Listen Up, Old White Males

Tom Peters

In “Interstate Commerce: Regional Styles of Doing Business,” adman Clyde Burleson tells of a Chicago businessman who was furious at a new Dallas business partner. During their deal-making, the Texan said to the Chicagoan, “After we get this deal over, let’s get together for dinner.” The Chicagoan took the Texan at his word, and was enraged at the latter’s evasion when he tried to set a date.

The Chicagoan called a pal in Houston to vent his spleen. His Houston friend assured him that he’d misread the exchange: “Why don’t we do so and so” is only a vague pleasantry, best translated (in Texan) as, “How are you?” The Houstonian advised the Chicagoan that his new Dallas partner was probably angry at him for pressing the issue!

I thought of Burleson’s saga of bumbles and bobbles while watching the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation. In this instance, the stories told are in stark contrast; and if she’s being truthful, no nuance of meaning could get Judge Thomas off the hook. Nonetheless, the hearings are a critically important reminder of perceptual differences. And an especially stark reminder to men, who still dominate leadership roles in the workplace, to listen up. Even a “mild” sexual advance, far short of the sort described in the Hill-Thomas imbroglio, can be intimidating, painful, threatening, and destructive.

I was disgusted, frankly, at the failure of many of the Senate’s OWMs (Old White Males, as I call them) to get the point. In particular, they couldn’t fathom why Professor Hill had followed Thomas from the Department of Education to the EEOC. They just didn’t comprehend her powerlessness in this all too typical context. To stay behind would have derailed her career—which men ought to understand. And to confront Thomas would have earned Hill precisely the sort of derision Utah Senator Orrin Hatch heaped upon her during the hearings.

Part of the issue is perceptual. Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, brilliantly illuminates the gap between male and female ways of viewing things, which makes the Grand Canyon look like a finger-drawn line in wet sand by comparison. For example, when women ask for “advice,” Tannen observes, they usually want empathy and further discussion. Yet men, genetically or socially groomed as “decision makers,” tend to respond to such a request with crisp, close-the-door-to-further-discussion “answers.”

Then both are hurt. She doesn’t understand why he won’t talk about things. He doesn’t understand why she rejects his “obviously helpful” answer out of hand.

I turned amateur sociologist during the Thomas-Hill exchange, asking four strangers—women workers in retail-service establishments—if they had ever been sexually harassed. To my amazement—hey, I’m a typical male—the answer was “yes” in all four instances. In one case, the situation included “mild” physical abuse. In the others, it was “merely” intimidating—and job threatening as perceived by the women. (I.e., if she’d ratted, she’d have probably been in deep yogurt—the law of the land notwithstanding.)

Put aside the Hill-Thomas outcome for a moment. The important point of the case, and especially the OWM senators’ handling of it, is the wholesale inability of most males to “get it.” Hey, if there can be a deal-busting miscue over the meaning of “Howdy” in Texas vs. Illinois, then the chance to misunderstand and mishandle male-female, especially sexual, matters is infinite.

So what can we do? First, get a minimum of 20 women elected to the U.S. Senate by the year 2001! The sooner the glass ceiling is shattered in Washington (and in corporate America), the better off we all will be.

Second, pay attention. Diversity-awareness programs that many corporations run are a help. But let’s get basic: Sexual harassment is against the law. And most of us males, and I include myself, don’t have a clue as to what the definition of harassment is. We’re enlightened enough to know it doesn’t require touching. But what does it really mean?

No one is asking men “to start acting like women.” There are stylistic traits—e.g., listening, relationship-building—that we men could usefully learn from women. But that misses the point. We—men—are being asked to be aware and to quit doing stuff (legal or illegal) that disempowers women.

In short, the workplace is changing dramatically. And for the better. Diversity—sex, color, nationality—is a winning hand. But it’s going to take a major dose of radically heightened awareness on the part of the still male-dominated “power structure” (starting with first-line supervisors) to deal with it.

Anita Hill started the 30-second shot clock ticking (to use a male metaphor). Now it’s up to us, male and female, to confront the issue and move forward—not toward a homogeneous society (a sickening thought), but toward a society with much greater understanding of the differences and strengths of others. But make no mistake: The ball is mostly in the court to extend the metaphor) of old white males—like me.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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