In the midst of Todd Akin ignorance, an article by Rebecca Solnit resurfaced this week on The Problem With Men Explaining Things. In it, she discusses the problem of mansplaining: that phenomenon by which many men assume – often wrongfully and patronizingly – that those they are talking to have total ignorance of the subject matter at hand. While everyone is susceptible to dealing with such behavior, it is an occurrence that is typically reserved for a female audience. In her article, Solnit recalls meeting such a man at a party who upon learning the topic of a book she had recently written, proceeded to tell her everything he knew about a different, “very important” book that came out on the same subject. As it turns out, he was discussing her book all along. She remembers her friend trying to stop the man’s lesson, recounting that “she had to say ‘That’s her book’ three or four times before he finally took it in.” Her story, besides reminding us of our own experiences with mansplaining, highlights the fact just because a woman is in a position to have a strong voice, doesn’t mean she will be heard.
We often measure society’s progress with regard to women’s rights by the number of women who occupy positions of power– whether it’s in the board room, elected office, or academia – but it is much harder to measure how influential they are, or how many of them gain informal power by becoming part of coveted “inner circles.” The New York Times published a piece this week, revealing that “since Larry Page became chief executive and reorganized Google last year, women have been pushed out of his inner circle and passed over for promotions.” The most high-level casualty being that of Marissa Mayer who left the company last month to head Yahoo.
Even Barack Obama, who looks like Feminist-in-Chief this week compared to his political foes, has been criticized for fostering a boys club through his all-male basketball games, inadvertently giving male staffers greater opportunities for bonding and access. While Obama has appointed women to top level positions, with Valerie Jarrett among his most trusted advisors, the extra male bonding time was viewed by one female staffer as “annoying,” and her lack of interest in sports “mildly alienating.”
So how do women become seen and heard, and enter these inner circles once they’ve reached success? Solnit takes this approach:
Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.
This process will be a long one, but will depend on women helping other women. And this is how Google has begun addressing their shortcomings in hiring new women and seeing others rise in the ranks: “simple steps like making sure prospective hires meet other women during their interviews and extending maternity leaves seem to be producing results,” the Times piece reported. In addition, because fewer women nominate themselves for promotions (a step in Google’s policy for advancement) “senior women at Google now host workshops to encourage women to nominate themselves.”
Rather than biding our time to be invited into the “inner circle,” women must at least create circles for the women after them, just as these senior women at Google decided to do. Madeline Albright stressed this relationship best when she said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Until there is a dramatic shift in the culture away from defaulting to the male voice as the authority, women are going to continue to be left out of the opportunities that cultivate leadership, but they have the power to help others along the way. Of course it’s hard to create a networking opportunity quite like shooting hoops with the President, but I imagine there’s great value in having Valerie Jarrett on your team.