Like A Man

Topics: HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

photo of John Sumser in article Like A Man

“I get all of the privileges associated with my gender. They come so naturally that it’s a challenge to notice when they obscure my perspective.” – John Sumser

I’ve worked pretty hard to ask about and understand the experience of being a woman in our culture. It’s elusive. As sympathetic as I can be, I remain a man. I get all of the privileges associated with my gender. They come so naturally that it’s a challenge to notice when they obscure my perspective.

I’d love to tell you this story in an authoritative way. Being and acting like the expert are things guys (particularly tall white ones) get to do. Any follower of my work will recognize my penchant for hiding uncertainty under a blanket of simple assertive clarity. This topic resists that compulsion.

For about a year, I’ve been asking successful women about their experience in our culture. You should try it. Ask, “What’s it like to be a woman in our culture?” Then, shut up and listen.

Even the very most successful women I know are burdened with a workload and responsibility set that dwarfs anything I encounter. And, I have one of the worst cases of responsibility gluttony and workaholism of anyone you’ve ever met.

For me, it’s a choice. For my female colleagues, it’s a matter of inescapable fact. A number of them have pointed me to Rebecca Solint’s great essay, Men Explain Things To Me. She describes the complete arrogance of an entire gender who know it all and never assume that the woman they are talking to (not with) could possibly be an expert in the area they are BSing about.

Anyhow, color me smug.

I was sure, until a couple of days ago, that I’d asked the right questions and made the right behavior changes. As a father of two strong and intelligent women and the husband of a strident feminist, I certainly knew all about what it was like to be female in our culture.

Then, I read Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist.

My first reactions were anything but positive. Certain and sanctimonious, I was prepared to skim the piece with knowing nods. I was ready to read the indictments of those other guys who just don’t get it.

It’s about micro-aggressions: “social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.”

When my eyes roll, you can almost hear them hitting the back of my skull. There is this wave of knowing condescension that I feel run through me when I am sure I am about to be exposed to another round of overly liberal crap. They rolled hard at this one.

But I read on.

I started to notice that this was going to be a big deal when the author said that calling software sexy was one of the not so subtle digs at femaleness. There is nothing sexy about software at all, ever. Sexy is a critical part of intergender relations. To demean it by comparing 1s and 0s is a direct shot.

Micro-aggression is a term you will hear in the halls of HR (and the enterprise as a whole) in the coming years. When people in dominant positions put people with less status down, it’s subtle. The powerful rarely understand that they are doing it. Figuring out how to communicate the issue is going to take some time and patience.

As I looked at my own behavior, I found many ways in which I assert my power through little jokes and digs. This is the stuff they are talking about in the article.

Once more, I am flummoxed by my seemingly instinctive sexism and feel like everything I am about to say is wrong. My wife gently corrected a couple of micro-aggressions in this piece. (I originally referred to my daughters as ‘aggressive’. She said, “Would you say that about a man?”). That sense of difficulty is a part of learning how to do things differently.

It’s also a tiny little course in what it can feel like to be female.


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HR Tech Weekly: Episode #15: Stacey Harris and John Sumser

HR Tech Weekly Episode 15 with Stacey Harris and John Sumser.