Men Investigate Inclusion, Part Two: Lessons and Takeaways From The Better Man Conference

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer continues the discussion about JBC’s powerful prospective client questionnaire. Discover the three strategic pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion, and how asking questions can help raise awareness within an organization. Jennifer reveals the qualities that are most needed from leaders, and the questions that leaders need to be asking to be effective.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • A big lesson that Jennifer took away from the conference (3:00)
  • What straight men can learn from the LGBTQ community (7:30)
  • The importance of “intersectional allyship” and what that means (13:00)
  • How men’s groups can help create profound shifts (19:00)
  • How to accelerate learning (23:00)
  • Who to put on the stage at men’s conferences (27:00)
  • How to meet men where they are and the language we need to use (29:00)
  • The steps that men can take to get started in the journey of change (32:00)
  • How men can use their privilege to further diversity and inclusion (34:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. I am with Jennifer Brown and this our follow-up to our last “minisode” where Jennifer was sharing as she was just about to go to the Better Man Conference. Now she’s back, and we’re going to be talking about take-aways. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thanks. I should welcome myself.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, right? (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: I’m joining you, but at any rate.

JENNIFER BROWN: Aww, we’re together.

DOUG FORESTA: So, let’s say a little bit for those people who did not catch the last minisode – and if you didn’t, I encourage you to go back. Can you say a little bit about the Better Man Conference, where it was, and just a little bit about what it’s about it?

JENNIFER BROWN: Certainly. There were two, actually. There was one full-day conference in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and we’re now in early November of 2018. The conference is in its fourth year, and it’s traditionally been in the Bay Area. This year, for the first time, yesterday we did Better Man New York for a full day hosted by Hearst.

There’s an agency within Hearst Media called iCrossing. We were in this beautiful penthouse in the Hearst Tower here in Manhattan with sweeping views of the city on the executive floor, so it was quite a special day.

The New York version is a little smaller than the San Francisco Bay Area one because it’s newer. I’m still pondering the differences from the conversations and the tone between the coasts, which I think speaks to, perhaps, some differences that we observe in general about people on different coasts and all those stereotypes that we have.

It was really cool. It’s very much on my mind. It’s a lot of time to spend with men in conversation about inclusion, which is such a rare experience. The minisode, Doug, you were just referring to was one where I deconstructed my approach to a panel I was going to moderate in San Francisco. I got to interview the chief diversity officer of Intel and one of their senior male allies about the programs that they had been working on internally at Intel. That went really well. It was very interesting, but we can talk more generally about the whole conference experience on today’s minisode.

DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely. You are out there so much, you are at so many conferences, is there anything about this that really surprised you?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, well, I think that a lot of us that have this work for a long time take for granted the amount of language we have at our disposal, the comfort that we have with certain concepts. We take for granted what others that are just beginning on this journey of inclusiveness as leaders and as people, we take for granted what they know and what they understand and what they’re comfortable with.

I think the big lesson for me as an educator and as somebody who’s endeavoring to write my second book, which will be out in the fall of 2019, I’m endeavoring to really write it not for the choir, but for a more general audience. The Better Man audiences felt very much like the people that I would like to put a book in their hands that doesn’t intimidate them, doesn’t confuse them, certainly doesn’t shame them ever, because I’m never about that, and feels like it’s meeting people where they’re at for this conversation and makes it as simple as possible to engage and to undertake the journey, of course, towards being an inclusive leader that I want them to take.

It was a very important timing for me to be at both of these, to do a lot of listening, to get a pulse on the audience. As a teacher, educator, expert, sometimes the hardest thing is to go from a lot of knowledge to the most elegant simplicity about your message and what you teach. For me, and probably for many others, it’s a very difficult direction to go in, but it’s needed. It’s really needed for so many people that want to engage that are holding back or feeling they’re not welcome or not sure what to say, how to say it. Some are feeling fear, but I don’t want to overplay the fear. I don’t think fear really ran the conversation at these conferences.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s so good to hear because I was going to ask you that, if there was a lot of fear. So, that’s really good to hear.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, and I think that the fear narrative relating to Me Too, for example, “Oh, I can’t hug my coworker; I can’t be seen alone with a woman.” It wasn’t a lot of that. That’s such a limited narrative.

