Wisdom//

To Close the Gender Gap, We Need to Start Talking

"We’re on the cusp of a new way of thinking, one that unites men and women rather than divides us — at work and beyond. "

By Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock
By Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock

But as long as men are afraid, or don’t know how to talk about the issues, or are just in the dark about women, we won’t close the gap. Even the most well meaning men have a long way to go. I recently at- tended an event for the 30% Club, an organization founded by Brit- ish finance executive Helena Morrissey that encourages companies to strive for 30 percent female representation on corporate boards. Research has shown that women’s views are discounted until they make up almost a third of any given group.

The event, the kickoff festivities for a mentoring program for promising mid-career women, was hosted by Kenneth Jacobs, the chairman and chief executive officer of banking giant Lazard. We filed into the bank’s impressive conference space high above Rocke- feller Center, with waiters passing delicate sushi rolls and windows offering panoramic views of Midtown Manhattan. Jacobs took the podium and looked slowly around at the hundred or so audience members, an overwhelmingly female crowd in their best business suits. He paused.

“Generally, I’m a pretty good public speaker,” he finally began. “But I confess tonight I’m a little nervous. Here I am in front of a room full of women, and that’s very unusual . . . I have to say it’s a bit intimidating.”

The irony wasn’t lost on the room, or on me, either. Every woman there knew what it was like to be the lone female in a room full of men. And no woman—certainly not me—would confess to being fright- ened. Imagine any businesswoman taking a podium and starting her speech by saying, “Wow, here I am in a room full of men, and it’s terrifying!” That would be absurd. Only a powerful man could trot out that line as a conversational icebreaker. The fact that he didn’t seem to realize the irony was emblematic of how far we have to go in bringing together men and women at work.

It isn’t just him. His one-liner is a common trope among men. At an awards luncheon for women in media, host Andy Cohen looked out at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom filled with more than a thousand women and quipped, “I’m intimidated!” One of the presenters, Mi- chael Roth, chief executive of advertising giant Interpublic, took his place at the microphone and joked, “It’s not often I represent diver- sity.” Funny, sure. But also a reminder that these men and so many others don’t have to think about what their female colleagues expe- rience all day, every day.

That’s why, prompted first by that businessman on a plane ride to Des Moines, I realized how crucial it is for women to let men in on our secrets. And so I went on a quest to understand not just the challenges women face, but to discover what mystifies or perplexes professional men about the women they work with. My goal was to get to the bottom of issues that men face every day: why women often don’t speak up at meetings, why they can seem tentative when they do speak up, why there are so few qualified women in the management pipeline despite good-faith efforts to recruit them.

And then I went in search of solutions. I sought out male exec- utives who are trying to get it right. I traveled across the U.S. and beyond in search of new discoveries, research, and real-life exper- iments. I focused on men, institutions, even countries, that are ac- tively trying to close the gender gap.

What I found exploded everything I thought I knew about gender. Some of the most surprising revelations came from the unlikeliest of sources: from the Enron scandal, from brain research, from trans- gender scientists, from Iceland’s campaign to “feminize” an entire nation. Together these findings offer fresh insights into the way we relate to one another. My hope is that the information in this book will be helpful for men who want to sharpen their competitive edge, and who could use some practical tips to help figure out and engage with women — without judgment or blame.

And for women, my hope is they’ll come away with a new set of tools they can use to break down barriers, right now. Women are ac- customed to being passed over and marginalized; we’re frustrated because despite lots of talk, there’s been precious little action when it comes to gender equity. Yet in some corners there’s been remarkable progress, and I’ve sought to crack the code of how successful initia- tives can take root.

So consider this an invitation to join the conversation, to work together to close the gender gap. You may be alternately surprised, relieved, irritated, and delighted. But above all my hope is that That’s What She Said will become a rallying cry, for both men and women, finally to take real steps toward closing the gender gap at work and in life.

The people you’ll meet in these pages don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nor do I. But their stories offer reason for optimism. We’re on the cusp of a new way of thinking, one that unites men and women rather than divides us — at work and beyond.

Excerpted from THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID, by Joanne Lipman. Published by William Morrow.

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