FAC­ULTY FO­CUS: Sarah Ka­plan + Jan Mahrt-smith

Two Rot­man School of Man­age­ment pro­fes­sors have the type of con­ver­sa­tion we need more of.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - Sarah Ka­plan is Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Gen­der + The Econ­omy, Univer­sity of Toronto Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Gen­der and the Econ­omy and Pro­fes­sor of Strate­gic Man­age­ment at the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. Jan Mahrt-smith is Aca­demic Di­rec­tor of

Most of us rec­og­nize that SARAH KA­PLAN: there is lots of in­equal­ity out there. My thought is that in or­der to make change, we’re go­ing to have to talk about it — and it can’t just be the peo­ple who are be­ing dis­ad­van­taged talk­ing amongst our­selves; we also have to have con­ver­sa­tions with the peo­ple who have his­tor­i­cally been in po­si­tions of priv­i­lege.

I fit the bill: I don’t think JAN MAHRT-SMITH: I could have come from a more priv­i­leged po­si­tion in so­ci­ety — yet I never even re­al­ized that I was priv­i­leged. I guess true priv­i­lege is when you don’t even rec­og­nize that you’re priv­i­leged.

You do fit the bill, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean SK: you need to speak on be­half of all white straight men.

Great; I’ll speak for my­self, then! JMS:

I think we should view this con­ver­sa­tion as a type of role SK: modelling, be­cause it’s a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion for peo­ple to have. Part of what I want to do is show how hard it is—but also, that it’s worth try­ing. So, tell me, first of all, why you were in­ter­ested in hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion with me? What is mo­ti­vat­ing you — given this back­ground of priv­i­lege that you have just il­lu­mi­nated?

It was trig­gered over the last two years or so by feel­ing JMS: like there was an in­creas­ingly neg­a­tive slant to ef­forts for change by those with priv­i­lege — and how many of the things we do as white men are ei­ther to cor­rect a wrong, to avoid a mis­take or to lib­er­ate ei­ther side from the shack­les of so­ci­ety. As males, we’ve cre­ated this so­ci­ety where we’re sort of ‘stuck’ in our priv­i­lege, where we have to act in cer­tain ways. We have to de­fend our­selves and con­stantly worry about some­body tak­ing some­thing away from us — but I don’t ex­pe­ri­ence that. Ev­ery time I’m part of a con­ver­sa­tion, I walk out hap­pier, be­cause I have more tools, so the next time I walk into a sit­u­a­tion, I’ll be less stressed. I make friends. I un­der­stand what re­la­tion­ships are about. So, I want to have a con­ver­sa­tion about how much less stress­ful and how much richer my life is when I ad­dress my priv­i­lege.

Can you tell me a lit­tle bit more about what makes it SK: stress­ful to be in these con­ver­sa­tions?

It’s the fear of mess­ing up — of say­ing some­thing that JMS: in­di­cates that I’m still full of learned bi­ases and prej­u­dices. Per­son­ally, I don’t like to be shown to have bi­ases and, of course, pro­fes­sion­ally, what if I say the wrong thing and

you turn around and re­port me to my boss? Are you go­ing to not talk to me for a cou­ple of weeks be­cause I’ve used the wrong ter­mi­nol­ogy? Now, I’m less wor­ried about that, sim­ply be­cause I un­der­stand some­thing about both who you are, in terms of what groups you be­long to, and where your ob­sta­cles are, and also about who I am. I’ve learned that I can mess up and I will be for­given. And I’ve learned that if you mess up, I can go to you and say, ‘This felt wrong, please don’t talk to me like that.’ And that’s nor­mal.