Coming from a place of fear, by the way, is not a good place – not a good place for learning. I was really happy to, instead, feel a genuine curiosity, an openness, really honest questions from vulnerability on the part of the audience, and a lot of robust conversations about parenting, fatherhood, masculinity, and explorations of female attributes and male attributes. And is strength as articulated by a man, is that always a bad thing? Do we have to rotate towards becoming, quote/unquote, like each other? Or can we actually define something like masculinity and talk about strength when used as an inclusive leader as a beautiful thing, not a dangerous thing, and reclaim some of those characteristics? I thought that was really powerful.

Old conversations about gender were all about the feminine and the masculine, celebrating those, and really looking at that as a binary. My hope for the Better Man conversations and other conversations about it is that we can all own all of these attributes and competencies as leaders and as people and celebrate them all within us. We are so many things, regardless of our gender. We uniquely need to make inclusive leadership our own, and we all bring this really amazing mosaic to our leadership regardless of gender in many ways. I think that’s where we’re going.

And I would add, too, Doug, being an LGBTQ person in these rooms is really interesting because I think we’re still having such a binary conversation about gender. The LGBTQ community holds some really deep keys to breaking that binary because, for many of us, gender is top of mind in the queer community because we’re subject to many mixed messages, many stereotypes. We fly in the face of norms, often, and we challenge people’s expectations of what does a woman look like? Who is she romantically involved with? The binaries are deeply explored by the queer community, I think, at a level that I find the cisgender men and women conversation in particular is still very much in its infancy. I think there’s a way that some other communities can actually really teach very effectively within this new conversation that I find myself curious about.

DOUG FORESTA: I think that’s so interesting. As of this recording, we just did a recording with Lily Zheng, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, Lily Zheng, author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace, it’s a new book.

DOUG FORESTA: That episode will be coming out soon. But that whole idea of moving beyond binary, it sounds like that was a theme at the conference, too. The idea of moving beyond binary, was that part of it?

JENNIFER BROWN: It was, but it wasn’t. That’s the work that we have to do, and the Better Man team, we have to all think about. They have a tendency towards a straight, heterosexual normative conversation, and also a cisgender conversation. Even the inclusion of race and ethnicity could be a bigger call-out, I believe, because the men and masculinity movement, like so many other movements, tends to be overly white and overly cisgender male. Right? The men who happen to be organizing this know that. I’m not telling tales.

We’ve got to dig deeper into that and be more intersectional. I brought that word very much front and center in the conversations, used myself as an example, and told stories about communities that maybe weren’t in the room at the conference to a large extent. That’s a part of my centering the stories of others, which is really important.

The U.N. initiative is called HeForShe. I don’t know if you know about that, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: No.

JENNIFER BROWN: Something like a million men signed up to be a part of the HeForShe movement. It’s a movement for gender equality. They have celebrity spokespeople and all sorts of famous people involved. But the whole concept of HeForShe, when you think about that name even, it’s men helping women. What comes to mind is a cisgender model.

Even just the name feels like, I wonder what they mean by “he.” I wonder what they mean by “for.” Isn’t allyship intersectional between people on multiple levels? I want to be considered an ally using whatever levels of privilege I have. I’m in the LGBT community. I’m in a marginalized community and I’m a woman in business. Yet, I feel very dedicated to bringing trans voice and gender-noncomforming voices and nonbinary voices and voices of color into the conversation and representing that as an ally.

I think of allyship as a soup, not a liner thing, and certainly not a hierarchical thing. We all have some work to do to bring that into the center. Is it ambiguous? Is it overwhelming in its complexity? Do we have to not start there? Do we eventually need to work our way into it? I don’t know. That’s a classic debate.

Even amongst our clients, they’ll say things like, “Well, we’re starting our D&I initiative and we’re going to start with gender. We’re going to focus on that for a year.”

DOUG FORESTA: We have to get this done.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right, we’re going to check this box. It is a theme that we’re very familiar with, which is let’s keep this simple for now, and we’ll get to those other people later.

At this point in our history, in our dialogue, in our very diverse world, somebody told me a statistic that 20 percent of people will identify along the gender spectrum as gender non-normative in some way within the next five years or something. I’ve got to look up the statistic, but that’s very real. I would not be surprised if that is a real statistic. We need to get our heads around the sheer numbers of folks who don’t identify in a binary. That’s going to be more and more a part of our culture and our conversation.

When I say “non-binary,” I also mean race and ethnicity. We’re not in the black or white world anymore and we haven’t been. We’ve been talking as if we are.

