The Long and Winding Road

Posted on 3rd Mar 2019

Many of the visible hurdles in creating a more diverse workforce have been approached, if not cleared. There are many more women and minorities in management and the gaps in pay are decreasing over time. Harassment issues are on the radar screens of most organizations. Ethnic and gender jokes are heard less frequently in lunchrooms and boardrooms. Yet the less visible hurdles to achieving diversity are very much a part of today's business landscape. Allow me to elaborate . . .

I like college football. I especially like to watch Maryland games. A few years ago, for the first time, I turned on a game and heard a woman doing the color commentary. It was hard to accept. I didn't go nuts and throw anything at the TV. I just couldn't get used to a woman announcing football. Of course she had the right to be an announcer; it just seemed like trespassing into the World of Guys.

I turned to my wife and said, "Listen to this – a female football announcer. Isn’t that odd?!" She was unmoved.

To make my point, I pressed harder, "What's something that's uniquely feminine? Something that would seem odd if a man got involved in it?"

"Gynecology", she said. Hmmm.

A couple days later I went to the barbershop. Now I've always felt that a female has as much business cutting a man's hair as a male. It's just that, at my barbershop, there were more guy barbers and they set a certain tone. The barber talked to his customer. All the chairs faced the front of the shop so we customers could look out the window. God knows we didn't want to face each other. Conversation focused on football, fishing, hunting, cars, and football, fishing, hunting, cars. It all seemed so natural and it had been that way since Butch Wax, and before . . .

But then one day everything was different. Two female barbers were talking to each other! To engage in the conversation, they had turned their chairs so the customers faced each other – and only one could stare out the window! Worse yet, their conversation meandered into getting the right nail color for a niece so it would match her dress because she was going out with Jason and . . . and . . . and every guy in the room looked lost. The male magnet no longer pointed to true North.

Here was a culture change, in my barbershop of all places! And on football broadcasts, too! Once I got my bearings, I began to think it all through. I didn't care for the changes – a female voice announcing a football game, the niece's nails discussed at the barbershop. I felt that something special, some fraternal order had gone the way of drive-in movies. My mental map had no markings for this route. I could have refused to see that it was a new road and refused to accept it because it wasn't on my map.

So what’s this have to do with work? Well, the announcer and female barbers were on the job. They had organizations that promoted or discouraged them. They had co-workers who accepted or rejected them. They had customers who sought them out or avoided them. So do male nurses. Spanish-speaking restaurant workers. African American managers. Foreign-trained doctors. Female engineers. We are becoming diverse in so many ways that it seems like a different world of work from even a decade ago. For many people, this diversity means richness and opportunity. For others, it means unwelcome change and uncertainty. For everyone, it means time to look closely at the many secondary roads on our maps. Where do they lead? Maybe it’s even time to try a new map.

My new map shows three interstates running straight across the page: my three grown children and their careers. I would not want gender, race, or any other attribute to interfere with their job opportunities. I want them to pursue their interests and build their careers without prejudicial roadblocks. Another quick look at the map and I see that I want that for everyone.

If one of my daughters chose to announce football games, I wouldn't want anyone to stand in her way. I’d be proud of her and eagerly await her broadcasts. I’d love talking football with her. I’d see if she could get me good seats at Maryland games . . .

It’s because I don’t know the female play-by-play announcer that she seems so different. Of course, I won’t get to know her if I don’t listen to her. Isn’t this how it goes at work? When we get to know the people who at first seem different or mis-cast, we stop viewing them as “types” and start enjoying them as people. But subtle biases keep cropping up and need to be addressed. For example, "She’s overweight so she won’t look right dealing with customers." "He speaks broken English so he won’t come across as knowledgeable." "She’s a Lesbian so she might make the other women uncomfortable." This can all seem “PC” until you’re at the receiving end: “He’s a white male and we already have too many of them in management”.

Obviously, there are no easy answers to encouraging diversity while maintaining traditions. But this much seems clear: our culture is becoming more diverse by the day and many old traditions will yield to new realities. The more we allow people the opportunity to pursue their interests and their dreams, and to advance according to their abilities, the more we enrich our organizations and our lives. I can even picture the day I go for a haircut, sit down in the chair of a female barber, and spend half an hour talking about something she’s really into – football.  

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019