Gender

The Dominance of Rich, White Men Is Eroding -- It's Time to Truly Fight for Diversity

We need both women and men, and folks from a range of ethnic and class backgrounds, informing the creation of business "not as usual."

With crisis, comes opportunity.

It’s a cliché that has soothed the displaced, the bankrupt, and the lovesick for generations. Our own moment of transition is certainly no exception. We’ve got an economy in shambles, multiple ill-conceived wars fumbling violently on, a dangerously warming climate, and broken healthcare and education systems. It’s enough to make even the powerful quake in their proverbial boots…which is precisely where the opportunity now lies.

After eight years of elitist, cowboy leadership in the White House and centuries of racism, sexism, and classism in this country -- the old boys are starting to loosen their death grip on power. Archaic institutions are crumbling. Business as usual is being exposed as, not just unjust, but dysfunctional. In last week’s Financial Times, Reihan Salam called it the "death of macho." He foretold a potentially violent gender clash between the highly educated, increasingly powerful women of the world and those of the jobless, alcoholic, disgruntled men folk. His hyperbole masked a more important insight. It’s not machismo that is dying; after all, one out of six women in this country is still sexually assaulted. It is the entrenchment of power among white, wealthy men that is eroding.

The age of access is dawning.

In this moment of economic, environmental, and cultural crisis, there is an opportunity for all of us to have unparalleled influence. There is a new willingness among politicians and business leaders to try new approaches to our oldest challenges and invite new people to the table. Just look at the diverse life experiences and perspectives of those on Obama’s cabinet and the folks he’s invited to advise him on everything from climate change to health policy. Lynn Rosenthal, a domestic violence advocate from New Mexico, was just appointed as the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. Interest in social entrepreneurship is on the rise at business schools across the nation and the profit and non-profit sectors are unlikely, but increasingly common, bedfellows.

Our newest mediums mirror this move towards genuine democratization and transparency. Courageous women leading the protests in Iran use twitter to get their messages through media suppression, as do those in Honduras. A transphobic website was removed from Blogger last week within hours of its launch thanks to a spirited reaction from the blogosphere. Radical activists from wealthy backgrounds are posting their giving plans on blogs, like Enough. A group of New York women have just created their own Ning social network -- She Writes -- in order to bypass the Paleolithic publishing industry.

In this brave new world, interdependence is undeniable. Small, nervous thinkers like David Zincenko, of Men’s Health, may be calling it a "he-cession," but the visionary among us understand that this moment is not about us vs. them, men vs. women, or white vs. black. This moment is about inclusion. We need all the brilliant minds and moral hearts we can get on our world’s most complex problems. For too long, we’ve been playing with over half of our players -- each of whom brings unique talents, perspectives, and styles -- on the bench.

Majora Carter, for example, can articulate the awesome opportunity at the intersection of our environmental crisis and our inner cities in a way that Al Gore, for all of his contributions, cannot. Her insights are not valuable at the exclusion of his, but in addition to his. Rachel Maddow’s and Campbell Brown’s political insights add a dimension to the nightly news that has been missing, just as Suze Orman’s no-holds-bar financial advice shifts the way all of us think about gender and economics.

White men have put forth, or at the very least claimed credit for, the majority of big American ideas of the last couple of centuries. They’ve also hogged much of the power in corporate, media, political, and academic spheres. Women, likewise, have dominated in the domestic sphere, and disproportionately served in teaching and nursing roles; this imbalance also degrades the quality of all of our lives. It’s time that we expanded our collective consciousness and distributed power more broadly. It’s time that we drew on the best and brightest from every corner of our incredibly diverse society. From boardrooms to courtrooms, from hospitals to schools -- we need both women and men, and folks from a range of ethnic and class backgrounds, informing the creation of business not as usual.

This, of course, is making some people nervous -- Zincenko and Salam among them. Pundits are wondering if we’re experiencing such an extreme earthquake at the fault lines of economics and politics, that men are going to become an "endangered species" (in the words of Zincenko). Women outnumber men on college campuses! Men are losing 80% of jobs! They scream as proof of the "first sex’s" demise. Sonia Johnson, feminist activist, predicted the "death rattle of the patriarchy" in a speech in 1979; I think her intuition is finally transpiring.

Sexism has deep roots in our nation’s history that will not be pulled up in one fell swoop. These pundits are only looking at the surface of things where, indeed, men are losing a disproportionate number of jobs, but they held a disproportionate amount of power and money in the first place. Women still make 78 cents on the male dollar, are more likely to be targeted for subprime mortgages and are more likely to live in poverty than men.

For individual men, losing the security of a steady job is frightening, and these men deserve all of our empathy and support. But their fate is inextricable tied up in that of their families -- wives and partners, sons and daughters. In other words, when men lose jobs, we are all affected. Just as when women are sexually harassed at work or paid unequal wages, we should all be outraged. It’s not, as James Brown famously sang, a "man’s world." But neither is it a woman’s world. We’re all hanging tough together.

The slow erosion of white, male dominance is not bad news, in truth, for even white men. We will all be safer, healthier, and happier when power and access is spread more evenly among us. When mothers who want more flexibility shape their workplaces, men also benefit from a more adaptable professional climate. When more women and people of color are in decision-making positions in the financial sector, we will all rest easier knowing that decisions about our money are being made by diverse thinkers (the cream rises). When public schools in the country’s poorest neighborhoods are improved -- and they must be -- then we will all benefit from the young people who emerge with bright ideas and a sense of civic responsibility. When women and men work together to prevent gender-based violence we will all lead safer, more dignified lives.

Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford and Mark Sanford, and so many others who have been coasting on fumes, are finally facing their own karma. While they fall from grace, there are symbols of this new age rising: Jenny Sanford refusing to play the dutiful wife in front of the cameras; Sonya Sotomayor standing her ground against claims of reverse-racism; Michelle Obama remaking the role of first wife;

And perhaps even more revolutionary are the men who are not only tolerating this shift in power but celebrating it: Barack Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act first thing; Nikolas Kristof wondering in The New York Times if we wouldn’t be in this situation were it "Lehman Brothers and Sisters"; filmmaker Byron Hurtchallenging the misogyny and homophobia in hip hop culture.

These men are symbols of a new kind of male power -- one that doesn’t exist to the exclusion of women, but works in concert with them. They aren’t lamenting the demise of macho culture, because they recognize that it never served them in the first place, and that of course, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Crisis creates opportunity because it clarifies. Excesses are shed, guards are let down, dysfunction is exposed. The never ending numbing and constant consumption are staved and we are forced to confront the truth of our own predicament. Ours is scary: the recession threatens to pull many families under, while the gaping class divide endures. Fossil fuel addiction has pushed us to the brink of our resources. Global poverty breeds extremism that further endangers us all.

We must face these challenges without blinders, brave and united. We must embrace this new age in which each of us is so vulnerable, that all of us must be engaged in recovery. We no longer have the luxury of living in an either/or world; from here on out, it’s both/and. As Jawaharial Nehru, a leader of the Indian independence movement, once wrote, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

Welcome to our moment.

 

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.