I agree. I think it would be so much more pow­er­ful if we SK: all had the abil­ity to en­gage in these con­ver­sa­tions with an un­der­stand­ing that we will make mis­takes. I’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with other men who have also talked about it be­ing stress­ful in the ways that you de­scribed. And there’s a part of me that wants to cel­e­brate the men who are try­ing; but there’s an­other part of me that feels like, ‘Oh, boohoo. You feel bad; mean­while, I’ve spent my en­tire life hav­ing to take on board weird cri­tiques, sex­ist com­ments, not get­ting the pro­mo­tion, be­ing side­lined’. That other part of me thinks, ‘Why should I glo­rify or even ap­pre­ci­ate those ef­forts, be­cause they are small rel­a­tive to the dam­age that the cur­rent sys­tem has done?’ I per­son­ally re­ally strug­gle with how to bal­ance that, be­cause I’ve had so many con­ver­sa­tions with men who’ve said, ‘I felt at risk’ or ‘I’ve been crit­i­cized for try­ing, so I don’t even know if I want to try any­more’. Do you have a thought about that?

I do, and I worry about the same things. I walk in and JMS: I’m wel­comed with open arms to a dis­cus­sion, and I walk out think­ing, ‘Okay, so now what am I sup­posed to do next, so that this is not an empty ges­ture’? My two thoughts on that are: First, I ac­tu­ally need to keep get­ting more in­volved. It’s not a one-time thing where I get to say, ‘Okay I’ve spent my time un­der­stand­ing, I have leant my voice of sup­port, and that’s it’. Some­times I don’t see peo­ple go­ing to the next step. They feel like, ‘I’ve reached this min­i­mum level of be­ing a cham­pion for in­clu­sion’, and they get stuck there. Sec­ond, I have to start tak­ing some real risks. I have to put some­thing of my­self out there and be will­ing to go and be crit­i­cized.

I agree. There’s a lot of move­ment right now to ‘in­volve SK: men’, and they do it with things like #Gospon­sorher or what­ever… …which are non-risk kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties… JMS:

Ex­actly. To me, what’s so frus­trat­ing about those ef­forts SK: is that they are cost-free for the peo­ple un­der­tak­ing them; and what you’re say­ing is, ‘If I’m re­ally go­ing to par­tic­i­pate in this con­ver­sa­tion, I have to do things that are ac­tu­ally costly to me, or risky, or take my valu­able time, or re­fo­cus my at­ten­tion away from other goals that I might want to achieve’.

That’s right. And that’s what gets a lit­tle scary but maybe JMS: that is where I just need to go next and re­al­ize ‘Hey, there is a re­ward as­so­ci­ated with this, as well’. I might lose, but there will be some­thing good and pos­i­tive there, as well.

I re­cently saw an in­ter­est­ing quote: When you’re ac­cusSK: tomed to priv­i­lege, equal­ity can feel like op­pres­sion. Mean­ing that, if you’re the one in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion, mak­ing equal­ity hap­pen may mean that you get fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties, and that there’s a dif­fer­ent kind of lan­guage be­ing used that’s not the com­fort­able lan­guage for you. It may en­tail a new way of in­ter­act­ing, a new way of char­ac­ter­iz­ing what lead­er­ship means, for which you don’t fit the def­i­ni­tion. So, some men…

…they would ex­pe­ri­ence that as a tak­ing away of op­porJMS: tu­nity…

For them, the cost is real. What I don’t know how to adSK: dress are men who are just try­ing to get jobs, and maybe they are the men who his­tor­i­cally would have got­ten the job more eas­ily. They feel stressed out. They think they’re work­ing hard and they prob­a­bly are. But there are oth­ers — women, eth­nic mi­nori­ties — who are work­ing even harder or are smarter and those peo­ple don’t want to lose out on those op­por­tu­ni­ties ei­ther. I think what’s so beau­ti­ful about the way you’ve been talk­ing about it is that you’re say­ing it’s not zero-sum, it’s just a good way to be in the world. But if we’re re­ally go­ing to make this change, some peo­ple who have got­ten where they’ve got­ten be­cause of priv­i­lege may not get there any­more.