Comfort with intersectionality, the ability to talk about intersectional allyship, the ability to name in ourselves all the different things that we are, to surface that, and to hold that ambiguity may not feel simple, it may feel overwhelming, but I think it’s a challenge in a great way. It’s so inclusive. We’ve got to be mindful. How we set our compass right now really matters. It’s not going away. It’s at our doorstep.

Leaders who are having any kind of binary conversation need to challenge themselves. Whatever our conferences are telling us about gender or wherever we go to learn, we’ve got to take this on and figure out what it means for us, and then be mindful of it as a guiding principle.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s going to be really interesting to see where the Better Man Conference and conferences like it go in the next three to five years. It sounds like a lot of what you’re saying is we have been defining “man” as opposed to “woman.” There is so much intersectionality that goes along with this. As we move beyond binaries, what does that even look like?

JENNIFER BROWN: There are not that many conferences like it right now.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s true.

JENNIFER BROWN: You want it to be more than what it is, of course, like every conference.

DOUG FORESTA: But there aren’t even a lot of others like it.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, there aren’t. I’ll tell you, there are a lot of organic, men as allies, private, off-the-record conversations happening in different companies. They’re small, they’re not big conferences, but it’s happening.

There are groups of men within companies who are gathering to meet and asking the question, “What can we be doing towards equality and equity? How can we use our voices?” There are really good explorations happening.

There’s also Kat Gordon’s conference, who was a guest on The Will to Change. She runs the 3% Movement and conference. They have something called the “manbassador track” in the conference. It’s a big conference. Maybe 800 people come to the conference. There are general sessions with everyone and breakout sessions. One of the breakouts is a men’s track with a lot of male speakers and men in the audience who have a place to go for a much more directed conversation towards them, their needs, and where they are in their language and in their learning.

I have always thought that was trail blazing. Doug, I don’t know when that episode was, but it would be good to be able to share with people to go back and listen.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. It was one of the earlier ones. I’ll put it in the show notes. That was a really good episode with Kat.

JENNIFER BROWN: More and more, we’re going to see women’s conferences building some kind of track, infrastructure, or particular curriculum for men. It will be like mini Better Mans.

Often, I’m asked from men who want to do more, “Can I show up at women’s conferences? Am I welcome? How should I show up?” Those are beautiful questions.

David and Brad, who wrote Athena Rising – also guests on the podcast – they have a new book coming out on men as allies in the new year. Actually, a lot of people are writing on this topic. Dave was just asking me, “How can we invite men into women’s spaces and conferences? How will they feel when they’re there? How should they walk into the room? What kind of permission should they seek? Who should they have as support as they engage?” It’s a real question. We have to have answers and practical tasks that you can do when you’re engaging with an existing community of women. These spaces are there to provide a safe space for women.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s the hard part, isn’t it? It’s so difficult. As a man, myself, I want to be an ally, but I don’t want to invade someone’s space either.

JENNIFER BROWN: There was some feedback at Better Man. There were women in the room, probably one-third women in San Francisco and maybe one-fourth in New York, which are great ratios, actually. If I were to design it, that’s probably how I would design it.

The women’s voices in that room were very informed women, otherwise they wouldn’t even be there, they wouldn’t know about the conference. I would consider many of these women to be real authorities on building this new world.

Their voice in the room was amazing. Yet, we have to be careful that the men are doing most of the speaking, most of the question-asking, and that they feel safe to do so. There’s a push and pull in men-only spaces doing this work. Certain women can come into that space as men are learning. You have to be the most informed, patient, gracious, loving kind of woman leader in those spaces, who can witness with your own experiences as a guide. I don’t even know if it’s teaching, per se. The men need to be enabled to still do their work. They need to crash around with these ideas. They need to be vulnerable. They need to listen to each other, which is the power of this community. They are waking up to the fact that they are not alone as men asking these questions, and it’s going to create a powerful impression. Hearing stuff from women is a piece of it, but to hear it from other men is where this deep, profound shift happens.

In any design that people may be thinking about, these are the kinds of questions to ask. There are no answers to them, but it’s important to keep them in mind, work through them, make your choices, know why you’re making those choices, and listen to your constituents, whether coworkers or conference participants. Let their needs guide you in building the curriculum. There are so many interesting things.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s really amazing. Like you said, obviously, those women had to be women well along the journey. Was there a conscious effort to say, “We are going to have a certain number of seats for women at the conference”? Do you know if it just played out that way?

