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MY GENDER DIVERSITY TRAINING EXPERIENCE
How I Think I Finally Got It
Some Other Catchy Title I Haven't Thought of Yet
by Dave Boyd
January 24, 1993
Minor revision 5/19/94
I'll never understand what these women are complaining about. This seems
to me like a perfectly fine place to work, and I'm tired of hearing about how
bad it is. Let's just get back to work and produce something.
At least that's how I've felt at different times in the past. Well,
maybe I exaggerated it a little, but you know what I mean.
But I've just returned from two days of background training as part of my
service on XXX Division's Gender Action Team, and I think I've seen just a
little of the light, and I want to tell you about it.
Now, I'm not going to repeat all the concepts and theories I was taught
at my two-day session. I don't remember most of them anyway. In fact, it
wasn't the information that was presented that was important in my discovery.
It was more in the way the training was set up and conducted. Even then, it
wasn't until two days later that the idea occurred to me.
So in order to explain my newfound insight, I'm going to describe the
training session from the skeptical male point of view I held throughout.
I'll try to keep it interesting.
Women are leaving XXX Division in disproportionate numbers. That's
what was noticed first. Now, it's tempting to explain this away by saying
that women will always leave in higher numbers because of societal pressures
beyond our control. Maybe they left to follow husbands who got transferred,
or left to become full-time parents - things men rarely do.
But no, based on exit interviews with departing employees, it has become
more and more evident that at least some women are leaving XXX Division
because they just plain don't like it here.
After this became undeniable, the division set out to learn more by
conducting focus groups with a fairly large sample of the site employee
population. Sixty people from the site participated in the focus groups. The
groups represented a cross-section of the site population, but intentionally
contained mostly women.
And guess what? Many of the women expressed dissatisfaction with the
work environment here. And some of the men could see it.
Well of course the next step is to survey the _entire_ site population,
to determine exactly how widespread the dissatisfaction is, and to try to
determine what, if anything, can be done to ease it.
THE GENDER ACTION TEAM IS BORN
The outside consultant who performed the focus groups has prepared the
survey, and it will be administered soon. But the job of interpreting the
results and making recommendations for action should logically come from
someone more familiar with the inner workings of the division, and should
probably come from a committee representing a broad cross section of the
Thus the Gender Action Team. This is the group that spent two days at
Sylvandale Ranch in mid-January getting some background training. And that's
how the trouble started.
Now, I've always thought of myself as a fairly enlightened and open-
minded person. But this gender diversity stuff has sort of bugged me for a
while, as it has a lot of people. I arrived at the meeting a little
skeptical, but I was honestly willing to learn.
For most of the two days, the rest of the group consisted of one other
white male engineer, one white male production worker, one hispanic female
production worker, a white female engineering manager, a white female
functional-level manager, a black female member of the marketing staff, a
white female manager from the personnel department, a black female from the
Corporate Diversity Office, and a white female consultant who did most of the
presenting. There was also a white male presenter, but this was his first
workshop in partnership with this consultant, so his role was fairly limited.
So essentially (and this is important) the group consisted of _three_
men, none of whom were accustomed to having any management clout, and _seven_
women, _four_ of whom were managers or self-employed.
Of course we first introduced ourselves, told what we do at Some Company,
why we were there (Sue Phillips twisted my arm), and what we hoped to
accomplish. There were a lot of references to "the problem" or "this
problem." I was eager to learn exactly what this Problem consisted of.
We then plunged into various theories of group dynamics, resistance to
change, stereotype identification and such like. I was still eager to learn
and mostly listened intently.
As the day progressed, it became clear that the women in the room all
agreed that there is a Problem. All of them seemed to feel some sort of
oppression at work, and they obviously understood each other when they talked
But I was still unclear about exactly what The Problem is. Several of
these women I have worked with or travelled with. They are articulate,
intelligent people whose opinions I respect, so I concluded that there must be
a Problem. I still didn't know what it was, but I was determined to find out.
As the group became more comfortable together, I started asking questions
to try to understand this Problem. I said things like, "Well, I see that
these women whose opinions I respect have some dissatisfactoin with their work
environment, but I still don't quite understand their feelings. Can you
explain a little more about that? What do you want that you're not getting?"
And the women said things like, "We just want to work in a supportive
I tried again. "What do you mean by 'a supportive environment'?"
"Well, we just want to feel valued as individuals."
