doorHave you heard this one before? A rich, powerful guy walks into a room full of women and interrupts their conversation midstream.

If only this were the opening line of a joke. Instead it’s a reality we recently faced while leading a workshop for entrepreneurial women based on Power Through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together.

A participant was asking a question when the female event organizer announced that the tech executive, who was slated to address the crowd after the workshop, had entered the building. “Wrap up quickly,” she instructed, “and move your chairs to face the spiral staircase.” The workshop was abandoned as participants hurried to make way for the tech exec to deliver a brief soliloquy from atop the staircase.

As we stood there, shunted to the side along with the rest of the audience, we felt uncomfortable about this abrupt conclusion to our session. But instead of noticing the underlying causes—the societal issues that had stomped through the room like an invisible elephant—we took the fall, kicking ourselves as we considered what we could have done differently to close the workshop more smoothly. It was a clear-eyed participant who saw what we couldn’t. She approached us not long after the business titan had left the building and mused, “Isn’t it amazing how quickly women give up their power when a man walks into the room?”

What’s just as amazing is the transfer of power that occurred with such little notice. The women in the room hadn’t intentionally yielded, nor had the man deliberately interrupted. Rather, we had all succumbed to age-old gender dynamics. There’s no sense pointing fingers because there’s no one to blame. Or, perhaps more accurately, everyone is to blame. The tech exec walked in with the expectation that it was all about him and the female organizers built right on that assumption by redirecting attention as soon as his foot crossed the threshold. The participants allowed their vibrant conversation to be silenced, altering not only the dynamics but also the layout of the furniture in the room. As the workshop leaders, we also fell into this vat of assumptions and yielded the floor quickly and quietly.

So, what could we all have done? Taken notice. Rather than kicking ourselves, we, the workshop leaders, could have called attention to the kind of interruption that occurs too often and stopped it in its tracks. Doing so wouldn’t have required drama. Rather than handing over the reins and moving to the side, we could have held on a little longer, completing questions and bringing the workshop to an actual close. With greater awareness, the organizers could have avoided the disruption by allowing time for transition, the participants could have finished their conversation and the only man in the room could have noticed. He could have stood to the side and taken in the energy, the very kind of entrepreneurial excitement he was there to stir. Before sharing his remarks, he could have acknowledged and built on the work of the women who had spent the morning imaging new possibilities.

What this old story needs is a new punch line. What happens when a rich and powerful man walks into a room of women? He stands to the side, waits his turn and takes notice of the power of the women around him.

Photo: closet-door-cartoon by 22860/CC BY 2.0

2 Comments

  1. Well said. Here’s another example of artfully taking the power back.

    As women we’ve experienced floating an idea in a meeting to have it overlooked… until 10 minutes later when a male colleague makes the exact same suggestion-and suddenly it’s great idea! Here’s how a friend of mine handle’s this situation:

    Female #1 (Sue) makes a suggestion, it goes unnoticed. Later in the conversation a man (Sam) makes the same/similar suggestion. Female #2 (Betsy) notices the dynamic and says “Sam, I’m really glad you brought that up again, I’ve been thinking about it ever since Sue mentioned it 10 minutes ago, and I agree …”

  2. This is very true. I agree that we need to lean in to understanding the way power and privilege works and challenge ourselves to model something different. But sometimes we don’t see it until it has happened and as such sharing the experience is important so the rest of us can be prepared to respond when it happens to us (and it will happen to us).

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