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s fascinating. There are sponsoring companies like Intel, who brought a contingent that was largely male leaders from Intel, and then some women tagging along with that cohort. I don’t think they were explicit about it, but in their message, they said this is a conference for men to consider these questions in community. It naturally shook out that way, which was really cool.

When you’re in the early days of build a movement, whoever shows up is information and data, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s more the important thing. Who is showing up? Who is making time for this? What does that tell us about where we are in the process?

DOUG FORESTA: Who cares about better men? Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s good that there were men who came. Certainly, women care about it, too. I’m curious, talking about general impressions, was there a sense of anything else that the audience wanted more of? One conference can’t cover everything or get to everything. You mentioned intersectionality, but did you get a sense for something else they were wanting more of or a theme that emerged?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It is the practical, tactical steps towards becoming an ally someday. This is what I’m pondering for my next book – the journey of being an inclusive leader starting with a single step, and really breaking it down. What do you need to learn? What do you need to be reading? What do you need to be conversing about in private at the beginning of your journey?

One of my overarching interests is to keep the learner safe as they’re learning. Although, we can expect a faster, more condensed journey now in 2018. Things that took me ten years to learn don’t need to take that long anymore. There is so much information around us. I’m not sure about the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours leading to mastery. I hope, for male allies, it’s not going to take that much.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. I hope so, too. Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: I had to spend many, many years figuring out my own identity and my story and all of it. It didn’t need to take that long, but it took me that long because I was deprived of certain resources.

DOUG FORESTA: There was no Jennifer Brown.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is right! No role models, no Internet in the early days, and certainly no conferences on men and masculinity and how to be more inclusive leaders. There is so much more available and a real appetite for people who want to support these leaders to take that journey to sign up for the transformation that we know is on the other side.

In the book, I’m endeavoring to lay out the steps. A question came up in the audience over and over again, “Where do I start? What can I put in place now as I’m learning.” I told people, “Be careful because we live in hyper-transparent times, we are scrutinized.” I want people to be smart about being able to ask honest questions in the right place and in the right way so that they don’t get discouraged, shamed, or called out. People are incredibly sensitive right now. That’s a reality. I don’t mean to stoke the fear, but it’s important to name the fear.

The Me Too movement is a really important movement. It’s got to happen, it’s necessary. But saying, “Okay, that is making me fearful and now I’m going to retreat, I’m going to hide, I’m not going to do my work,” is just a red herring. It’s a part of what’s happening, a cleansing that’s going on in our society that’s so critical. The journey of allyship should be happening separate and apart from that. I didn’t want every conversation at Better man to be about, “I don’t know whether I can hug my colleague now.”

There was an interesting dialogue about a breastfeeding coworker whose zipper was stuck and she needed to go to the mothers’ room and pump. She was asking a male colleague if he could help with her zipper.

DOUG FORESTA: Oh, boy.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. (Laughter.) It was a moment where we all –

DOUG FORESTA: Can you hold this grenade for me?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. (Laughter.) And the male allies on the stage were recounting this and asking, “What is the proper response here?”

The answer to that is very clear: You help your colleague; you don’t get freaky about it. I think the whole fear thing is overblown.

DOUG FORESTA: I’m so glad to hear that the conference wasn’t just run by a fear-based reaction to Me Too.

JENNIFER BROWN: No. It really wasn’t. Certainly, it came up, but it was maybe 5-10 percent of the conversation.

The interesting challenge for conferences is who do you put on the stage who has truly evolved on this stuff? I have to say, it’s still a struggle. People who are out there doing really good work, they don’t talk about it a lot. And those who are still mid-work and not the most perfect spokespeople for the movement are still on stages. They may say some problematic things, actually. The very people who are trying to be role models are imperfect. That’s interesting, too, because you put people on stage at a conference and you think that they are going to be complete role models that you can follow. That is not the case either.

I include women that might be put on the stage, too, at a conference like this. Certain women in this work are – there’s a fair amount of anger that they are bringing. There’s a certain level of helpfulness around anger, but it has limited use in terms of being with learners.

This is intuitive. I’m not pointing out anything we don’t know. You have to feel comfortable to learn. So, yes, shaking up the audience is good, but there is a level of knowing how much and where it’s helpful and not over-rotating around the conversation about, for example, “You need to recognize the sins of you and your people and what you’ve perpetrated against women. And the fact that you’re inheriting the benefits of structural racism. And you are the product of a toxic masculine culture.” Language like that, while it may be true, comes from the activist space. It’s important and it’s true, but the question is: Is it helpful and are audiences ready for it?

