They say that if you ask someone an important question it tells them one thing about you, but their answer will tell you everything about them.
I had my chance to put this to the test a couple years ago at a company town hall meeting with the Vice President of Engineering. I feared being labeled as feminine because my question related to work-life balance. But people knew I was one of the few female engineers, so I guess I wasn’t telling them something that they didn’t already know about me. What I was feeling was so accurately described in (Un)Skirtting the Issues, “Women don’t want to be the exception in any workplace circumstance.” I knew that there were men out there who expressed concern that their lives crumbled as work came first. It was more acceptable for managers to take time off for divorce court than to make it home to have dinner with their families.
My hand raised high, the wireless microphone floated over to me as I took one last deep breath. I don’t consider myself shy or timid, but I feared outing myself as someone who was tired of work sucking the life out of her, I knew I needed to ask.
“There is a lot of great innovation going on here, and I appreciate your technical leadership. Can you please share what your office is doing, or plans to do, to help those of us who desire more balance between work and our lives outside of work?”
The Vice President seemed to shift uncomfortably in his chair, and the first words that he choose told me everything I needed to know. “I wasn’t expecting this question.”
Despite invalidating my question in front of hundreds of my peers, I still had hope that the Vice President would turn this around and become a well-intentioned man (WIM) and say something like, “I don’t have an answer, but this seems important. Can you please stop by my office tomorrow morning and we can talk more about this?”
Instead he choose to not recognize the problem. He rambled on about how working long hours and skipping lunch breaks allows his best employees to thrive. The speakers echoed with his words that valued people who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on a Saturday but at work. Despite not having the answer I expected, I had an answer.
When an opportunity presented itself to my family a year later, it was easy to say “yes, I’ll leave my job.”
My story isn’t unique, as demonstrated in the well-researched examples in Bonnie and Jessica’s book. They share many stories of women struggling to feel valued and have their opinions included in the workplace. Better yet, these brave women share answers to these problems, and an action list for WIMs. Many men have approached me wanting to help advocate for women in the workplace, and I never had a good answer for what exactly they could do, until I read this book.
This holiday season there are three people that would benefit from owning a copy of (Un)Skirting the Issues: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned Man in Today’s Workplace, 1) WIMs, 2) Women who want to know what they can ask from their WIMS, and 3) men who need an eye opening experience on what it’s like to be in someone else shoes. I hope that you get one of these people in the office gift exchange this year.