New to SheChanges? Schedule a single flash coaching session—no commitment needed. It’s one hour and high octane.

You Go First

2013-03-13 12.07.36If we are still discussing this whole topic of gender balance within organizations by the time I leave this earth, I swear I will haunt the halls of corporate America until it is resolved. That is how passionate and committed and, frankly, pissed off I am that we have not gotten ourselves beyond this “issue”. And I put “issue” in quotes because that’s how people refer to it these days. But it’s not an issue, it’s an epidemic that has run rampant for way too long.

I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for her willingness to be a lightning rod for the topic of gender in organizations. And I applaud others like Avivah Wittenburg-Cox , Margaret Wente and Courtney Martin for putting their voices out there so boldly. We should all be so courageous.

We should all have the chops to go first.

So I’ll join them. I’ll be a lightning rod if it means accelerating the snail’s pace of change.


It’s a “both/and”, people, not an “either/or”.

If you listen really closely, you’ll hear it. Scratch that, you don’t need to listen closely at all at this point. …just step back and look at the arc of what people are talking about when it comes to gender in organizations. There are two distinct conversations that are happening simultaneously – one is the topic of women “leaning in” and the second is the need for some radical and systemic change in organizations.

It’s an “and”. But for whatever reason, we are wedded to this pathological predilection of discussing it as an “either/or” proposition – either it’s a “women’s issue” or “a man’s issue”, “it’s about women needing to lean in” or it’s about “organizations systematically discouraging women from assuming positions of power”, “it’s about women not raising their hands” or it’s about “about predominantly masculine cultures in organizations that don’t recognize the value women bring”.

You feel that? The tug of war? The finger pointing? The “it’s not my fault, it’s yours” mentality? The “if…then” proposition? The waiting game? The blame game?

No wonder we’re stuck.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wrote that while “women might hold the keys, men generally still control the locks.” She offers this metaphor to underscore her belief that women should stop blaming themselves for not “leaning in” and suggests that it’s time to “focus on the locks”. I respectfully agree and disagree.

It’s a “both/and.”

Organizations DO need to re-haul and revolutionize their mindsets and systems to better attract, leverage, and retain women. AND women DO have some work to do in order to more fully rise to the occasion.

While organizations have their heads buried in the sands and pretend the emperor has no clothes, we have the perfect opportunity to do our own work as women to further hone ourselves as leaders. Because yes, there are tons of bright and talented women pouring out of our universities, with advanced degrees and insights that will rock our world. But let us not forget that they are often cloaked in the “gender neutral” (at best) mindsets that have us see ourselves as “leaders” (read: “the same as men”) instead of “women leaders”(who might bring different and unique perspectives to the table).

We are missing some essential pride in what makes us different, and that, I suspect is critical to our success. When I watched the PBS documentary, Makers: The Women Who Make America, I was buoyed by the pride I saw in women from the sixties. I envied the way they rallied together, united for a cause, and created solidarity and  sisterhood. The idea to me was both attractive and foreign. And then they featured the Melissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo (one of only 26 in female CEOs in the country) and one of the first female engineers at Google. She’s clearly brilliant, accomplished, and a leader, and yet she also discounts any relevance to the fact that she’s a woman. In doing so, she essentially discourages women from doing the same, discrediting the need to examine gender in organizations and shaming women for their their pride in being a woman, labeling them as “chip on the shoulder…militant feminists” and suggesting that this term had outlived its purpose.

Why should we expect organizations to see the topic of gender as relevant if some of our top female leaders discount it so actively?

Until we recognize the fact that we’re all culpable in this situation – we’ve all conspired to create it, maintain it even (if only through our silence), then we will remain stuck.

And stuck sucks.

Here’s the lightening rod I’d offer up: I think we’re making this entirely too complicated. Because we’re good at that as a society, no? We’re suspicious of anything too simple. So I’m going to boil it down to some key invitations to BOTH sides of the same discussion.


A call to women:

Identify with being a woman and a leader. See that you are bringing unique and valuable perspective because of the fact that you are a woman.
We need to start valuing ourselves more – our perspectives, our needs, our ideas, our well being, our financial worth. Period.

We need to get over “not being ready” and push through our own self-imposed barriers that keep us back for fear of not being “enough” (good enough, smart enough, connected enough)

We need to burn our Super Woman capes like women in the sixties burned their bras. This means we need to let “good enough” and “I’ll figure it out” move into the reserved parking spot for “perfect” and “getting it right” and “I’ll do it myself.”

