I’ve been writing about Diversity & Inclusion for my clients for over a decade, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone in business mention the F-word (to be clear: Feminism). So I was delighted to hear it bandied about with such ease at the business conference I spoke at last week. That shouldn’t have surprised me–it was the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, after all. But, then, I’ve been away from campus for a while.
One of the high points of the conference for me turned out to be Beth Andres-Beck‘s presentation “Teaching Feminism to the Business World.”
I admit I was skeptical at first. How can you teach feminism to a business world that doesn’t even say the word aloud? It seemed an impossibly optimistic goal.
Did I say “optimistic”? That’s if she worked in an industry that kind of “gets” this inclusion thing. But Andres-Beck works in tech. Which makes her seem less optimistic than delusional: the Donna Quixote of Silicon Valley.
But she’s not crazy; she’s a visionary.
And she’s also not tucked into a female-friendly (friendlier?) corner of the tech industry, like marketing or PR. She’s a freaking coder: in the trenches with guys all day, every day, often the only woman in the room. And currently the only woman programmer in her company—but at least the tiny start-up has achieved overall gender parity. Her side gig as a speaker and teacher is, I suspect, her effort not just to drive demographic change in the tech industry but, more importantly, to drive inclusion.
Feminism, confidence, and humor
I’ll start with an “of course” moment from her talk. Want to solve an intractable problem? Reframe it:
“It’s not about women in tech. It’s about the behavior of men in tech.”
Are you slapping your forehead? I was. She also reframed the dreaded Impostor Syndrome many of us face:
“Impostor Syndrome is a rational response to insufficient feedback.”
I had talked about Impostor Syndrome in my presentation at the conference, but I framed it as something that’s a natural part of life (heck, even Lin-Manuel Miranda has felt like a fraud sometimes). But of course businesses can mitigate this doubt by offering their people more frequent and more useful feedback. My clients seem to be moving in this direction already. Let’s hope it helps.
Andres-Beck refuses to believe she’s alone in her quest to see the tech industry become more feminist:
“Out of any audience, some of the people already agree with me. They just need someone to give them a label and a team.”
“Instead of coming in with the assumption that people are going to attack me, I come in with the assumption that I’m right. Which is at least as true. And when people hear what I say, they hear my confidence and how sure I am that this will help the problem we’re dealing with.”
I added the emphasis above. Does it seem arrogant in print? In person Andres-Beck delivers the line with unquestionable sincerity—and a great sense of humor. Like all successful speakers, she recognizes that humor plays an essential role in the process of spreading an idea.
Win people’s attention and you earn their trust:
“If you tell them something about themselves that’s true, they will believe what you say about other people because obviously you are an insightful person.”
And then you can tell a story—take your listeners on a journey. Andres-Beck says she starts with “an obvious example people will agree with,” and moves from there to something they can apply, then something they can relate to, and then “to the most radical” suggestion. Some will follow her all the way to the end; others may drop off along the way—but Andres-Beck’s technique assures that almost all of her listeners will move away from their initial position.
Maybe it’s time for lightning rods
“We create our own social environment. Whatever we have is something we’ve bought into and we’re reinforcing it by showing up every day.”
As we speak up and create change and try to create a social environment in which everyone can thrive, do we risk becoming lightning rods for criticism? Beth Andres-Beck says, “I use my sincerity as a shield,” so people who want to attack her have to “violate a bunch of social norms.”
Still, the self-described “science fiction nerd” reminds us that lightning rods can be useful:
“If you don’t build that lightning rod, how are you going to reanimate that corpse?”