy or worse) inhibit us in significant ways. From little girls in classrooms to grown women in boardrooms.

Which is why it’s so important to understand stereotype threat. Especially as women. And then take a few simple steps to manage it.

One of the most effective is to focus on parts of your identity that are not threatened by a stereotype. Perhaps it’s your role in the organization or your level of expertise.

Who you are beyond the threatened identity of being female is a powerful antidote to stereotype threat.

And if that doesn’t work, focus on your values, which are also part of your identity. I often encourage women to write down their top three values before going into any situation that might trigger a stereotype, whether that’s negotiating for a raise or speaking in front of a group.

And lastly, I invite you to be brave. To take small steps out of your Safe Space and into your Brave Space. To learn to get comfortable with the discomfort of stereotype. To speak when you feel the pressure to be silent.

Because like dark matter, stereotypes (and our fear of fulfilling them) are very real things with very real consequences. And they aren’t going anywhere.

So we need to.

We need to share our ideas, even if we’re afraid they’re “dumb” or “stupid.”

We need to advocate for ourselves, even though we might appear “pushy” or “too aggressive.”

We need to speak.

Because otherwise, we are left behind.

Silent.

PS – To learn more about stereotype threat, check out the work of Dr. Claude Steele, a brilliant scholar and writer whose book Whistling Vivaldi informs the work I do with women and leadership. And if you haven’t already, check out my next event/webinar offering, “Brave Women Bake, Create & Lead.” I’m tackling stereotype threat in a new way, and I’d love to have you join me.

The TED Talk That Never Was

I am a TED Talk reject.

Admittedly, my talk wasn’t all that provocative or novel. It clearly didn’t qualify as an “idea worth spreading,” which apparently is TED’s tag line.

But I was on a mission to conquer my fear of speaking live on camera, and what better way to do so than with a potentially global audience?

I am nothing if not ambitious.

I downloaded all the TED Talk guidelines about how to give a magnificent presentation that TED himself would watch. (And I learned that TED isn’t actually a person but an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design.)

I picked out my dress for the talk. It was purple because that color looks fabulous against TED-Talk-red.

And I told all my friends that I was trying out. Blasted it out on Instagram. Gave a preview of my talk on Facebook Live.

So when I received the “We had a very competitive pool of applicants…” rejection email, I was disappointed. Surprisingly embarrassed. Even ashamed.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if it was worth it. All that effort and energy, for what?

I have a hard time with inspirational quotes about failure. Stuff like, “It’s the process, not the destination that matters.”

Because the destination does matter.

I struggle with questions like, “What would you do if you knew you would not fail?” Because the honest-to-goodness answer is that I’d try to fly.

There are always consequences when we fail, real risks that cause real problems.

Problems like dying, which is what would happen if I jumped off the top of my house and tried to fly.

So as I reflect on my TED Talk failure, I am going to tell you something a bit different than these inspirational quotes, questions, and sayings.

Something that is, dare I say, an idea worth spreading.

Because next week, I am giving my own version of a TED Talk. I have reserved the same theater where the actual, real TED Talk event took place.

There will be cameras to film it. I even have a live audience. And yes, I will be wearing my purple dress.

At first blush, this may seem like a stubborn act, a rejection of my rejection, so to speak.

But it isn’t.

I was asked to teach an online class and they needed to film it. And because I’d put all that effort into preparing for my TED Talk That Never Was, I was ready.

I was ready.

For me, that’s what failure is all about. That is my idea worth spreading.

Failure makes you ready for the next time. But this time, the next time, your are smarter, wiser, and a little more brave.

Am I nervous about my non-TED Talk? Absolutely.

People might not show up. And if they do, they might not think my ideas are all that provocative or novel.

They may find my purple dress to be a bit much.

I may very well fail.

But if that happens, I will learn new things. I’ll end up smarter and wiser.

Braver.

And I will be ready for the next time.

 

Post-script: Eat your heart out, TED.

 

 

 

 

Remind Me to Start a Revolution about that Next Time

This is the third morning in a row that I’ve woken up at 4:30 a.m. I thought it was a fluke, but three times in a row isn’t a fluke, it’s a pattern. And within patterns, there is usually meaning.

What does it mean to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for three mornings in a row?

To figure it out, I need to write because something is swimming around at the edges of my subconscious, swirling in the purgatory between my unconscious and conscious mind.