We need to ditch the martyr role. Because really, where has it gotten us except sick and tired? We need to question our own logic of why we need to do something, be something or say something. Amazing things happen when we say no, opt out, and make ourselves unavailable. People might flounder for a bit, sure, but ultimately they will rise to the occasion. Maybe not like how YOU would have, but they will find their way. They will fill the gap you created. But if we don’t create that gap, we are robbing others of their opportunity to shine.

We need to eradicate the word “selfish” from our vocabulary. And while we’re at it, let’s do away with its cousins, “decadent”, “self-indulgent” and “privileged”, shall we? Those words are bastions of shame and humiliation that keep us playing small and prevent us from getting our own basic needs met as humans – like letting our lights shine bright and mighty. We need to get over feeling guilty, ashamed and self-conscious for getting our needs met. We need to see that by keeping ourselves whole we are actually doing the world a service. It’s not “selfish”, it’s service. We are of no use to this world if we continue to run ourselves into the ground, feed ourselves last, and deplete our own resources daily. We need to assume as much responsibility for our own care and feeding as we do for our loved ones and our communities.

We need to increase our capacity to be with failure – our own and others. The fear of being caught failing or falling short or, heaven forbid, letting someone down, has become a ball and chain that keeps us from flying. Embracing it in ourselves will enable us to stop being so critical of others. But each of us needs to go first, and it will trigger a chain reaction which will build a community of support and encouragement among women – courage and the willingness to be vulnerable has that effect on people.


A call to organizations:

Incremental change is NOT working. Task forces, committee work, lip service, mentoring, empowering programs, token strategies…none of them are cutting it. We are losing women daily in droves because of our refusal to make more radical whole-scale change. And this will hurt us, and ultimately, it will hurt our economy and impact more than just our bottomlines. We need women now, so get on it. Make it an overnight priority instead of an eventual vision. In shopping for precedents and trying to be moderate and placate the masses, we are delivering watered down versions of what we already have.

We need to get our heads out of the sand and start looking at what the world needs from our organizations. It’s all around us – and it’s not evident, look at how women run their businesses. Not only have the times changed, but the values have changed with them. The workplaces in our organizations are built on outdated notions of what families look like and what they need. And the culture and reward systems within them reinforce those stale perceptions, applauding people for working long hours, sacrificing their health and happiness, and motivating workers and share-holders to sell themselves out to get ahead. We are so off base.

We need to give people what they want from work: connection, creativity, stewardship and health. Read Seth Godin’s Icarus Deception if you don’t believe me. Our needs have changed radically as a society, but our organizations have not changed with them. Ergo the boom of the small business. They get it.

Organizations as they exist today are seriously missing the mark. The win/lose and zero game mentalities that govern them is biting us in the ass. Fulfillment and Profitability need not be on opposite sides of an equation, one taking away to give to the other. Nor ought Individual and Community be on opposing sides, one sacrificing for the sake of the other. We don’t need to sacrifice revenue to increase creativity, nor do we need to decrease productivity as a means to promote stewardship and community engagement. It’s all connected – each piece yields the other and visa versa.

Look at how women run their businesses. Learn from them. Notice that giving back to the community is an integral part of a woman’s business model and not an afterthought or a nice to have. Look at the micro loan programs for women all over the world, and notice how when you give a woman a dollar, she uses it to invest in herself, her family and her community. She SEES herself as part of the whole, therefore she models her business according to that belief.
People want connection not isolation, and that doesn’t happen by simply forcing people to stay in the same building from 9-5 each day. It’s about seeing how we are all interconnected, not just in within each organization, but within the world.


You go first.

And I will, too. Be courageous. Be the lone nut and make a movement. You go first, offer people something worth following, and create the tipping point we so desperately need. Now.

7 comments to " You Go First "

  • Michelle

    Being a lone nut is not going to unlock the locks – the gadfly acting alone never wins. How does one blaze a path while striking the right balance between polite enough and kickashishness that others will feel comfortable and motivated enough to model? How do you engender courage among those who are afraid of swimming against the current (i.e. Men and women) in the ways in which we define positive contributions? How can we change our process driven methodologies and focus on results, no matter how we get there (part time, wearing a business suit or orchestrating from a home office in pajamas)? How do we avoid pariah-Dom by engaging in these discussions in “polite company?”

    • Lael

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and passionate response, Michelle. I totally relate to and appreciate your insights and questions. And, to a certain degree, they point to exactly what I’m talking about in my post: feel the fear/doubt, and then do it anyway.

