I am the senior sponsor for the Allies workstream to my employer’s Women’s Network. The key reason for doing it was that it was clearly the right thing to do, but I also had some experiences over the last year that exposed how narrow and privileged my world view was.
Here is the article I wrote for my employer’s intranet to explain some of my motivation (lightly edited to remove organisation specific details). I’m sharing it with my blog followers as a challenge for us all to find our blind spots.
Working here I have grown accustomed to being the dumbest person in the room. We tell new recruits they’ll be working with really smart people, but we’re a bit coy about the implications.
Anyway, someone needs to ask the stupid questions. So it came as a shock, but no surprise, to learn during this year of gaping blind spots in my world view. Three incidents occurred which held up a mirror to show me what I had been missing.
The first was on the way home from a rare evening out with my wife. We were standing at an above-ground station, waiting for the tube. A train pulled in and pulled out opposite us, and my wife asked, “Did you see what just happened?”
I hadn’t noticed anything and said so.
“The woman on the opposite platform looked into the carriage, saw there was only one other person there, and walked up the train to a busier carriage.”
I’ve been commuting on the tube since I was eleven and never felt concerns over my personal safety. A near-empty carriage is an excuse to man-spread and put my bag on the seat beside me.
It hadn’t occurred to me that for some it was a risk that had to be mitigated. Mirror, blind spot.
The second incident was while packing for our summer holiday. With a few t-shirts and pairs of shorts getting my clothes sorted took less time than organising my photography equipment.
It was then that I encountered the organisational Rubik’s Cube that was packing for my daughters (14 & 12).
They’re very sweet, and for my sake maintain the fiction that all their problems can be solved with a hug and a kiss on the nose (then they go and talk to their mum).
But the inescapable truth is that they are young women now. Packing for them meant catering for the uncertainties of female physiology, which could defy both science and almanacs. Each potential outcome meant thinking through different sets of clothes, and contingencies.
I was academically aware of all this. I have a GCSE in biology and I’ve been married for a long time. Of course, by the time I met my wife she had all of this sorted out, and neatly, privately hidden away.
With my daughters, I was watching them learn how to manage for the first time. This time the mirror showed the reality that women live with, but which I had the privilege of never considering.
Behind every female colleague sitting beside me are additional layers of logistics, planning and preparation that I am free from. And that is just the surface level stuff I can wrap my head around.
The final incident came in the form of a book. My elder daughter did a solo speech at school based on Invisible Women (exposing data bias in a world designed for men) by Caroline Criado Perez. We talked a lot about Perez’s observations, for example she notes that:
“… when a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man … And it is all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom.” (p186)
Many years ago I worked for a multinational car manufacturer, planning the vehicles that were up to five years away from market.
We’d identified female buyers as a key demographic to target, and our research told us they were more interested in safety than men.
In all our discussions on safety features and NCAP ratings, not once did the thought arise to have a female crash test dummy.
The mirror (mumble mumble years later) showed what we did not think to question, which should be unacceptable.
Ask the stupid questions
I have learned this year that the world is more profoundly unequal than I had imagined. I’ve been the beneficiary of layers of privilege I have been blind to. This is why I’m standing up as an ally to the Women’s Network.
I’m not willing to accept my ignorance, and I want to learn how to change myself, and maybe nudge the world along a little as I do so.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking “he’s clearly an idiot, this is all obvious”. Don’t worry I get that a lot, like I said: someone has to ask the stupid questions. My challenge to you is – if you see it so clearly what are you doing about it? If you’re doing nothing, well maybe you need a different mirror.
The world doesn’t need another male voice telling women what to do. I’m getting involved to listen and to learn.
[the article then had a call to action to our Allies launch event]
More on this theme here:
From the Society of Women Engineers on what makes men become allies