photo of Jason Lauritsen on 2015

Jason Lauritsen, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

“Why is a white man moderating this panel?”

It had been a long time since I’d personally been on the receiving end of such disdain, much less in an open forum. It was super uncomfortable, yet totally justified.

Let me backup and explain.

A couple of months ago, I was asked if I would consider moderating a “Women in Leadership” panel at the Ultimate Software Connections Conference. The panel would feature four female leaders brought together to discuss some of the tough gender-related issues in the workplace and how organizations can navigate them. The plan was to tackle everything from #MeToo to the gender pay gap and other cultural issues.  

The panel was made up of some amazing women who I admire and respect, including Janine Truitt, Mary Faulkner, Kate Bischoff, and Maren Hogan.

My first response to this request was to suggest that they find a woman to moderate the panel because it seemed like an awkward role for a man. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a part of this conversation. I did. But I didn’t want to be a distraction. The conference hosts decided that they wanted to use the panel to convey the message that men need to be involved in this conversation, so I agreed to moderate.

This felt like a big deal to me. They were placing a lot of trust in me to get this right.

Things started off innocently enough with the panel. Then, about 15 minutes in, one of the audience members needed to unload some frustration. And that’s when the elephant in the room got called out: me. I was a white man standing before a room full of women who came to hear from a panel of women, and that didn’t sit well with at least a few.

When a woman from the audience challenged why a man would be moderating this discussion, the panel discourse changed. It suddenly got very real. The conversation turned to the complexity of the issues of inclusion, equity, and respect in the workplace. It opened a conversation about advocacy and how men must be involved in this conversation.

It was intense and enlightening. I feel honored and privileged to have been a part of that conversation. I wish more men had chosen to be in that room, but I can’t fix that now. What I can do is share with my fellow male colleagues what I – a man who is committed to being a part of the solution – took away from this experience.

  1. Ignorance is our first obstacle

If you are a white male, you were born with advantages that you probably don’t even recognize. For example, no one dismisses your ideas out of hand simply because of your gender or race. And since that has never happened to you, it’s easy to think that it never happens to anyone (it does; all the time). This is but a single example of what women and minorities have been living with for decades.

One of the issues discussed in the panel was the frequency with which women are ignored, interrupted, or talked over by men at work, particularly in meetings. Nearly every woman in the audience had experienced this at work in the past month.

It seems like most women who I talked with could describe several examples of how they offered an idea or raised a suggestion in a meeting, only to have it ignored. Of course, when the same idea was later brought up by a male colleague, it was heard and considered.

It happens every day all around us. As men, we must first police ourselves to make sure we’re not part of the problem. Ask for feedback and give your colleagues permission to call you on it if you ever do something to marginalize them or undermine their authority. You also need to be active when it happens: “Ron, hold on a second. You interrupted Meg.”

As men, we must make sure that we are constantly learning and observing. Make it a goal to reduce your ignorance about how people who don’t have your privileges experience the workplace. Ask questions and listen. Don’t assume that their experience is anything like yours.

  1. Accept the anger

I’ll admit that when the woman called me out, I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to defend myself. But instead, I kept my mouth shut and listened as the conversation unfolded.

She has a right to be angry. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought to the surface issues that have been covered up and ignored for years and matched those with a renewed energy and confidence to confront them.

The less ignorant I become about these issues, the more I understand the anger and rage of those who aren’t white and male. And while I want to avoid being on the wrong end of those emotions, I realize that sometimes the frustration will boil over and burn the closest available white male. When it’s you, the way you respond is critical to advancing the conversation. For me, that means listening and asking questions to understand the root cause of the anger.

Only then can we really talk about how to move forward together.

  1. Use your power to create change

As men, we have an active and powerful role to play in creating equality in the workplace. I learned years ago that while advocating for yourself is important, using your power to advocate for others is how change happens. It’s been proven that diversity is vital to high-performing teams and organizations, but diversity doesn’t occur naturally. Our natural tendencies and biases will pull us toward homogeneity. We tend to hire and promote those most like us. So, when most leaders are white males, we must act to interrupt that cycle.

This means that we should be proactive advocates and seek out opportunities to promote our female and minority colleagues. When hiring or building a team, we must consider diversity and seek out that talent. It means providing extra support, encouragement, and coaching to these colleagues to ensure they have opportunities to get ahead. It means demanding pay equity for your female and diverse colleagues, for no other reason than that it’s the right and equitable thing to do.

As men, we are often in positions to raise these issues and ensure that our colleagues pay attention. We’ve enjoyed many advantages throughout our careers simply because we are male (and white). That doesn’t take away from what we’ve accomplished, but it does mean that we must help carry the burden to interrupt this cycle.

I’m thankful for having been invited (and allowed) to moderate this panel because it helped me find my voice in this conversation. Women and men must work together to create safe, equitable, inclusive workplaces with diverse leadership teams. It’s time for men to step up, own our role in the problem, and become part of the solution.


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