Closing the Gender Gap One Story at a Time
Closing the Gender Gap One Story at a Time
Founder and Principal at Visual Insight, Faculty Member at Future of Talent Institute
One of my favorite stories uncovered while working on the Women Inventors and Innovators Mural is what I call a “tale of two women” from the early 19th century. One woman was the celebrated inventor of the first version of the computer. The other was a frustrated countess struggling to get people to listen to her ideas about how machines could represent ideas, not just numbers. I’ll tell you how the story ends: Both are Ada Lovelace. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, she is now honored for her pivotal invention. But in her day she faced enormous challenges to get her ideas across. There was little support for women tech geniuses 200 years ago. Surprisingly, we hear similar issues today, mostly in hushed conversations. Often women have two stories as Ada Lovelace did: The public one that glows with success and hides their challenges versus the private story they do not share at the risk of sounding whiney. We are hoping to create a new way: Helping women share the solutions they have found to overcome pressures, so they can inspire others to do the same.
I will share some “aha’s” that have emerged from our project. But first a little background: The mural is a 250-plus year timeline, with a detailed backend database, now depicted in a 3D gallery—recently featured in this Royal Society for the Arts article. The women featured on the mural have contributed an invention or innovation that is a first, and that has positively affected at least a million lives since. It is a resource for teachers, students, corporations, nonprofits and individual women who are looking for insights into how to solve the wicked problem of the gender gap. We call it a wicked problem because almost everyone professes to want equal pay, representation, and power for women and yet we are so far from that goal. We realize there are many subtle factors at work, and we clearly need some new approaches.
We discovered one important approach as we looked at the vast landscape of history for some patterns. We saw that great leaps in women’s collective stature and impact in society were preceded by a cultural structure enabling new conversations. The graphic at the beginning of this article tells the tale of how conversations empowered women to make dramatic breakthroughs.
The quilting bees of the Agricultural Age were practical gatherings to create warm bed-covers but also served as a gathering place for women to support one another in their hard life as farmers. In the early 1900’s, “women’s clubs” emerged ostensibly as a way to socialize, but became places where social change began as women tackled community issues including poverty, child labor, and challenges of sudden urbanization of the family. In the 1960’s, women emerged from the challenges of the domestic 1950’s by gathering to talk about their feelings, aspirations, creativity, politics and commitment to have impact in a world at a time when most institutions were led by men. As women became integrated into the mainstream of work at the close of the 20th century, many systemic drivers of the gender-gap still persisted but there was a taboo against talking about the differences men and women. In the 2000’s, new discussions began about gender differences in values, approaches, personal interactions, goals and needs. The “Lean In” movement launched by Sheryl Sandberg provided a way for women to support one another in the current business environment.
What types of conversations will take us to the next level? We believe the most dynamic conversations today are those occurring between men and women, sharing their stories to understand one another better. These conversations are not about helping women conform to existing government and organizational institutions, but rather about how men and women together can transform the institutions so they reflect more diverse values. We are seeing these conversation happening in many ways: Informally, women are confiding in more depth one-on-one about their experiences, enabling men to support them—for example, amplifying the voices of women during meetings and in media, and, more radical yet being willing to give up some of their salary to bring women up to the same rate of pay for the same work. More formally, a growing number of workplaces are holding sessions on the phenomenon of unconscious bias, in which participants acknowledge and share their own hidden (often to themselves) prejudices.
We have found that stories are key. Instead of speaking in generalities and abstractions, people talk about what actually helped them with their struggles toward their achievements. Ada Lovelace, for example, was known for her positive self-talk. She told herself—and others—she was a genius with a vision; this may have been dismissed as delusions of grandeur at the time, but history tells us she was right. We’ve learned how women are talking more candidly about worries that, a la Ada Lovelace, they’ll be labelled as full-of-themselves if they tout their own gifts. They’re also sharing with male colleagues various nuanced issues including the plight of being interrupted in meetings. Out of these conversations have come commitments by men to develop more empathy so they can support women’s voices. From successful women, we’ve learned various tricks such as looking in the mirror and practicing to say during a negotiation. Other women have formed real-time support groups, so they can just send a text and get advice or an ‘attagirl’ when they’re facing a challenge.
Our women’s mural is just one of many projects that are helping women share the deeper stories of their challenges and successes. We are seeing a blossoming of women’s stories. One example is the recently published book Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change – a chorus of voices of women who are changing the world. We were privileged to host one of the editors, Monique Morrow, at our 2016 Future of Talent. What’s most notable about this book is the diversity of approaches, personalities, motivations and achievements by women. One consistent theme seems to be the importance of having a positive impact on the world, not just achieving fame and fortune. We also learned how having a larger vision enables them to ignore the critical chatter and persevere. I always love hearing the gritty realities of how they kept faith in themselves—often from support systems outside their organization. One woman in the book told about her decision to take every criticism as a challenge to be better, never as a personal affront.
Let me tell you a personal story: I’ve been writing about women’s issues since the 1990s as a newspaper reporter and book author long before I started working in visual facilitation. With a team of co-authors, I wrote Goodbye Good Girl in 1998 and Claiming Your Creative Self in 1999—they are long out of print. I am not promoting them here but sharing about these books because they were comprised of women’s stories that profoundly changed my life. I followed the advice of women in Goodbye Good Girl who chose the self over the external criticism. And I followed the advice of women in Claiming Your Creative Self who talked about being faithful to one’s gifts and talents, listening for the wordless inspiration that comes from art, music and poetry and ignoring the chatter. Their stories gave me courage to change my career from writing to visual communication and I’ve never looked back. I know the power of story from my own experience. There is nothing more powerful than an authentic voice sharing one’s lived reality. Almost twenty years after writing those books, I now see that sharing our stories—and listening to others—will lead us into the next burst of women’s influence on our planet.