As somebody who studies organizational change and how people adopt ideas over time and how they move into leadership roles and using their voice, we have to welcome that process. It’s a nuanced and delicate journey that we’re all on. I don’t want to lose a single person along the way. That’s my guiding principle and what I’m always thinking about. How do I hold up the right examples? How do I elicit the right lessons? If I’m moderating a panel and men on that panel are saying problematic things, how can I address that in the moment without shaming my panelists?

A lot of us wrestle with these things because we want to honor the work and honor the people who are showing up to make the time. We want to honor the imperfection. If we point it out, I want to invite the response, “Thank you for the feedback, let me learn, incorporate that, and come back again.” That’s what we want.

There are some discouraging ways to be talking about these things, and bringing the heavy-duty social justice lens to this around racism and oppression has to be carefully utilized, especially in the corporate setting. In the corporate setting, we barely talk about what matters, what’s real, and what’s vulnerable as it is.

DOUG FORESTA: Like you said, we have to meet people where they are to move them along those stages of change. Like you said, is it helpful?

It’s so beautiful just to get your feedback and insight about these conferences. I want to ask if you have any last words or reflections you want to leave our listeners with.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We have such a mix of listeners on The Will to Change. If you’re in any kind of organization, I implore you to begin to either solicit a men’s conversation about masculinity and leadership and being an inclusive leader in particular and what all that means.

Whether you’re a woman who wants to manifest that kind of conversation and think about who might be around that table if you were to build it. Build it and, hopefully, they will come. You might have a small group to start, but I guarantee it will grow in size.

If you’re a man, begin something. Begin a conversation. Start to do your own work, even if you begin finding one trusted person who can be your mentor across difference.

It’s a reality that white men, in particular, hold the predominant number of leadership positions in organizations. They end up being seen as the mentors on career things and they’re the ones who get tapped to support up-and-coming talent with all of their wisdom.

When it comes to these topics, I don’t think those men have the wisdom, actually. The wisdom lives amongst women, people of color, LGBTQ people, intersectional leaders, and young leaders. This is the wisdom that we need to be mentored around.

Flip that narrative and seek out mentoring from those leaders. As beautiful, open questions like, “Tell me about your experience?” And please don’t come to that conversation not having done your own homework. Make sure you’ve been reading, listening, and consuming media that educates you. Come to that conversation and ask questions like, “This is my understanding, is that true for you? Can you tell me more about what that feels like? Can you describe whether you can bring your full self to work?”

And then offer what you can. You do still have assets. You probably have a lot of assets to give and to contribute based on the privilege we always talk about on The Will to Change. If I can get into rooms and have conversations and put you forward for an opportunity, what sorts of opportunities are you looking for? Who could I introduce you to? How can I open a door for you? How can I have a conversation for you which mitigates some bias you’re facing?

There is a beautiful mutuality in these one-on-one conversations that we need more of in our lives. Do any of those things. Get something started. I would do it privately to keep yourself safe and to allow for mistakes of language. You need trusted people who are going to tell you the truth as you go on this journey. I can’t underscore that enough. Don’t go big with this stuff quite yet if you’re not ready. It’s a journey. Keep yourself safe. Don’t break trust if you don’t have to. Keep it contained until you get your feet under you, until you get more knowledge of language, and until you get the chance to calibrate your storytelling and your leadership.

When you’re ready to go bigger, you will have had a solid foundation. You know where the guardrails are, you know how things are going to be interpreted. You know how your intent may be misinterpreted and your impact may unintentionally hurt some other folks or impede progress. You need to spend some time experimenting with all of that before you go big. The “go big or go home” adage isn’t appropriate for a lot of learners until you’re really ready. I want you to protect yourself along that journey.

For those of us in the teacher or mentor role, I’m a woman, I’m a woman of color, I’m a queer person, I’m a person from a community with disabilities, we have to have patience and show up for leaders who are showing up for us to embark on that journey. I can’t say that enough. While we don’t want to be overly burdened with the need to teach and bear that emotional labor, we are such a critical component of this equation. We all have to ask, “How am I supporting leaders to begin their journey wherever they are?” We might also want to ask, “Where can I volunteer to do that?” The need is there.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, as always, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.