Still unsure, I said, "I can understand that, but what about the
environment at XXX Division makes you feel that you're not valued?"
"We just want men to get a clue."
I tried still harder. "What kinds of things happen to you that make you
feel unsupported? Can you give me and example of something that might happen
to make you feel devalued?"
"Well, it's not just one thing. It's the cumulative effect."
One more try. "The cumulative effect of things like what? The men I
know don't intentionally devalue women, and very few men are actually
perpetrators of harassment or blatant discrimination. But I can imagine that
we are socialized with attitudes we don't even recognize ourselves. I can
imagine men acting in ways that are unintentionally hurtful to women, and most
of us would stop it if we knew what it was. Can you give me just one
"Well, it's very subtle. It's just not a supportive environment. We
just want to feel valued as individuals."
So I decided to give up for a while and listen some more. Maybe if I
just listened to the conversation and observed, eventually maybe I would "get
After that, there were more presentations, lots of food, and lots and
lots of references to The Problem. Even the other men seemed to know the
right words to say. They would say things like "Well, This Problem offends me
personally, and I want to create an environment where women can feel valued
and supported." The man who said this would get lots of warm looks, and I
would think to myself, "Way to go, guy! You've learned the magic words! But
I still have no idea how This Problem occurs."
After a while, I got concerned that we weren't discussing the upcoming
employee survey. Somehow I had gotten the impression that part of our work
for these two days would be to go over the survey questions, refine wordings
here and there, suggest new questions, and generally present the comments we
had carefully prepared.
That's when I learned that going over the survey wasn't even on the
agenda for the two days. This was to be two days of "team building" and
"background training" to prepare us for our real task. Well, I thought we
were already a pretty good team, and I wondered if it really took two days to
convince everyone else, but I could tell that wouldn't be the politically
correct thing to say at that point.
About that time, the facilitator said something like, "I think we should
take some time now and just evaluate our feelings about where we are and what
we've accomplished so far." I tried not to roll my eyes. These pauses for
reflection happened every few hours, and I usually mumbled something like,
"I'm still listening and evaluating."
At some point, I was even asked, "What does it mean to be a man at
Some Company?" I had no idea then what that question meant, and I still
have no idea. I noticed the women didn't seem to mind talking about what it
means to be a woman at Some Company.
Mercifully, the first day ended. By now I was very frustrated at being
taunted with, blamed for, and otherwise surrounded by The Problem and not
being any closer to understanding exactly how The Problem manifests itself. I
couldn't remember why I let myself be talked into serving on this team, and I
even considered withdrawing.
After a "rustic" sleeping experience in a cabin (at least my night was
less rustic than some) I awoke determined to learn the secret of The Problem.
By this time a Neanderthal voice was chanting in the back of my head, "Me want
data. Me want data." I resolved to be more assertive and specific in my
questioning, and if I emerged a boorish white male who just didn't get it,
then I could at least say I tried.
I don't remember what the morning presentation was about. I was waiting
for that opportune moment, when I would ask the right questoin and learn the
At one point (I don't remember what we were talking about) the female
presenter turned to the male presenter and said "Why don't you tell your story
He looked puzzled and said, "What story?"
"You know, your story."
He tried again. "Can you give me a hint?"
"Your story from lunch."
Still bewildered, he said, "We talked about a lot of things at lunch; can
you be a little more specific?"
Eventually they got it worked out, but to me that was a perfect metaphor
for how my day-and-a-half had gone. The women knew something, and I was
trying to find out what it was. But every time I asked I just got an
enigmatic rephrasing of the last enigmatic answer I'd gotten.
By now, almost all of the discussion was among the women. The men just
sort of faded into the background and spoke only when they were spoken to.
Finally during yet another discussion of this elusive Problem, I gave it
my best shot: "I'm feeling a real need for some data here. I see these
intelligent, successful women whose opinioins I really respect, and who are
obviously uncomfortable working at XXX Division. I'm convinced that there
is A Problem, but honestly, I'm still having trouble putting my finger on just
how it manifests itself. If I could just have one example of a subtle
behavior that devalues women it would go a long way toward helping me
Surely I couldn't ask more eloquently than that. Surely this would
produce a flood of examples and my need would be met, and I could face my
fellow men at Some Company and say, "Now I understand."
But alas, no. Even this passionate plea produced a flood of comments
"It's hard to explain because it's so subtle. It's not just one thing,
but it's the slow accumulation of years of tiny slights."
