The Only Man in the Room

 

I am a feminist, a man, and proud to make that statement.

What does it mean to be male and a feminist? To answer that, I turn to a colleague, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Stony Brook University in New York, Dr. Michael Kimmel. “Feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women— as well as with other men. Feminism loves men enough to expect them to act more honorably and actually believes them capable of doing so.”

Was I always someone whom feminism would embrace? No. There were periods in my career when I was, by declaration of some, a “DB,” a jerk, and far worse pejoratives. I did not always consider women as, at the minimum, workplace equals.

Thankfully, I matured, improved, and become more inclusive. I developed into a feminist.

 

Feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women — as well as with other men. 

 

My opinion of and attitude toward women were benefited by such men as Michael Kimmel, Chuck Shelton, and Ray Arata, as well as organizations such as AnitaB.org (formerly the Anita Borg Institute), NCWIT (National Center for Women and Information Technology), and Greatheart Consulting.

As a child and a young adult, I admired and respected the women in my life: my mother, grandmother, neighbors, school teachers, and Cub Scout leaders. I respected and admired each for what she knew and what each taught me. Yet, I did not see them as career oriented.

When my career started, the women at work were primarily in administrative and Human Resources positions. The graduating class from the engineering schools at San Jose State at that time included fewer than a dozen women. It was very much a world for male engineers and technicians. Seldom did I meet women engineers or technicians. The few I did get to know were during business travels outside of the US.

 

 
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During my career, there were times when maleness was very pronounced. I heard of workplace “contests” in which female employees were ranked and rated by many of the men. At one San Jose-based company there had been a bulletin board that listed the “top” women in the company by categories such as – legs, figure, smile, and other attributes.

Though the lists were removed before I joined the company in 1980, its legacy and removal were lamented by many male employees. At a different Silicon Valley company, several of the men would display flash cards with the numbers 5 – 10 as women walked by their desks. Why 5 and nothing less? Because, “we wanted to show a level of respect.”

Such were the days of my early career (yes, there are more horrific tales – possibly to tell in a future blog) and my journey towards being an advocate for women.

Regardless of my respect and admiration of women, some persuasion was required of me before I promoted a woman who managed our sales orders to a sales position. She wanted the role, knew the customers, and though not a technical person, understood how our products were manufactured and tested. Promoting her was a lesson well learned -- she surpassed each of the salesmen in new business creation and revenue generation. From that moment on, I sought out the potential in others especially women. If a female employee demonstrated the interest and the potential, she won the opportunity to advance.

Though progress towards equality was occurring in me and around me, it was nonetheless customary to be in meeting rooms occupied almost exclusively by men. Any woman present was likely there to take notes or offer advice relative to personnel issues. The women present, if any, were not there to serve as decision makers.

 

Though progress towards equality was occurring in me and around me, it was nonetheless customary to be in meeting rooms occupied almost exclusively by men.

 

A few years ago, while working at a college radio station, I played a James Brown classic, “It’s a Man’s World.” The song served as the lead-in to a gender-equality talk-show I was hosting. The theme of the show was the emergence of women and women’s voices in the technological sector. A topic especially pertinent to the area in which I lived and worked – Silicon Valley. The song was significant because to many “leaders” with whom I worked the workplace was/is a man’s world. Men take much of the credit of creating and inventing what we use each day.

So, how does it feel then to be on the obverse side of the “coin”? To be the man who walks into a meeting room filled with only women -- a workplace where the CEO, CFO, VP’s, and individual contributors are women. My awareness and awakening came in July 2014. The meeting room was occupied by twenty-five articulate, creative, educated, and highly capable women… and, me.

The CEO was delivering her opening remarks to the team when I entered. She halted her delivery as the Senior VP, my first-day-of-work escort, entered the room with me at her side. Forty-eight eyes were upon me, some welcoming, some suspicious, and others curious.

“Ladies,” the CEO said, “I am pleased to introduce our new Director of Operations, Michael Ivers.”

I smiled, and hoped that my shoes were tied, my shirt wasn’t stained, my hair was nicely combed, and that there weren’t any rankings, listings, ratings, or flashcards.

I wondered for a moment if I should offer to get coffee. That thought, and others quickly dissipated as my manager offered me a chair and instructed one of the younger women present to find another one in the adjacent meeting room.

“Welcome Michael. Please tell us about yourself.”

I stood up, walked to the front of the room, and explained what I have done in my career and why I was there: to work with you, our partners and sponsors to improve opportunities for women technologists. The words weren’t rote or lip-service, they were spoken from the heart. As I provided information about myself, I recalled the Bulletin Board, the Flash Cards, the scribes in the meetings, the coffee servers, and all of those male technicians and engineers with whom I had worked. I considered my daughters and the world they are entering as they begin their careers. I smiled at my new coworkers because I was now part of a corporate world far different than the one I joined in the early 1970s, and one that continues to change thanks to the efforts of many.

 

 
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A few months after hosting the radio talk-show, I was on-the-air again. This time I mentioned James Brown’s song, “Yes, it still is a man’s world James because parity has not yet been achieved; but, it is also a world that is different from the one you sang of. It is a world that is becoming more like the one Helen Reddy recorded. A world that is becoming more inclusive.” I cued up and played “I am Woman.”

“I am woman hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”

Yes, I am a male feminist, and proud to be working with Greatheart Consulting, an organization that develops inclusive leaders and connects with women and men across all levels of leadership and dimensions of difference. I fully believe I have evolved into the sort of man who is ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women.