We have become blind to the fact that a lack of knowledge of how to handle conflict is no longer, if it ever was, a feminist issue.
There is something strangely euphoric about being scolded by Sally Field. It happened on a bus in Juarez, Mexico where she, Jane Fonda, and a host of other celebrities gathered with Eve Ensler and the V-Day organization to protest the horrific acts of violence against innocent women caught up in drug wars near the border.
At the time I was writing correspondence for V-Day and running a workshop for women inspired by Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. A few months before the march on Juarez, I’d helped Jane structure and facilitate a workshop for young girls in a remote town near her former residence, one of Ted Turner’s plantations. I spotted her on the bus, sitting next to Sally. Jane introduced me and asked how my work was going. I shared that I had just spoken at a conference for women called “Dare To Be You.” In what I thought then to be true feminist fashion, I complained that, although I enjoyed the conference, there would never be a men’s conference with that title.
“Stop it.” Sally said, in a motherly voice. “I hate that. I have teenage boys. They struggle. We all have trouble expressing ourselves.”
Her strong voice penetrated my system, evoking not shame, but a feeling of warmth. I wasn’t sure if she was right, but I certainly enjoyed being the focal point of her conviction.
This 11-year-old memory bubbled up after reading the recent and powerful post from Jennifer Lawrence in Lena Dunham’s Lennyletters: “Why Do I Make Less than My Male Co-Stars?”
How surprising that I am still surprised (and enraged) at the fact that pay inequity still thrives. In her outright and lovable fashion, Lawrence muses honestly about the personal tendencies that may have contributed to this state of affairs: perhaps she cut out of salary negotiations too soon because she is young; perhaps because she is financially well off, and definitely because she wanted to be liked and not perceived as spoiled. She goes on to reflect on her behaviors from a feminist viewpoint: “Are we socially conditioned to behave this way? We’ve only been able to vote for what, 90 years? I’m seriously asking… Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?
This is when the moment with Sally pops up and hits me in the face.
I think Sally is right.
In my work as a consultant, authority mentor, and psychotherapist I have seen dozens of men, many in high powered positions, who have difficulty with difficult conversations. They struggle with standing up to their bosses with ease. If they are the boss, they fear being perceived as that mean boss, and struggle with consistently holding the line for those they lead. Furthermore, and perhaps even more ironically, they are clueless about how to hold their own in the face of their partner’s emotions, which alternately makes them feel bad about themselves and bad about her. We have become blind to the fact that a lack of knowledge of how to handle conflict is no longer, if it ever was, a feminist issue. Men are just as scared, perhaps for different reasons, about a woman’s reaction as women are about men’s.
But this we do not talk about. We keep up the facade that this is a woman’s issue, much to everyone’s disadvantage.
The ability to speak up is a bi-gender issue of creating the emotional intelligence and inner fortitude to handle necessary conflict, without being carried away by the emotional charge that surrounds it. These are skills that few men and women are actually learning in school. When we frame it as a women’s issue only, we are actually reinforcing the parts of patriarchy that keep the emotional lives and struggles of men in the closet. The secret encourages men to further hide the fact that they, too may struggle with speaking up and saying the tough stuff in meetings, negotiations, when firing and in personal relationships. They may overcompensate for this and behave in stereotypically alpha ways that push others away and reinforce the perception that they do not struggle.
What we miss when we do this, is the truth about how difficult it is for anyone who is genuinely connected to others, to build true inner strength. To face the possibility of being rejected or dismissed. To do what’s right and risk being viewed as mean. These are not easy tasks to master, but we all must if we are to step into our personal and professional authority. And we can’t do it alone in a vacuum.
Pay equity is a must. It is clearly a feminist issue. But let’s be honest about the fact that men don’t have the upper hand when it comes to direct and difficult conversations. Some men do. And some women, maybe even more than men these days, are masters of strategic communication.
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Photo: Getty Images