Recently, I went out after work with a few colleagues who are in their 20s and early 30s. As I sat in the hipster lounge sipping my tequila, listening to these women talk about their lives, I couldn't help but see their futures unfold.
A smart and talented 34-year-old woman was about to destroy her upcoming salary negotiations and end up with 25% less money than she could have secured. An ambitious and creative 25-year-old woman would soon be stalled and stuck in a job she hated. An independent and confident 27-year-old woman was certain to get married to the wrong person because it was what she was "supposed to do."
I'm not psychic. I have no crystal ball. I don't even know these women very deeply. But I have this prophetic vision because of some truth I've acquired in my 40s. It's a truth that could have prevented many of my peers and myself from enduring similar trials in our own professional lives.
I'm not talking about something learned in professional development training or from mentors. In fact, I'm talking about something we fear and avoid like the plague in the workplace. And it has everything to do with what happens at midnight in a cocktail bar in sexy lighting. This thing we DO NOT talk about is what I believe to be the most powerful key to unlock equality in the workplace.
Our relationship as women with our sexuality.
The power of our sexuality as women and our level of comfort with that power is like Wonder Woman's invisible lasso.
Just a few years ago, I had a realization that sexuality was not dangerous to my professional career. In fact, harnessing the power of my sexuality as a leader was a key to making more money, being in control of my own professional destiny, and achieving my dreams.
And this has absolutely nothing and everything to do with my vagina. Let me explain.
I am talking about sexuality, not actual sex. These are different things. They are very closely related, which is why HR departments perpetuate the idea that sexuality is something that could result in lawsuits.
As I define sexuality, it's the fact that I'm an animal. I may be an evolved and upright animal who walks on two legs and loves shoes and 12 course tasting menus, but I'm an animal nonetheless. And I don't know about you, but I have watched a lot of National Geographic and most of the animals on Earth have a deep, visceral relationship to their sexuality.
As evolved human animals, we don't dance around with our tail feathers erect or mount each other in the copy room (I'm not advising that) but we do interact with each other as animals and as sexual beings. We may be married, single, or "it's complicated," but it doesn't actually matter. Because sexuality isn't about being sexual with each other, it's about owning our own power.
I had to feel my power to access it. That involved a level of exploration that led to the realization that I didn't have to listen to the bullshit I'd been served to convince me to deny my own sexuality. My entire life as a girl and then as a woman was filled with messages from all sources that told me that to feel sexy, to feel confident, and to connect my power to a sense that I am a sexual being was irresponsible and made me someone of questionable sense.
In addition, as girls and women we are told that being sexual beings makes us a target for violence of all kinds. NOTHING we do makes us a target of violence. The only reason we are targets is because someone else is looking for targets. It has nothing to do with us. These messages of fear keep women from owning our powerful sexuality.
What no one ever told me was to trust myself and my sexuality. When I learned to feel confident and desirable, to get what I wanted sexually, and shed shame, I was able to channel that energy into my whole person. It doesn't mean that I ooze sex or proposition people over the conference table, but what it means is that I feel whole inside. I feel beautiful, desirable, and confident in myself as a sexual being. And I take that with me, at 44, when I go in to a meeting to ask for money or face a career moment that requires a bold move.
The young women I had drinks with the other night were both single and married. The prophecy I saw unfold was based on their interactions and conversations. I watched as they found someone in the bar attractive and proceeded to dive into all the reasons why they would NEVER approach someone for fear of rejection. Over a few drinks, I heard the truth that they haven't ever had an orgasm with a partner. I heard them talk about their desire for sex and intimacy but then describe a sense of shame unless they are in a relationship that's leading to marriage.
None of these are character faults, but rather a manifestation of lack of confidence in their own sexuality. To think all these things don't get brought into work is preposterous. Lack of confidence follows us everywhere.
Culturally, we have created an unspoken manifesto about women's relationship to their sexuality. Women in touch with their sexuality are most often seen as promiscuous or unprofessional. While the non-sexual woman is seen as motherly, hard, and unattractive--the woman without warmth. Either way, women often face this hurdle on their professional journey. This is not about putting more soldiers into either of those camps. This is about redefining what it means for a woman to feel deep power in her sexuality and have that look many different ways but ultimately remove that hurdle on her professional journey.
Is it possible that inequality at work exists in large part because we have allowed men's powerful relationship with their sexuality to set the tone in the workplace, and let our own sexuality as women be banished? What would the world look like if this next generation of women owned their sexual power and learned to wield it in a way that amplified their overall power?
My hypothesis is that this would radically shift the issues of workplace equality in ways we cannot even imagine.
"I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we'd known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later--or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!" ― Frans de Waal, Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are