Does it Work for the Future to be Female? (Part 1: Context)

I sat down to write this no fewer than five times. The past few months have been intense in the wake of “secrets” revealed in Hollywood, prominent men being fired or stepping down, echoes of #MeToo from women around the planet, and Oprah’s rousing call to arms at the Golden Globes.

I’ve been wrestling with the way forward from here, particularly given my commitment to creating a dialogue in the world that is inclusive of women and men.

Here’s my stumbling block: Every time I see the phrase “The Future is Female,” I’m struck to the core with a sense of Orwellian dread. My immediate next thought is “Where are the men in that future?” Though the intention may not be to eliminate them, the phrase itself is ominous. If I were a man, I’d be nervous.

If we heed the more sensational headlines, there is a dangerous zero-sum game at play where it seems the women will either Ascend Like Amazons to Rule All Things or The Man Will Strike Them Down à la Handmaid’s Tale.

But what about the non-sensationalist viewpoints? There are more than you might think, and I’ve certainly spoken with a lot of people who hold them. This is encouraging.

I think most of us can agree that a future including and celebrating both men and women works. At the same time, we can also agree there is a huge, global gap in gender parity. And if “workability” is the goal, either side is going to have to give up some things to get there — including notions and deeply rooted beliefs they are really, really attached to.

And it’s hard not to have intense emotional reactions about these things. When I hear stories of other women’s experiences, and reflect on my own, I often want to burn down the establishment in a riotous frenzy. So I let myself have those feelings and get them out, without acting on them, and turn to reason to see what’s next. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I want justice. And fire and brimstone feels good when you find yourself re-living horrific experiences, while a successful white man responds that you have no voice, your argument is invalid, and what do you know about the world compared with his suffering, young lady. The internal violence that provokes is unparalleled.

But I’m committed to finding solutions that do no harm, so I know reason must prevail to lead us down that path. Besides, I have yet to meet a man — or a human being — who has become a better person from me telling him how wrong he is. How bad he is. Why the problem is his fault. And yet this is much of the discourse taking place on any random internet thread. It’s a war of words, belief systems and values.

And yet, when I’m speaking with groups in person, either from a stage or in a workshop, or even out at a pub, the discourse is often more benevolent than that. Yes, there is often a charge to the discussion, but it’s been rough out there lately, so I grant us all some room. Humans are largely benevolent, and want what is best for everyone. We keep forgetting that.

So when I think about a future that’s female, it’s a future that doesn’t work for me. I want a future that is human. And humane. And just. Where you and I both have a place and a voice.

So what is the way forward? I’ll likely spend the rest of my career answering that question, and all the other questions it evokes, but here’s where I think we can start:

What is the lens through which we are seeing a given discussion or situation, given our background of context?

Our viewpoint can wreak havoc on the way we perceive the world, and you’ve likely heard the following phrases: Context is decisive. Perception is reality.

What we see to be true is The Truth, for us.

Here’s an example: One of my coaching clients, a female founder, was absolutely certain she had lost a contract due to gender bias. Given how intense that accusation could be, I asked her what specifically happened that gave her reason to believe it was gender bias. She paused and thought about it, and realized there was nothing to indicate what she perceived. She said, “Wow, now that I think about it, nothing. I made that up in my head.” And I said “That’s a relief! You might have spent ten years being angry about that!”

Let me be very clear in stating there is absolutely gender bias in the world of female founders, and Silicon Valley, and lots of other places. In this case, however, that was not at play.

What we seek, we find. Confirmation bias is a very human occurrence, and has been examined from multiple scientific angles since the 1960s. So when we listen for the best in people, it shows up. When we give them room to be great, they can step into that like a warm spotlight. And when women create men as our allies, those men see and feel there is room for them to be in our space without judgment, where we can look at solutions together, and where everyone has a voice. It’s a beautiful bit of human magic.

So for the next few days, when a problem presents itself, stop and check your lens. What are you listening for, or expecting to show up? We’ll delve into the next level of the conversation in Part 2.


Photo: Eric Milet

Jennifer Iannolo is a global catalyst for human empowerment. She is an international keynote speaker, a featured expert on women’s entrepreneurship for the US State Department, and an advisor for UN Women Young Professionals. When not on stages, she is a performance and growth strategist for female founders and executives. For more information,