Hello, I hope your weekend has been enjoyable. Here in Connecticut the temperature has been in the 60s, which in previous years would have felt like a miraculous respite from the winter weather, but in the context of the fires in Australia, seems merely ominous.
Every time I speak or write lately, I seem to gravitate back to the topic of small cycles of continuous improvement. This week I was going to write about the role of leadership in creating a learning organization, and felt a bit silly when I realized halfway through that, not only was I writing about continuous improvement again, I hadn’t really realized when I started writing that that’s where I was going to end up. I used to do a much better job of mixing up topics, so I’ll try to recover that habit. This Coaching Letter, then, is about sexism.
A couple of days ago, someone sent me this article: Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? (Or if you’d rather watch the original TED Talk—actually, I recommend it, it’s really funny—here’s the link.) What’s new? I thought. I know, sorry, that was cheap. What I was actually thinking was yes, I know this, it’s a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect—people who think they are smarter/better leaders/better decision-makers than they are in any objective sense nevertheless find themselves in positions of power because their confidence is in itself compelling, and because they really believe their own self-hype, they believe that they objectively deserve the position they hold, thereby reinforcing their distorted self-assessment.
For more on this, try Coaching Letter #12, What know-it-alls don’t know, this very short TED talk by David Dunning, 3 kinds of bias that shape your worldview (also TED) or Why Donald Trump will be the Dunning-Kruger President. I highly recommend this article in HBR: If Humility is so Important, Why are Leaders so Arrogant? One step removed from Dunning-Kruger, but still in the ballpark of how our perceptions of ourselves get in our own way, is this HBR classic, Teaching Smart People how to Learn. The bottom line is that we are very bad at telling the difference between competence and confidence.
But I hadn’t really thought about the gender factor in the Dunning-Kruger effect, so I started doing a little Googling. Which took me to examples of how sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and sexual abuse are still such pernicious problems, which kind of took me surprise, which then made me feel kind of silly (again), because it’s only a little over two years since the Harvey Weinstein story in the New Yorker kicked off the #MeToo movement.
Why is that, I wonder? I don’t have a good explanation for why I was surprised at how much sexism women still have to deal with—even that construction assumes that things are better than they were. And of course they are, by many measures. And isn’t that the danger? That some progress is quickly conflated with adequate progress: there are now three women on the Supreme Court (but there have been 108 male justices); a woman has won an Oscar for best director (but see this exposé of sexism in Hollywood from the New York Times Magazine); a third of Connecticut superintendents are women.
For a sobering cure for the worldview that sexual equality is imminent, I recommend watching Everyday Sexism. And perhaps most shocking is this article, Evidence of a toxic environment for women in economics—most shocking because this is behavior by men who are the ultimate product of the education system, men with PhDs and positions in academia, who display a level of misogyny that is truly incredible, and whose nasty behavior would have gotten them suspended from school. Not surprisingly, the situation is even worse for women of color.
Lots to think about here. Ibram Kendi in How to Be An Anti-Racist is very clear on racial discrimination: the only cure for past discrimination is present discrimination. Should we look forward to the next 100 Supreme Court justices being women and people of color? Just an idea…
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org