The women’s table
I remember the first time I really noticed the chasm.
I was with my folks, visiting friends from out of town. Eager to catch up, I was particularly excited to chat with my dad. He is, after all, the best listener I know, and some career developments had put me in a quandary. I stuck close to his side, waiting for the right moment to launch into my deliberations aloud. The host asked for my drink of choice. I said, “I’ll take whatever he’s having.”
Bourbon was poured. Not finding a moment at first to interject, I eased into the conversation buzzing around me: a new CEO at some company or other, the state of imports and exports, politics a little too conservative for my liking. And yet, there I was, a sponge to it all. Happy to be able to intake information, process it, and then accept or reject tidbits based on my own experience and collected knowledge — or postpone judgment altogether for further investigation. I felt proud to be tracking; to be a part of the club. I vaguely remember correcting someone who misnamed the CEO of Hewlett-Packard (with so few female CEOs in tech, Meg Whitman’s name was not one I was likely to forget), and I didn’t even bat an eye. From there, I was off to the races. I was engaged. Involved. Contributing. Actively listening, but also finding my footing to add my voice to the mix. It seemed an opportune moment for me to weigh in, rather than hang back in the wings. It was an offering, of sorts, to a much more seasoned crowd: young(er) yet informed input, infusing some healthy — if strategically timed — debate.
Moments like this make me feel alive.
This precipice has always been the thing that gives me deepest satisfaction from intimate social gatherings: the point where substance overtakes small talk. Where people get real. Where disagreements crop up, only to be forgotten — if not resolved, at least broached. If insult is added to injury, the blow is slightly lessened when valuing the intentions of the offending party. If we can’t bring up the uncomfortable and honest among the company of close friends, where does important dialogue begin and where does it end?
This crossroad, however, is where representation matters most. The times where trust builds openness. The interactions where guards come down and learning can happen, even in the most subtle admissions and smallest sparks of recognition. Where divergent opinions illuminate new points of view and can be held — in the best case scenarios — with less skepticism coming from someone in the flesh, in close proximity. At that moment, however, I noticed all too starkly something I had experienced many times before in professional settings; but until that point, I hadn’t given as much weight to its social counterpart.
I was, it suddenly became clear to me, the only woman at the men’s table.
Congregated nearby, the women — my mother, her friends, and women my age — were happily abuzz in the midst of their own conversations. Centered, I was sure (because I had floated over to see for myself), on matters of the home, the children, or future preparations for both. I knew deep down this division was still a fact of life for many (some “men-are-from-Mars,-women-are-from-Venus”-type nonsense)…so why did that instance, on that particular day strike me square between the eyes, where previous situations had left me undisturbed?
That was 2017. I can’t say what it was about that evening that hit a nerve, but it was the first time I realized how normal this division can be — by way of me overlooking or even benefiting from it before — and how much work there is yet to be done at the individual and community levels to raise the standards of conversations everywhere, for everyone.
I’m not suggesting that conversations surrounding family and affairs of the home are not meaningful, let’s be clear. I could talk about interior design, cooking by memory and the musings of awestruck kiddos for days. What irks me is the forced dichotomy, limiting people — and women especially — from wading into the murky waters of topics that are begging for their input. The “don’t go there” subject matter that seems to affect women more than men, disproportionately so in mixed company when men have a lot to say. Keeping “his” and “hers” topics — whether consciously done or not, regardless of expertise — thwarts meaningful debate and expression. It implies that unless you are an authority on something (or you feel confident you’re an authority on something), you may as well not even bring it up. Women’s circles everywhere deserve more.
I think the personal, social experience was most profound at that time in my life because it made all of my professional efforts and the work I had put into creating strong pockets of community away from home seem momentarily futile; as if the power — and pull — of lifelong relationships meant the advances would somehow always short circuit. I couldn’t help but try to shake the feeling that the divide between women as a collective was stronger than the divide between women and men. And I felt compelled — for the first time, really — to make the work of the political the work of the personal. I saw before me the opportunity to bridge a gap; to bring people together. It was a revelation, palpable with its new lens.
Do you remember your first time?
The chasm — between genders and their expectations and roles — is very much alive. I say this with a softness, a desire not to cast fury onto the imbalance of power between men and women — this is important work, but not my central point here. I care deeply about gender equality. And I am hopeful that we are building a world now that embraces and celebrates difference while minimizing arbitrary, overly-rigid structures that compartmentalize people by gender alone — or any other qualifier, for that matter. One that expects much from its men and women. From men, humility and deference and vulnerability more than ever before. From women, strength and opinions and leadership in turn. Sustaining the qualities that have been previously heralded by one gender over the other; merging into attributes that can be cultivated no matter who you are, bringing mutual appreciation and allowing for nobler, more multifaceted human beings. Period.