I think the only thing we can do is talk to them as in­JMS: di­vid­u­als and say, ‘You, per­son­ally have a lot to gain by be-

ing part of this con­ver­sa­tion’. I think the only real loss is if you’re not try­ing to be part of it. If there’s any non-ze­ro­sum part to it, it is be­ing en­gaged and view­ing it as a skill set to be­ing able to nav­i­gate what­ever the fu­ture land­scape looks like. For some­body to say, ‘I didn’t get this job be­cause some woman got it,’ is ba­si­cally ad­mit­ting, ‘I don’t yet un­der­stand what it takes to be­come a leader to­day and that’s why no­body wants to hire me.’ One of the rea­sons some peo­ple say eq­uity and in­clu­sion are im­por­tant goals, but then don’t act on it at all, is be­cause deep down they do not be­lieve that this is the best way to run so­ci­ety.

One ap­proach comes from Kenji Yoshino who wrote SK: the book Cov­er­ing… He’s a gay man, and he wrote about all the dif­fer­ent ways that you can be out, but still ex­pe­ri­ence pres­sure to not act ‘too gay.’ ‘So, you’re out, that’s cool, but don’t wear a pur­ple tie.’ Or, ‘You’re out, that’s cool, but don’t teach about gay is­sues.’ This is called ‘cov­er­ing.’ One of the in­sights he of­fers in the book is that, if peo­ple can con­nect to how they in their own lives have ‘cov­ered’ in other ways — whether it’s in­ter­est in a kind of mu­sic that’s not cool or whether it’s be­ing Jewish, or other ways that you cover for char­ac­ter­is­tics that are out of the norm — then you can be­come em­pa­thetic. You can find a way to see how, in your own life, you have also not been able to be your fully au­then­tic self. So that’s one idea.

An­other ap­proach, which el­e­men­tary school teach­ers have taken on, is sim­ple ex­er­cises such as hav­ing all the kids wad up pieces of pa­per and throw them into a bas­ket in the front of the room. Of course, the kids who are in the front of the room make the bas­ket more of­ten than those in the back. When the teacher de­clares the win­ner to be a per­son in the front, the kids in the back protest that ‘it’s not fair’ be­cause the win­ner was closer. Then, the teacher can have a con­ver­sa­tion about priv­i­lege. I feel like we should think about an equiv­a­lent set of real ex­pe­ri­ences that we could give our stu­dents or ex­ec­u­tives so they can em­pathize from the in­side and not just pay lip ser­vice.

I like the idea of ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ences as op­posed to conJMS: ver­sa­tions about ‘Go re-ex­am­ine your life.’ We need to put peo­ple in sit­u­a­tions, where there’s some­thing at stake but it’s still safe enough for them to want to en­gage. Ac­tu­ally, I don’t know if it needs to be safe enough, that’s a good ques­tion. Does that de­feat the pur­pose? Do you need to put some­thing at stake?

If we think about ally-ship as lead­er­ship — and it is pretty SK: clear that it is — if you are not act­ing like an ally, then you don’t have the re­quired lead­er­ship skills. For me, the rubber’s go­ing to hit the road if — as a re­sult of those con­ver­sa­tions — peo­ple are, as you said, tak­ing risks and do­ing things that are dif­fer­ent.

That’s my big­gest worry: Can I live up to risk­ing someJMS: thing? But that’s also where you come in. You’re go­ing to have to make us feel like we’re part of this strug­gle in some way. I need to feel like I’m tak­ing the risk as part of a group that is there to be sup­port­ive.

When you say, ‘You have to make us feel welcome’ or SK: ‘you have to in­vite us,’ there’s a part of me that wants to say, No: You need to go the ex­tra mile to show me that you are fight­ing the fight. Yes, I want to be in the con­ver­sa­tion with you, but at the same time, I don’t want it to be a sit­u­a­tion where, just be­cause you took a lit­tle baby step, you de­serve some kind of award.

And I don’t want that award. I want, if and when, hopeJMS: fully, I do take those risks, and I screw up …

…I have to ap­pre­ci­ate that that’s part of the ex­per­i­ment SK: and to be along for the ride with you.

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