A Letter to My Son

letterYour sister called me in tears last week, and I struggled to explain how her country had just elected a man like Trump. She sent me Andrew Sorkin’s beautiful attempt to give his own daughter some perspective. Luckily, because I had few words of comfort for her. What could I say? That she can be anything, except President? I thought that what I had to say was better addressed to you, the man I am most proud of, and in who’s hands the next chapter of a long saga will unfold.

This is an invitation to step up. I know you like a challenge, and we have all been set a new one. The outcome of this election was, perhaps with ‘wilful blindness’, unexpected. It will be parsed and analysed for years to come. But for me, its lessons lie at the heart of what I have devoted my adult life to: the need for better understanding, respect and cooperation between men and women and a better balance of power between the sexes at every level: country, company and couple.

Why wasn’t Hilary elected? In short, behind all the inter-connected complexities, it’s because she is a powerful woman. Every woman in business has seen this before. The smart, hardworking, rather uncharismatic woman getting shunted aside by a loud, less competent man. Malcolm Gladwell argues that she, like ex-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is feeling the brunt of “moral license,” a psychological finding that humans who do a bit of good can then do incredibly awful things. Because America has proven it is ethically progressive enough to elect a black man to office, it no longer has to prove its openness and tolerance. Been there, done that. It can now revert to overt sexism and racism with impunity.

Of course, there is a confluence of complicated, inter-twined issues of income inequality, globalisation, economic stagnation and the rest. Each of these issues has a gender slant. Many men, especially the less educated, have been left behind over the past two decades while they have watched their sisters, wives and daughters rise. We routinely underestimate the millennial shift in the offing. Our species is witnessing a massive, human experiment: the sharing of power between genders. It’s been, in the context of human history, incredibly swift. It is hard for people to adapt to such profound change at such lightning speed. It is even surprising that it took this long for an angry and simmering resentment of those who feel they have lost out to manifest itself. Susan Faludi described the risks years ago in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. More recently, you’ve pointed me to George Packard’s The Unwinding and to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as more recent descriptions of the pressures on white men.

The stereotypes we all – men and women – hold have evolved less quickly than we have. We all prefer “men to be assertive and women to be communal” (Adam Grant, Originals).  Trump embodies the stereotype of the alpha male. Clinton challenges our stereotypes of what being a woman represents today. We often forget that women are also gender biased. It is one of our great challenges. So a majority (53%) of white women did not vote for a female President, and preferred an overtly sexist option. A majority of non-white women did. A lesson in intersectionality if ever we needed one. So remember, don’t generalise. Women are not yet aligned on redefinitions of feminine power. The out-of-power can collude in their out-ness.

Hopefully, you and your friends will change all this. Millennials seem more comfortable with more fluid gender norms, both men and women. If they had been the only ones voting, we’d have a woman in the Oval office. And remember, she won the popular vote. So people are ready. We are progressing, but your generation’s fight for what, until yesterday, you took for granted, is now on.

The only way through for individuals and leaders is self-awareness and understanding of the other sides. Until every white person in the West awakens every morning fully cognizant of the inherent advantage they unthinkingly wield, blacks can’t make progress in white dominated societies. Until every educated person knows what it’s like to look for work without a degree. And only until every man and woman wakes with a deep understanding of the pressures, fears and contexts that the other gender experiences as we enter our days, will we overcome the gridlock we are currently in: convinced that we would get the job, or get promoted, if only we were a member of the opposite sex.

What can you do? In the short term, I’d recommend that you continue to work for a good company, where the values are clear and transparent. Many multinationals will be the safest places for the educated, the non-white, the non-straight, the non-men, the atheists and the muslims. Many have actually gotten very good at recruiting (not always promoting) the best and the brightest, and they are an inspiring rainbow of humanity. They are more gender balanced than ever before. They will be increasingly attractive to global talent. Their leaders know it and are already coming out, standing tall. So Tim Cook at Apple, writing to his global employees: “Our company is open to all, and we celebrate the diversity of our team here in the United States and around the world — regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.” Amazon just came out with an ad celebrating inter-faith friendship between an imam and a priest. Many CEOs have been writing to employees to remind them of corporate values of inclusion.

I know that you get all this, because you’ve been raised by a feminist mom/ gender expert. You are one of the most ‘gender bilingual’ guys I know. But so far, that has been my accomplishment more than yours. Today, I’m passing on the mantle. The next chapter of this story is yours to write. Your sister is as ambitious, educated and smart as most of the women in her extraordinary generational cohort. You, however, are far more aware of gender, race, culture and its consequences than most of the men you graduated with, work with or play with. She and her peers won’t change them. They are more likely to threaten them. But maybe you can.

Groups, any group, are more easily influenced by their own. This is a teachable moment. Progressive white men have an urgent task. They need to come out of the closet, stand up for their values, and educate their bosses, colleagues, sons and senators. Why would you? So that your daughter can be President. And that your son doesn’t feel that it’s ‘his’ job.

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