Empathize This

April 7, 2010Change can happen in the least likely of places.

At the Waldorf during our Awards Conference in March, I overheard a well-dressed man grumble: “Now I know what it feels like to be a woman.” He didn’t say this during a break-out session—he was waiting in a long line for the men’s bathroom! Staff at the hotel had converted several Men’s rooms to Ladies rooms— hence the shortage.

But the comment got me thinking…sometimes all it takes to understand another person’s perspective is to stand in their shoes—even for a brief moment.

At the conference, Frank J. McCloskey, Vice President of Diversity at Georgia Power, explored this very theme. During a session on men supporting women’s advancement, Frank said his upbringing had conditioned him to be a “typical guy.” Raised in the South, he played football at Georgia Tech, drank beer, and never thought about inequality. “Men—we are just who we are—we are not a very evolved species,” he mused. He said he suffered from a “pathology” that held “anyone who is different is less than.”

Frank had an “a-ha” moment on inequality when he revisited a painful episode involving his wife Debbie. “Whatever progress I have made in my own way was because of pain I inflicted on someone else,” he said. Empathy was the key to understanding his wife’s perspective.

Frank recalled that when Debbie was pregnant with their first child, she asked him pointedly: “Are we going to do this together?” Frank responded: “I’ll be with you all the way.” But soon after their child was born, Frank was offered a promotion. “It was a 2 year commitment— 24/7— and I accepted it,” he said.

It wasn’t until years later that he understood what he had done to his wife. And he felt terrible. He had accepted the promotion “without thinking of the consequences it would have on her and the child,” he explained, noting that the incident had been “the first time in our relationship that we had a breach of trust.”

Life lessons were thrust into sharp relief. “I managed to understand that maybe someone else has a different life experience. And once I started hearing other women’s voices…I was hearing things that were so difficult to hear,” he said. For most of his life he tried to minimize those voices and blame the women so that he would feel comfortable. “It took me a long time…to acknowledge that maybe something is going on with others that is not going on with me.”

This realization led Frank to ask himself two questions: “What am I doing to create that experience for you? And what should I do with myself to counter it?”

At Georgia Power, Frank oversees an array of gender initiatives. He believes that “leadership means men being part of the solution.” They should “unravel the pathology, hold themselves accountable.” He now believes, he said, that “if anything takes away from women as a whole, I should fight it.”

Catalyst research suggests that before individuals will support efforts to right an inequality they must first recognize that the inequality exists. Here is Frank’s advice for men on creating awareness: “Who are those that are closest to us outside of work—wife, daughter, sister?” he asked. “Say to them, ‘Help me understand how your life is different from mine.’”

For the women reading this, I’ll add some advice of my own. Allow the men you know to see the world from your eyes. Share your experiences. It can change their perspective, or even their lives.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.