Time to Look, Listen and Learn
I originally wrote and posted this in 2012. Since then, the need to think clearly and seriously about fairness and equity has only become more apparent.
With a few stylistic tweaks, I think it holds up pretty well. Heaven knows that the issues it’s addressing haven’t gone away. It’s more important than ever that those of us situated in roles that would make it easy not to notice certain things make a conscious effort to look, listen and learn. I look forward to the time when this piece isn’t relevant anymore.
Women’s studies courses were some of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken.
I’m not kidding.
Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.
That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know. Courses like those are usually held up — by those who like to make such arguments — as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises. They elicit snickers from some. I get that. But there’s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.
At their best, the women’s studies courses I took — yes, I used the plural — helped with two incredibly important management skills. They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.
These skills are useful every single day.
I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst. It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point. Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.
Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from. It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally. And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.
Looking back afterward, I realized that women’s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.
As a clueless — if well-meaning — straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice but with some pretty glaring blind spots. And back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let’s go with “at an early stage of refinement.” Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw. And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.
But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood. I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the “choice” was never a choice. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn’t thinking about.
If that isn’t preparation for administration, I don’t know what is. Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job. For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill. (There’s always a temptation to just throw up your hands and do what you wanted to do in the first place.) And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.
I won’t claim that all was sweetness and light. There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of some theorists can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader. Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren’t always what they could have been.
But that’s not really the point. The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on “patriarchy” from a personal attack as a guy. It wasn’t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.
It wasn’t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day. For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.