Recently I had the privilege of an attending a leadership course at a very prestigious institution. I spent a week immersed in self-evaluation and heard great lectures on team building, leadership strategy, economics, conflict resolution, and communication. I met 60+ health care leaders from all over the world. It was a great week, and I came home inspired and full of ideas.
The class was full of physicians, health care executives, and hybrids of the same. There was representation from different cultures and health care systems worldwide, which made for great discussion. I was able to learn what works in hospitals all over the world, and because of the diversity present, I gained some great viewpoints.
About 15 percent of the class consisted of women leaders, and the rest were men. As a mid-career woman in medicine, this didn’t surprise me. At the majority of executive level meetings I attend, I am often the minority. I am used to this. While I am blessed to have quite a few women in my immediate department, when I step out of my micro-environment and work on national committees and boards, it is common to find myself as the only woman. Or one of a few.
I didn’t really think about it during my week-long course, until one day I was listening to one of the speakers. He was using a metaphor to talk about conflict resolution and team building, and he started referencing a famous coach and game. As he brought this up, the men in the room nodded, smiled, and made comments about this great win. Clearly, they were knowledgeable and could relate to the story.
I leaned over to a woman executive sitting next to me and said, “I have no idea what he is talking about … do you?” She smiled and said, “Nope.” And that was it.
The next day, we had another awesome speaker. Truly, all the faculty was highly educated, great speakers, and fantastic resources for us. This speaker started speaking and again, throughout the day, referenced two different sporting figures/sporting events.
The woman next to me and I exchanged smiles. At the next break, we talked about how there had been at least five different uses of sporting events and sports figures as examples from everything to overcoming resiliency and taking risks to team building during the week by various speakers. It was an interesting phenomenon to observe. After we noticed it mid-week, we were more aware of it the remainder of the week. It happened several times, with multiple speakers.
Don’t get me wrong. I love sports. My husband and father are sports fanatics. Instead of Saturday morning cartoons, my three boys turn on Premier League Soccer at the crack of dawn. There is always a game on in my house, and I love that all my kids — my daughter included — play sports.
But I found it very interesting, that for the women in the room, some of the most critical examples used to teach us about leadership skills and strategy at a high-level leadership course were ones that not all of the audience could identify with, recall, or use to apply the principle.
We had two executive speakers during the week who were women, and they were fantastic, as were the rest. As the first one was speaking, I thought about her use of metaphors and examples. What if she would have used a famous female artist, dancer, or athlete? What would have been the response by the audience?
What if she had referenced a famous fashion designer or icon?
Would her audience have known what she was talking about?
I had a fantastic week and had great feedback to give the course instructors. The point of this blog isn’t to shame a course or a speaker, but it is to bring to light the subtle biases that slip into our everyday working worlds.
The subtle biases have the potential to divide, discourage, and diminish those who don’t understand and may feel outside the narrative that applies to everyone else.
Even in the most progressive or prestigious organizations or meetings, well-planned and well-educated people can speak to the majority — and miss the minority. We can try as hard as we can to believe that gender doesn’t matter to us, but it is our actions that speak the loudest.
I don’t believe any of the speakers believe that men make better leaders or specially made their talks more relatable to men. We all have unconscious biases, and we project them in our everyday happenings with people, no matter our intentions.
The more aware I am to the biases around me, the more aware I am of my own. As I sat down to write a lecture this week, I thought … am I giving examples the minority can relate to? Am I speaking to the whole audience?
I don’t want people to think I am only speaking to one kind of leader, one gender, or that only one gender can lead.
Let’s work on our own internal biases. It’s a great place to start.
Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.
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