lesson learned

09/19/2016

My first job out of college was with a company that currently employs more than 375,000 human beings. Since disconnecting from the Matrix, my professional life has been organized around much smaller (and often distributed) teams. I’ve had great managers, hard-working teammates, and wise mentors. But none of this prepared me for a head-on collision with my own ignorance last year as the diversity panel where I was speaking drew to a close.

When the floor opened for questions, a woman asked about how she should deal with a (male) manager who had demonstrated sexist behavior. A woman on the panel responded first, and I was surprised by the emphasis on carefully navigating the politics and considering the repercussions of speaking up.

By contrast, I encouraged her to immediately contact HR. And as it turns out, my response illustrated the problem. As a man, I benefit from the patriarchal structure of most work environments. I’ve never had to worry about my opinion being discounted, I’ve never had to assume secretarial duties in meetings, and I’ve never felt harassed or uncomfortable in work environments because of my gender.

Horror stories from women who had reached out to HR under similar circumstances spilled from the audience. I was appalled to learn how common it is for women to experience vicious professional repercussions. The topic ignited the previously subdued crowd, and the ensuing conversation had to be curtailed to clear the stage for the following panel.

I failed to spot my own male privilege despite being a black man surrounded by strong and outspoken feminists. I had the luxury of being oblivious. That’s a humbling thought for me.

This is why we publish so much writing by women in Abernathy. Sometimes the most important thing we (as men) can do with the microphone is to pass it.

Abernathy is the leading online magazine for professional black men, and this is an excerpt from last week’s newsletter. Subscribe for full and early access.