Writing allows me to fish it out, to cast a line into those unknown waters and wait for the tug of recognition. And when it comes, if I finesse the rod just right, if I don’t pull too hard or too gently, that something will emerge, thrashing and alive from the depths.

I’m pretty sure it has something to do with an excerpt from a book I was reading, a clever line written in jest by the author about an issue she cared about but not quite enough to do anything about.

“Remind me to start a revolution about that next time,” she wrote.

I cast that out across the expanse of my subconscious and wait, senses alert. What do I care about but not quite enough to do anything about? What do I want to start a revolution about next time because right now, this time, is not a “good time”?

fishing

The cursor on my computer screen blinks. I am patient and quiet. Is anything there? Or better yet, is anything there that I can handle right now?

Because I am not sure this is a good time to start a revolution, thank you very much.

I’m married with two kids and a dog. I work full time. My family is coming off four weeks of taking turns being sick with the flu because apparently “the vaccine didn’t quite match up this  year.”

I’ve somehow managed to contract pink eye, most likely from all the visits to the pediatrician’s office. (Because, flu.)

And last night, my nine year-old told me there’s a lice outbreak in her classroom and she thinks her head itches…

So no, it’s not really a good time for me to start a revolution, unless it’s to set fire to my house, my eyeballs, and my daughter’s hair.

Unless it’s to quit my job as a mother/wife/caretaker and tell somebody else, anybody else, that I’m all done now.

In fact, even if I don’t start a revolution, if I’m really, really, really honest with myself, I AM ALL DONE BEING A WOMAN IN THIS WORLD.

Oh wait. That’s it. That’s the something that I want to start a revolution about next time, and it just landed at my feet, thrashing and alive from the depths of my subconscious. There was no waiting for the second and third tug, no finessing of my rod. It just burst out of the water like Jaws.

I am all done being a woman in this world. 

Is that even possible?

How can I quit my job as a mother, wife, caretaker and overall keeper of my family’s universe, because I’m pretty sure it would all implode into a black hole without me?

How can I stop feeling the conflicting demands of work and motherhood where being in one place means I’m not somewhere else, so I’m always, always failing at both?

How can I acknowledge the pain of my stay-at-home-mom friends, women who didn’t understand how their “choice” would drastically limit so many of their future choices?

How can I tell my daughter that even though she’s smart and hard working, she’s at an incredible disadvantage compared to the boys in her class?

How can I?

How can I not.

I am all done being a woman in this world. That’s the honest-to-goodness truth, and not doing anything about it? That makes me a co-conspirator in everything that hurts me, my daughter, other women, and men for that matter.

Since I can’t really be all done with my identity as a woman, I guess that means I’m all done with this world. I’m all done with a world that makes it so incredibly hard to be a woman.

Does that make me a revolutionary?

Perhaps. It all depends on how I move forward from here. And while I’m not sure what this will look like exactly, I do know this. My efforts will not be unrelated. They will not be flukes.

Like waking up at 4:30 a.m. three mornings in a row, there will be a pattern with meaning.

And if anyone looks closely and cares to fish it out, they will find it for themselves.

I am all done being a woman in this world. And I’m starting a revolution about it this time

Broken Wings Make Broken Women (Or perhaps it is the other way around?)

brokenwings

Leading in a man’s world.

Is like being dropped from the sky, expected to fly.

“This is how you do it,” they say, “Open your wings. It’s easy. Watch.”

But I don’t have wings, so I land hard, the breath knocked from my lungs. 

On the ground is where we find each other. Delicate hands stretching up to wonder. 

Why are they flying and we are not? What have we done wrong? 

Some of us scrap together makeshift wings. “It’s all about confidence,” they say, flying like Icarus into the sky. 

We never see them again.

The younger ones throw themselves into the air, over and over. Kites desperate to catch the wind, only to bounce and crash across the ground.

The older ones sit down and watch, mending wings and giving advice.

It used to be much worse, they say.

Things are getting better, they say.

Just try harder, they say.

I am becoming one of the older ones.

I look at the wings in my lap, broken and splintered. They are too heavy, too big. Fit to another.

They are not our wings. No amount of confidence or belief could make them fly. And yet we sew and patch, try them on again.

Broken wings make broken women… Or perhaps it is the other way around?

I gather and carry the wings away. Set them down gently. Build a pyre. 

The other women see the light, move towards its brightness. Dragging their wings behind, they approach to offer their own to the flames.

We stand, blinking back the heat, hotter and hotter. The air expands, and like bits of twirling ash, we begin to rise.

Straight. Up.

We are flying.