What interests me most? Celebrating substance. And women of substance, in particular. I want to build and support communities where deep conversations are in plentiful supply. Like the salons of yesteryear, but gender inclusive, found — mainstream — in every school and on every Main Street across the U.S. and beyond.
Jumping into the ring doesn’t just happen. Depending on where you are and who you’re with, sometimes confidence requires safe spaces to make small contributions. That’s where the sum of all of the small gatherings come most vividly into play. Are you making the most of them? Are you actively empowering others and viscerally celebrating their pursuit into uncharted waters? We are emboldened to self organize, and that boldness should spill over so much so that meaningful conversations become second nature. If you’re routinely doing this, brava! Keep it going. Never take for granted that what you’re building isn’t something everyone can access, whether through self restraint or availability.
I envision a world where conversations over brunch or at the dinner table can dip fluidly into both politics and housekeeping; spirituality and grocery lists; philosophy and childcare; careers and love. Ones that don’t falter when someone pays themselves a compliment; ones that nourish and provide resources and counter arguments all at once. Ones examining pop culture as much as recounting its highlights. Replacing superficial with soul. These networks exist — abound, even — and they make me proud. But they aren’t everywhere. So, the conversation continues.
We can all do our part to support the potential for variety (it is the spice of life, after all) of interests and freedom of expression for women in all walks of life by committing to inner work, letting that be an invitation to others that flows outward by example and through mutual encouragement.
Let’s start by:
- Reclaiming a balanced life. It takes courage to set boundaries and to recognize desires in the public and private spheres as they shift over life stages. Recognizing what is in our control and expressing what we value — especially in positions where our actions can have a domino effect on how others express their needs — opens up time and space for diverse interests and to grow in real compassion for supporting others. We can’t pour from an empty cup, and feeling the pressure to give to any one aspect of life without clear outlets (career included) builds fatigue and tunnel vision that impedes relationships and stunts growth, no matter how honorable the intent.
- Forging friendships at work. For years, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to be successful, women had to “go it alone.” I’ve seen many women in my career hold on so tightly to the pride they carry from their solitary path to leadership that they approach female support with trepidation at best, sabotage at worst. While this tendency has lost some of its grip in today’s workforce, the implications can be far reaching. Find your people. Give them post-it notes of encouragement. Vouch for their promotions. Advocate loudly for their best interests. Understand their dispositions and ways of working so that female voices don’t require uniformity to be credible. And never forget the power of their presence.
- Leading with heart. The best way we can dispel myths about women’s contributions is by using perceived weakness as strength. Leading with heart is catching on. It requires emotional intelligence. If difference is what sets us apart, it also is a model for change. We can begin by embracing the things that we may have been repressing for too long, in order to be taken seriously. Empathy — the expression of heart — tops that list.
- Encouraging inquisitivity. Get curious about the world, and don’t apologize for it! Women have been trained to view meekness as virtuous. Embracing a curious heart is cute as children, narrowed into safe channels in adolescence and often vilified in adulthood — for both women and men — if going so far as to question norms, authority or the status quo. It’s no surprise curiosity gets shut down or worn down quickly in adulthood, particularly for women in male-dominated fields. Curiosity can be fetishized, even — that woman knows a thing or two, if you know what I mean. The quality gets assigned different meaning depending on how it is cultivated and expressed, in many ways more threatening when coming from a woman who knows the value of her mind. If curiosity killed the cat, the cat must have been a female — or that same cat would be sitting pretty on a velvet pillow, with some milk and a lifetime supply of tuna. Curiosity doesn’t have to be cute, or calculated, or anything other than the self-gratifying pursuit of interest and stimulation — creating interesting, multifaceted individuals as a result.
- Giving a damn. There’s no excuse for apathy or for blissful, willful ignorance in today’s day and age. Women cannot absolve ourselves from the issues of the world in favor for something more comfortable or pleasant. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to be invested in the world, its issues and key players. Women have fought to be in the arena; now that we are, we have to fight to stay there. Fight with heart, with conviction, and with flair — rather than out to prove ourselves — but we must also fight the tendency to romanticize “simpler times”…or we risk losing our footing in the present.
As women, we reserve the right to be many things. We can be contradictory; we can grow and wrestle with what we value and mess up and still strive to be all the things we desire. If ever we were limited — through education or upbringing, further crystallized through our own self-limiting beliefs — into a one-size-fits-all model, we are more free than ever to break from it. Let’s first hold ourselves accountable, then lift others through community.
Every time I’m at a table filled with women on fire for topics ranging from environmental justice to Japanese manga — and everything in between — I pinch myself. And I’m reminded: it’s exactly where I want to be.
At the women’s table.