Thursday, November 13, 2008

Honoring Differences...

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

And Discovering Common Ground

A couple of days ago, I was fortunate to participate in a really cool meeting for work, including 16 women and a four men, discussing how to help our companies' managers and leaders help their employees and peers meet work-life integration challenges. To my knowledge/gaydar, I was the only non-heterosexual person in the room.

But First, a Bit More Self-segregation

Now, why would I even notice something like that? Why would I scrutinize the demographics of the room? Because I always do, wherever I am. Being part of an often stealthy, and even sometimes invisible, historically-underrepresented group, I'm wired that way: Is anyone else here from my tribe?...Oh, and of course, I notice people with Jewish last names, too. I say, "Of course," since it's my nature to look for people, who are at least on the surface like me, to feel less alone.

While 90 percent of the people in the room were women, at times, I felt like a tourist, not a native, e.g., whenever I couldn't relate to what some of what was being said, e.g., smiling about husbands' behavior...of course, I could be a single, heterosexual woman and feel similarly apart, but....

Certainly, I wanted to be a respectful tourist and not the equivalent of the ugly foreigner, and so I mostly just listened, rather than trying to interject whenever something didn't feel familiar to me.

The group was well-established, and had met many times prior, and I was invited as a guest speaker about how our company designs leadership development learning now and in the future. By design, then, I was not part of the group...and yet, since it was predominately women, I wanted to feel akin, even as I was dubious that I would.

One of the women, like me, was unusually tall, and had a Jewish name -- whether or not she was Jewish -- and both of us were huge Web 2.0 fans. And yet her very visible pregnancy felt like a club that I was not able to join. I feel like I'm whining here, and I don't mean to do so.

The woman and I had a raft of things in common, and yet I felt apart from her...and then I went to her blog and saw that her most recent entry talked of how she felt somewhat restless/anxious/off-track about her career, since she was pregnant. Everyone has a reason to feel alienated, I guess. It's important to remember that more often. During that day, I wish I'd remembered to do what my mom suggests when I'm feeling awkward in a crowd of new people: "Try and make someone there feel comfortable and you'll forget about your own awkward feelings."

Joining a Roomful of Our Own

By contrast, tonight, I walked into a room full of 16 corporate lesbian and bi women, and two or three heterosexual women, at one of their Time Square offices, and it was like getting into a warm bath. I don't want to feel guilty for feeling so at ease compared with Tuesday.

It's like the treat we had, downloading "Mad Men" on our computer while we lived in India last year; sure, it was full-on American TV, but we were still extending ourselves culturally the vast majority of the time. So what if we allowed ourselves the guilty pleasure of feeling cozily at home now and then?

Who Are Our Allies?

The group was having its second meeting tonight and the premise of both meetings was to brainstorm ways to help lesbian, bi and transwomen be as visible as they want to be and unlimitedly successful in corporate environments. The theme of tonight's meeting was "Allies."

And I brought up how I felt on Tuesday compared to tonight, and how I need to overcome that, since heterosexual women are a huge, potential and actual pool of allies.

"What do you mean you feel awkward among the women's group at work? Don't you have any female friends, who are heterosexual?" asked one of the women, incredulous.

"Yes, and I even have sisters [who are heterosexual]...." But I was referring to the institutional group of women at work. It's the institutional group, where I feel awkward. I never feel like I'm one of them."

"I can relate," said one of the women across from me.

At the end of the evening, I said, "I think it's that I don't even really feel like a woman when I'm with them. First, before everything else, I feel like a lesbian."

"I agree. First, I feel bisexual and then black or female," said another woman.

Allies for the Picking

Earlier in the evening, we discussed other types of allies we had experienced and thought we could cultivate. And I said that we ought to think further about engaging religious allies. "After all," I said, "In India, our GLBT employee networking group is co-led by a devout Hindu, a heterosexual woman, who says, 'I believe in anything that advances humanity.' And our senior executive sponsor there is Sikh. And he says, as a Sikh, he must stand up for what is right, whether or not it is popular."

The facilitator of the meeting, who was a heterosexual woman, and lovely, asked fantastic questions, including: "How do you create change? Do you have rewards for allies? What do you want allies to say? To do?"

"Allies need to tell our stories," one of the women answered. "They can sell us better than we can sell ourselves...."

Another woman said, "Let's not forget a really powerful group of allies: the women, sitting around this table!" Amen.

Flirty Comrade

This meeting of brainstormers, twice now, has hit the spot. I am a pendulum, though. I went from fighting awkwardness on Tuesday to being perhaps overly comfortable earlier: "You look so handsome tonight," I told one of the women in front of the group she was talking with. She was wearing a navy suit with a navy, pin-striped shirt and a bright, yellow-silk scarf tied almost like an ascot. What am I saying, I asked myself, but then felt happy that I had felt free to tell her. And how harmless. And how great, to have a place, where I felt OK to compliment another lesbian woman so baldly, so safely.

And afterward, I walked out of the ladies room just as another woman from the meeting was headed to the elevator-bank. "I'll walk out with you, if that's OK," I said to her. We talked about the web and how we had had similar jobs on it.

"Probably, it was before your time when I worked on"

"*I've* been working on the web, since 1995."

I smiled, thinking of the pride that those of us, who started back then felt about our early adoption, and said, "No, I didn't mean to doubt that you had started in the early days of the web -- I was just trying to compliment you." Ew, gross. How did I become smarmily flirty so quickly?

She laughed indulgently, and then I thought, Uh-oh, I really *was* flirting just then. "Which way are you going from here?" I asked.

"Just around the corner, to the subway," she said.

"Ah, well I can help till then," I said and opened my giant IBM golf umbrella.

"How nice," she said, and I felt gallant.

"Where's the entrance to the subway?" I asked as we rounded the corner.

"Right here," she said.

"Too bad." [Oh, God. Just stop!]

She laughed softly again.

I cringed to myself after she turned into the subway. Oy!

No wonder I can feel like an interloper among mainstream women's groups at work. My brain does not work the same way as heterosexual women's do....I know, I know: No one's brain works the same way as anyone else's. Still....

And then there was another great woman I met at tonight's meeting who wanted to be a rabbi, but ended up at a technology company instead. "We both wanted to do that [ -- be a rabbi]," I said, "But..." --

"Not enough," we said at the same time and smiled at each other, feeling rueful and validated at once.

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