When my older sister was born, my mom quit her job as a lawyer. She graduated from Loyola Law School in 1979 when ~15-20% of her class were women, and practiced law in the 80s when representation of women in the legal profession was in the mid-teens. As she is quick to point out, the bigger issue was that there were hardly any women partners at her firm—or at any law firms for that matter. The dearth of female partners persists to this day—in 2016 women represented 22% of partners at law firms.
Growing up, I never really knew or questioned why my dad worked and my mom didn’t. My parents split the household work fairly well. Nothing that my parents ever said suggested to me that there were different expectations for me and my two sisters. Quite the opposite in fact. My parents encouraged all three of us to work hard in school and pursue our passions. That my dad worked and mom didn’t was just a fact of life, and conveniently fit the narrative that the rest of my surroundings reinforced—most of my friends’ dads worked and moms stayed at home.
Fast-forward to college—I was still blind to the challenges women face in the workplace. I had no idea my friends were being passed over for jobs because they were women. Or that they, like many women, didn’t bother to apply because they “didn’t feel qualified.” One of my good friends was Co-President of the Stanford Chapter of 85Broads (now Ellevate), a Professional Women’s Network. I don’t think I ever once asked her about it.
After graduation, I noticed gender inequity for the first time. I was a first-year analyst at a consulting firm. My starting class was roughly equally split between men and women, and that split held true among the more junior employees. But there were only a handful of women partners. This bothered me but I didn’t know what to do about it. I did nothing to find out why this disparity existed or what could be done to change it. I personally had great relationships with a few of the senior partners at the firm. Little did I know that this reflects dynamics across industries—men are more likely to build relationships with and be sponsored by senior leaders at firms, to ask for projects they want, and to ask for promotions.
During my second year at the firm, I was staffed with two recent hires—she was a PhD hired at the second level and he was an MBA hired at the third level. Midway through the project, she asked me if it was normal for level-three consultants, or more senior people in general, to ask junior employees to “take care of the parking receipt” or “order the food.” It wasn’t normal at our firm (as far as I knew). Keep in mind I was the most junior person on the team. He never asked me to take care of his receipts. The things that MBA did and said outraged me!
This was a turning point for me. I still didn’t know what to do about it beyond expressing my support for her. But my shock and anger woke me up. The more I looked, the more I paid attention, the more I saw. Gender inequity was and is everywhere. As a white male born in the US, I’ve had it easy—I’ve had just about every advantage in the world and I had been blind to that fact for most of my life.
In 2015 I started at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a community which relishes having hard conversations. During the first quarter, the school hosted a diversity training session in which a classmate anonymously shared that she had been told, by a male student, that “women had an easier time getting in to business school even if they were less qualified.” I’d witnessed sexism in the workplace, but I did not expect to see it at a university in one of the most progressive parts of the country.
Hearing this comment, and how it had affected my female classmate, spurred me to become more proactive at school. I started asking more questions and getting more involved. I joined WIMmen, the male ally organization within the GSB’s Women in Management club that works to bring more men in to the conversation around gender equity. I attended dinners with themes like “splitting work in the home” or “negotiating dual-career relationships.” Immersion in the topic sparked a passion, and now co-chairing the WIMmen committee is one of the experiences at the GSB that I most value.
My hope in writing about gender equity is partly selfish: I want to learn—I know that the more I write, the more I think, the more conversations I have—the more I’ll learn. I want to learn why my mom, and countless other women, cut their careers short or get stuck and don’t manage to make it to senior roles. I want to learn how to build a diverse and inclusive organization that purposefully acknowledges and addresses bias head on. I want to learn how I can be a better friend, colleague, partner, and manager not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because I know my organization will be more successful as a result.
Hopefully writing about my learning journey will give an opening to other men to start down this road. I want to send the message that it’s okay to not have the answers—I certainly don’t. Being interested, engaged, and diving in to the conversation is a good first step. We can learn together.