Last night, I found myself watching the PBS documentary entitled Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Hosted by the two journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife), and patterned after their book by the same name , it took me on a roller-coaster from utter despair (when a fourteen year old Sierra Leone rape victim gets expelled from her home for confronting her predator) to powerful hope (learning how innovative some of the militant women are who help young girls or women victims fight and survive).
Unlike Kristof and WuDunn, I am not in a position to write about women oppression of the physical kind (rape, mutilation, sexual slavery), but I do witness quieter cases of women’s moral oppression in global business every day.
I’m talking about you, anonymous Yemeni woman in my Dubai class of the London Business School last year. As often in the Arab world, I was instructed not to address you first. For three hours, you patiently listened to my challenging your male Middle-Eastern colleagues without engaging, eyes mostly down on your notes. In the last fifteen minutes, you found the courage to raise your hand and suggested a brilliant application for your bank of what I was trying to teach. I can still remember your dark eyes, glittering with the excitement of a new thought. I would have liked to put you on stage and have you teach the next class with me. But I didn’t, because this is no place of a Yemeni woman.
I’m also thinking of you, bright young women I have known in academia or consulting over the years in the US or Europe, who never knew how good you were, and who settled for second best careers (or no career at all) because nobody told you you had the power to change the world. How I wish some senior woman in your department could have taken you by the hand and shown you the way! Images of workshops are dancing in my head, with ebullient Brazilian males listening to their head roar while women with richer experience would not dare speak, or post office women in France keeping silent on their experience of work while listening to their male superiors describing their life as if they were not there.
It’s not easy advocating for women in business when you’re a guy. I always feel a bit awkward, if not downright silly. When I timidly do, I immediately get haunted by images of male politicians discussing women’s health issues, or memories of top-level women’s sports teams coached by mediocre men. What do I know about a woman’s experience? And who am I to even try to help? And so I shut up, most of the time.
If I ever find my voice on this topic, here is what I’d like to say: business women of the world, unite. I see you everywhere, full of talent, able to do things that guys cannot do as well as you, and yet you contort yourself into the male-dominated, individualistic, process-driven model of the business world that has been oppressing you for years. Break those shackles. Let your instinct take over: focus on the human experience, starting with your own. Build communities of business women inside and outside your firm. Unleash the forces of co-creation by shamelessly slanting the resources of your firm toward women. The business world will be a better place for it. Even for the guys. (As Dr. Seuss sort of said, the guys who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind).
Women are alone in the business world. Their interactions remain mostly directed at men they try to please, because this is still often where the power lies. There are of course women’s business associations and support groups, but none of them can play the role of a company-centric community of women helping each other. Governments try to provide incentives to remove the glass ceiling, but they can’t do as good a job as your establishing yourselves into a community of powerful self-advocates.
Sometimes it’s OK to be biased. Women should also build communities outside their firm. They should buy from other women and sell to other women. Better be on the field than talk from the sideline. Use the resources of your firm for advantage. Support other women. Hire women. Promote women. Play to win. Be tough.