      I agree that one lone nut (the “gadfly acting alone”) is not going to cut it. To be clear, what I am suggesting is a revolution fueled by many lone nuts “going first” at the same time in our history. Any one who has ever taken a river trip or gone into the woods here in Maine will attest to the fact that one black fly is tolerable, but a whole cloud of them? They are enough to make anyone go mad and run for cover. So what I”m asking for the black flies to rise up.

      While I get what you’re saying about “striking a balance”, I do…I’m not advocating for balance at all. I’m actually suggesting the opposite – to UPSET the balance. To forgo the desire to be perceived as “polite enough” in favor of agitating the status quo with the “kickashiness” that you mentioned. I’m not in favor of creating more comfort; I’m suggesting we create more discomfort, actually. I”m not suggesting avoiding “pariah-Dom”, but instead be open to embracing it. In fact, that is the “lightening rod” I was referring to in putting this piece out there. My biggest fear is that I would be seen as an outcast, and extremist, an “angry feminist”….a pariah. But I did it anyway.

      What I asking for….what I’m trying to incite…is a revolution. And there is nothing polite or balanced about it. Gulp. It DOES take outlandish amounts of badass courage to do, I realize. I feel it as I’m writing this. But I’m asking it…and I’m doing it..anyway. This is me, being a lone nut.

      It’s not going to take one lone nut, of that I entirely agree. It’s going to take many lone nuts going first all at once.

    • Lael

      Actually, I think I’m having a change of heart on the need for a whole swarm to make a different. I believe a gadfly can win. So does the Dali Lama (love this quote): “If you think you are too small to make a difference
      you have never spent the night with a mosquito.” I think of Rosa Parks sitting on the bus and civil rights movement, Kathrine Switzer who “simply” ran the Boston Marathon which triggered Title 9, Sarah Wedding, the 27 year old prosecutor of Roe vs. Wade case…lots of gadflies in our history, it seems.

      You got me thinking a lot about this, Michelle. Thanks!

  • Angela

    Thank you for the post Lael… as usual, I read this exactly when I needed to. It is time for me to realize that I am a woman AND a leader and for me to identify and accept it as well. Just being a leader does nothing unless you accept it and wear it proudly on your sleeve… 😉

    • Lael

      Yes! Awesome, Angela! Totally heard that “click” into place over there. Love it! Rock on! And thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Mike

    As a man who has had the privilege of working with you and probably a good number of your followers, I found your blog through LinkedIn and it brought back great discussions we had many years ago. I am SO glad to see that you haven’t lost your drive, passion, and dedication.

    I agree with almost everything you say and think that much of your good advice applies to both men and women. I felt the need to “Go First” as a guy responding here and wanted to add something of value. I am struggling to do so because the issues haven’t changed, much has been tried, and there has been some, but too little change in the number of women at the top. I have long feared that we will never get to a “balance” because of the societal effects of both parents working. Sorry, but no great insight here. All I can say is that I greatly enjoyed working with the many successful women who came out of our company.

    Since I can offer no personal insight, I would like to suggest a couple of articles that might help provide some insight and some additional thoughts as to what women (and men!) can do to, as Seth says “to stand out, not to fit in”.

    The first is from the Economist and gives background on “the causes and consequences of increasing numbers of women in the workforce”:

    The second is from the “Women’s Leadership Exchange” and talks about “the top ten characteristics of successful women business owners”:

    Once again, these very useful suggestions can apply to men as well as women. As I read all of the articles, I wonder about your comments about so many of today’s top women discounting the topic of gender so actively. Perhaps their point is that the real topic is “how can anyone (male or female) succeed in today’s very different business world, whether in a large organization or out on their own?

    I miss these discussions. Thanks for the thoughts!

    • Lael

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Mike. It’s good to reconnect with you outside the ship!

      Your comments were SO well timed (more than I think you realized) and well taken…they got me thinking. You are one of many men that have reached out to me since this post to talk about the relevance of this conversation to men…and how challenging it can be to engage in it when the conversation largely revolves around women and happens among women. So by you “Going First” and adding your voice to the mix, you underscored the interest I’ve been hearing from other men.

      In the past three days, I’ve gotten five invites to either gather women or join a gathering of women to discuss this book. But there hasn’t been one for men. So I’m going to create that space and gather some men to talk about their thoughts – pulling on many of the threads you touched upon here. I’m sure you know this, but you are not alone in your thoughts as a man…I’m hearing it a lot. Which is awesome.

      Want to be a part of it? Let me know and I’ll stay in touch as I make something happen.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment and your support of my work, Mike.