"XXX Division is just not a friendly place for women to work."
By now the women were talking to each other again:
"It's just hard to go there knowing how it is. You just know that
somehow you don't fit in, but the men just don't seem to get it."
"It's how men have the power, you know, and women just aren't respected
and valued. It's really hard to explain, but you just feel it, and it's...
it's... just... (accompanied by an expressive hand gesture) bleahh!"
At this point all of the women looked at each other, nodded, and smiled
knowingly. All of the men looked at each other and threw up their hands.
But I was determined. Once again, I said, "But I'm really in need of
some data here."
This time, the facilitator jumped in and said, "Earlier we talked about
trying on each other's ideas. Maybe instead of asking for more data, you
should try harder to listen and understand the feelings of the women here.
Maybe you should try on their position."
Then there were a few exchanges which all boiled down to:
Me: "I need data."
Facilitator: "No you don't."
Eventually the facilitator would even cut me off if I tried to speak, and
at one unguarded moment even hinted to the personnel representative that
"Maybe we should re-evaluate the composition of this team."
Soon after that, we had another pause to "examine our feelings about
where we were so far." All of the women in the room talked excitedly about
how they were having a wonderful time, and how they were so grateful for the
wonderful insights they were getting, and how this team was going to be a
wonderful force for positive change, and they were just thrilled to have this
The men struggled for more magic words, and I mumbled something about
liking the people on the team.
And then one of the women interjected, "I just want to say that I really
value having Dave on the team. I think he brings his own diversity that
represents many others like him, and I think its really valuable that we have
his opposing viewpoint."
"Wait a minute!" I said. "I don't _oppose_ anything! I'm just here
trying to understand this big Problem and nobody will tell me what it is! I
have nothing to oppose because I still don't have any facts! I believe that
there _is_ A Problem, but nobody will give me any data!" I don't very often
speak with exclamation points, but I was genuinely irritated, and felt very
much on the defensive.
But still we slogged on. At least to me it was slogging. The women
seemed to be having a grand time.
Now in all fairness, I should say that late in the second day, I did
actually hear an example of a subtle behavior that was devaluing to women.
Ironically it wasn't in response to any of my please for examples. The female
production worker finally said, "One thing I've noticed is that when a male
production worker calls the repair technician to look at a failed unit, the
technician repairs the unit and explains what he did so that the production
worker can handle it the next time that problem occurs. When I call the
technician to look at a failed unit, he repairs it and leaves. That tells me
he doesn't think I'm capable of having the same skill or knowledge that the
male production workers can have."
Now that's data. That's an example I can wrap my mind around, and I
pounced on it in the meeting. I said, "That's exactly the kind of example
I've been asking for. If we could have a list of a hundred behaviors like
this, the men could read it and begin to put together the underlying
principles of this behavior that makes women feel unsupported. Are there any
more examples anyone can think of?"
Soon after that, the meeting ended and I left for home wondering why in
the world I let myself get talked into this.
My next couple of days were not very enjoyable. The lingering
frustration still ate at me. As a certifiable analytical, I felt defeated
because I hadn't figured out the puzzle. I felt inadequately prepared to talk
to other men (or women, for that matter) about what I had (or hadn't) learned.
I felt blamed for a crime I didn't even remember. I felt left out
because so many of the group had had a good time and I hadn't. I felt like
I'd been set up as the outsider, and hadn't been given a chance. I felt that
no one had made any attempt to communicate with me in language that I could
understand. In fact I had been cut off when I asked for some communication in
my language. I was essentially told that my language wasn't valid and that I
should try harder to understand theirs. I felt like something must be wrong
with me because they all understood each other and I couldn't understand them.
I felt like my inputs had fallen on deaf ears. The women found it easier
to talk to each other, so when I asked a question, they answered it to each
other instead of to me. I felt I had been selected as a token male on the
team, and then not taken seriously. I felt I had been expected to do all of
the bending to their ways, and nobody had tried to bend to mine.
I felt outnumbered in this female-dominated environment, and all the talk
about "feelings" made me feel out of place. When the women tried to reassure
me about how much they valued me, it just felt condescending and forced. I
felt like the women felt their task would be much easier if I would just go
away. I even sensed a hint of hostility toward men.
And through it all, I felt like it would be easier to just quit the team
and go to some other place where I fit in better.
And that's when it finally hit me: Now I think I know why women are
leaving XXX Division.