Women, women everywhere - but not there?!?
Get mad, get even, become a Gender Avenger
I am asking you to join me in an organized effort to erase the inattention to women as equals of men. How often have you attended a conference with mostly male or all male panels? How often have you watched legislative hearings featuring men and more men? How often have you wondered where the women's voices were in magazine roundtables, anthologies, and the like? Seeing is believing. Women as equals will only be the norm when it is seen as the norm.
In 1955, at the age of 12, I had my first encounter with ideological rage. For a social studies assignment I picked a book from my parents' library: Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast. My sixth grade teacher said I could not read it. When I told my mother, she grabbed me, almost threw me in our car, and drove directly to my school. She barged into the principal's office and started to yell - and I mean YELL - at him that "my daughter can read whatever she wants to read and no one, no one can tell her otherwise!" I was mortified. When we got home, my mother told me about Joseph McCarthy, black listing, the fundamentals of democracy, and instructed me to tell the teacher that I was reading it no matter what he said. I entered class with much trepidation. Before I could say anything, the teacher informed me that I could read the book. I saw my mother in a new light. She got mad about something important to her and she made something happen and, while doing so, made sure her children absorbed her values. As a result, much of my political life has been based on the belief that if you got mad enough and did "something" you could change what you were mad about. On occasion, I did. And I want to again with Gender Avengers.
My mother had no outlet beyond yelling at one principal. Over the past decades of my own political career - I saw who was invisible and, most often, like my mother, yelled into a void.
Now, a photo of a Congressional hearing on contraception with all male panelists goes viral. Sheryl Sandberg gives a much welcomed and ballyhooed TED speech and, soon thereafter, is faced with internet backlash about the lack of women on the Facebook board.
However, like so much on the web, the attraction of particular incidents is unpredictable and often short-lived. Let's face it: highlighting the "exceptional" incident can only go so far in changing attitudes and mores.
It is a time to create a community of Gender Avengers.
Everywhere possible when women are unrepresented or underrepresented, an "avenger" will take note, take action, or ask someone else to take action. Omission or co-mission, doesn't matter. Neither "I am sure it was just an oversight" nor "as you know I try really hard" will be acceptable. No power should be too big and no public slight should be too small to be included. The more of us who take note, the more likely change will occur. This effort requires speaking out even when it is uncomfortable. No one wants to become the meme, "there she goes again". And, it can be hard to risk the subtle and not-so-subtle retribution that can result from speaking up in public. All too often we are made to feel that silence will improve our chances of success making it more possible to move into positions where "we can make a difference."
This is not all about professional women or women with high profiles. In fact, unionized low-wage workers are role models for the community I hope to create. Think of the woman janitor or the woman home care worker who puts everything on the line when she stands up to the bosses. She takes the risks so that her fellow workers and her own family's life might improve (think Norma Rae). She acts with courage and pride. She is a good example for us all. These workers have a support system that is not a vague "women's movement" but an institution with leadership committed to their goals and who can speak directly to power when workers are inhibited for one reason or another.
Let's build our own digital "union" of supporters. Let's start with courage and pride and respond as soon as a slight is observed. If situations arise that are complicated or genuinely awkward, daunting or consequential, let's find others, like myself, who no longer possess "official status" or "ambition" and who have likely never been accused of being "shy", and who, with big contact lists could step into the fray.
There could be a "Gender Avengers" website. It would be a place where avenger actions would be listed under a heading "I spoke out" and a place where calls for intervention could be made. Until we had a matching algorithm, "allies at the ready" would be on alert to check the website for opportunities to take action.
There could be a classic Hall of Fame/Hall of Shame listing. The best outcome would be a web site supported by so many that it would become truly important that folks be in the Hall of Fame and totally embarrassing to appear in the Hall of Shame.
#genderavenger could alert those on Twitter of incidents and act as a bat signal à la the #nobuyingitcampaign from Miss Representation.
The place to start is with individual action. The time to start is now. Opportunities -- sadly -- abound. They can be found among iconic institutions and in seemingly small bore infractions. How could that be in 2013? Let me count the ways. For starters, every four years Harvard's Kennedy School hosts a review of the Presidential campaign featuring a day-long discussion among the campaign leadership and the press. The day is capped off with a panel discussion in the HKS forum overflowing with students. Imagine my reaction to the 2012 panel made up of all white men -- two from the Romney campaign, two from the Obama campaign, and moderator David Gregory. No Stephanie Cutter, no Beth Myers, no Gwen Ifill. I took to Facebook and posted that I would not attend the forum and the reason why. When a power outage caused the event to be cancelled I posted again, "God heard our plaintive cry. She turned off the lights and the forum event was cancelled." Lots of likes and comments later, I received an email pointing out the strong record of HKS including women at these events. But I wasn't arguing the past -- after all I had been on one of those panels in 2000 as Bill Bradley's campaign manager. I was arguing the present. And, if my posting got the attention of folks in charge, many of whom I respect, maybe there will be some modest effect on the future.
More recently I received a copy of a 700+ page tome entitled Every Vote Equal. The front cover featured six primary authors (no women) and 16 commentators (one woman). I know one of the authors from my political past. No matter that I haven't talked to him in a decade or more. I emailed saying I was "astounded/appalled/apoplectic to discover the array of authors and commentators featured on the cover of this year's Every Vote Equal.... Let's see, what percentage of voters are women? And, the editors couldn't find any...." Within minutes he emailed back, clearly horribly embarrassed, taking full responsibility and pledging it would never happen again and asking to get together. It took just a few minutes to change someone's sensitivity to gender exclusion.
Certainly I am not alone. Recently Rebecca Rosen from The Atlantic got mad after attending one more tech conference with an all-male line-up and created a pledge form to end the practice. She quickly acquired 300 signers and one -- out of embarrassment -- cancelled his event.
And just last week there was a full-page ad for a Dow Jones private equity conference with nary a women featured. I could call an old political friend now in the business but I bet someone has a better connection.
Let's get going. Try it. Any circumstance, any time -- all voices count. The outcome could make you smile or groan. Either way you will have a story to tell that could influence others. And an experience that should reinforce one of Sheryl Sandberg's many important, aligned Lean In points: we belong at the table and when invited into the room should be sure to sit at the table.
Want to be part of the founding advisory group and help think through next steps? Or agree to be a "senior avenger at the ready" when needed to make a connection? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org
And, please, sign up - and ask others to sign up - to be part of the effort at http://genderavenger.com