Does It Work for the Future to be Female? (Part 2: Collaboration)

Does It Work for the Future to be Female? (Part 2: Collaboration)

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series looking at the conversation between men, women and empowerment, and potential directions to maximize effectiveness in the face of #MeToo and #TimeIsUp. In Part 1, we addressed context.


Now that we’ve taken a look at context and framing, which are powerful lenses through which we add meaning to the world around us, let’s take a look at what happens when we bring that viewpoint to a conversation with another human being.

In the wake of the second Women’s March, the voice of feminism is perhaps louder than it’s ever been. Women are having no-holds-barred conversations that range from overturning the tampon tax to chiding the ridiculousness of concepts like Lady Doritos, and wondering why Justin Timberlake was standing on a Super Bowl stage while Janet Jackson can be fairly sure never to grace another. Tolerance level for nonsense is at zero.

Having said that, in looking at things from the 40,000-foot view, I’m trying to be mindful of the male experience throughout this wave of outspokenness and, let’s face it, well-deserved rage from women. I can see how a man might be wary of what is happening, and unsure how to respond. His experience might be that a war has been declared on men. And it has.

But we also know that war doesn’t work. It creates a very dangerous zero-sum game in which the winner takes all — and everyone ultimately loses. Sadly, zero-sum is the approach I often hear in the conversations I’m observing. Women must take their power back. Or burn down the patriarchy. Or some other form of revolution that resembles a coup d’etat.

Here’s what worries me about that: Rarely is a person made better for being told how terrible and wrong they are. And rarely is the desired change achieved with that tactic.

And perhaps most importantly, I, for one, never gave away my power to begin with. And if it were true that I did, and took it back, would the men then come and take it back again and we’d start over? That perpetual zero-sum scenario that will get us — and has gotten us — exactly nowhere.

So then what?

It is my deepest belief that only in a spirit of collaboration are we going to change this dialogue. And I don’t mean lip service, platitudes or quotas — it has to come from the deepest place within each of us, where empathy lives. I think on some level we all understand this, but we are failing in the realm of giving each other the grace to make mistakes. One slip and someone is shut down, so that makes everyone stay silent. We must grant each other the grace to grow as we work through the process. We need to be willing, as humans, for it to get really messy, and it’s going to take ruthless honesty with ourselves — and ruthless compassion with one another. True collaboration requires empathy and patience, no matter how much we’re champing at the bit for the change to happen NOW.

The change is urgently needed, and here’s why: If we don’t shift toward a more collaborative approach, we will likely see the full manifestation of a trend that has already begun, where young men are dropping out of higher education at an alarming rate, and where they can easily have the experience that a world is being created with no place for them in it. “The Future is Female” states it outright. In a few decades someone will have to take on my role of traveling the world to speak to young women — but they’ll need to shift the focus to young men instead.

Some women might think “Good, it’s our turn!” But that doesn’t work for me. I don’t want a world where any set of people doesn’t get an opportunity to succeed and thrive. And I’m not alone in this, because people’s intentions are mostly in the right place. Sadly, the execution has been tepid at best.

Several years ago I was invited to speak on a panel at a women’s business conference. The panel was called How to Empower Men to Empower Women in the Workplace. Title aside, I thought this was an important discussion, and was eager to be a part of it. When I walked into the packed room, however, the only male present was the moderator. I asked how we were going to do this without male voices, and was told that a number of men had been invited, but none would agree to come. Given how this conversation is going in the world, I couldn’t really blame them.

I knew we needed a more inclusive dialogue if we were going to get anywhere, so I posted a question on Facebook to the men, asking how we could empower them in this conversation. For 15 minutes there was total silence, and then one brave friend from high school stepped out onto the internet ledge and said, “You know what? I think empowering women is awesome, and I’m all for it. But I’m tired of getting yelled at!”

This was followed by 95 comments in 30 minutes, from men who had the very best of intentions and a desire to help, but who were not being met even halfway, and were being given no tools to work with.

Finally, we were onto something. An access point!

I then heard a young professional woman stand up and talk about how she took her boss out in the hallway and chewed him out for something. She was very proud of this. I was saddened by her story, because she won the battle, but lost the war. How could she have had a productive dialogue with her boss instead of yelling at him — and losing a champion in the process?

After giving this extensive thought, I keep coming back to the same premise: We keep talking about empowerment as if it comes from outside. As a boss, I must empower my workers. As a humanitarian, it is my duty to go empower women in developing countries.

Here’s the problem with that: If I can give you empowerment, I can also take it away.

That isn’t optimal, it’s not sustainable — and it’s not working. Look anywhere in the world where we’re attempting this.

I would rather see a world where each individual is empowered in a self-sustaining, perpetual way that works, and whose source is infinite. I call it Self-Directed Empowerment™, and we’ll explore it in more detail in Part 3.

For now, what I want you to keep in mind is that empowerment is not a zero-sum game. For the next few days, as you observe and participate in conversations, ask yourself what you’re bringing to the dialogue. Are you making an effort to be collaborative, and empathetic, trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint? Or is your style to be more positional, digging in your heels to be right?

Collaboration is paramount to success if we’re going to move the conversation of empowerment forward.


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 who builds resilient female founders and executives.

Photo: Jason Cipriani