A few weeks ago I was running around the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, supporting a book I’ve been working on for the past year. The book, The Athena Doctrine, will come out on April 16, and I’m pretty excited about it.
It’s a labor of love — after months of research and travel, my partners (both men) and I have concluded that feminine thinking is crucial to successful modern leadership. We surveyed 64,000 people and traveled more than 100,000 miles around the globe, asking people to group traits such as empathy, communicativeness, intuition, patience, assertiveness, openness, and honesty as “feminine” or “masculine,” then asking which of those qualities were most important in leaders. Universally, across age, sex, and nationality, feminine traits were almost always ranked as the most crucial keys to unlocking solutions to intractable social problems. They are being embraced by leaders, men and women alike, at corporations, NGOs, startups, governments, and militaries. “Feminine” thinking, it turns out, is not at all exclusive to women (though women do often lead the charge) — and it is simultaneously an untapped source of innovation and a competitive advantage globally.
But this isn’t a post to promote the book (although I am shameless and would be happy to talk more about it if anyone is interested! Oh, and all proceeds from sales of the book go to the UN Foundation’s GirlUp Campaign, which I’d also love to chat about), it’s about how awkward and offended I got at SXSW when a woman used me as a prop in her argument that we shouldn’t have written this book. Or rather, that men shouldn’t have written this book.
This seemed to be the gist of the argument of a professor (she didn’t say from where or of what) who pounced on the microphone for Q&A after our SXSW presentation. Earlier in the talk, John, one of the authors, had asked me to stand up and take a bow for my critical role in logging endless miles to report the book. (Bhutan, people. I went to Bhutan.) I did so, happily and proudly. He mentioned me by name several times in the talk and referred to me as his partner, which I consider him and his co-author Michael to be.
But when Professor took the mic, the first thing she said: “So, this woman who helped you with the book, where is she?”
I obligingly stood up and waved.
The professor: “So if she was so important to the book, why isn’t her name on the cover with yours?”
I froze. John didn’t skip a beat though – he told the truth, which, incidentally, is one of the feminine qualities we highlight in the Athena Doctrine. He said I was an essential part of the team and crucial to shaping the book, but I didn’t write it. He and Michael did. Therefore, I am not named as a co-author. Also, my name is Amy, not “woman.”
Professor: “Well, you should have thought about your marketing before you made that decision.”
Riiiiiiiight. Because in a book that espouses the value of honesty, transparency, empathy, and connection, what we should have done as a team is lie in order to better sell the product. Because the only way to lend weight to writing concerning the prefix fem — feminist, feminism, feminine, femininity — is to have a woman’s name at the helm. (Listen: I’m as concerned about the issues of women’s representation in media and the byline gap as the next female writer and reader. But not at the expense of the truth. I researched the book. I didn’t do the work to write it, and I certainly didn’t co-author it. Why would my name be on the cover? For better marketing? Please.)
But the professor wasn’t just talking about lending weight to a discussion of femininity, or feminism, or even women in general — she was implying that men shouldn’t write about the subject, or if they do, they need a woman to legitimize their conclusions. That because they aren’t women, they can’t know anything about, nor do they have the right to discuss, so-called “female” realms. I call bullshit. We want more men involved in this conversation. This is not a zero-sum game. Just because men are talking about fem subjects doesn’t mean that women are losing ground in the discourse.
As a team, (and I suspect, because we’re a team that includes two men) we’ve been challenged on ideas of gender essentialism in the book — people ask, who dares label these traits are “feminine”? (The people who took our survey.) Are you saying that only women can possess these qualities? (Absolutely not.)
In fact, our whole point is that both men and women can, and should, embrace “feminine” qualities such as empathy and openness. We believe we can move beyond social and gender norms to become more balanced people and leaders, and this will help make the world a better place. Hopefully someday these labels won’t matter, but today, they still do, and they help shape our framework for thinking about them. So why shy away from them? And more importantly, why should the conversation about them be limited to women? Men have different perspectives on social issues than women do, because they have a different lived experience, just as people of color have different perspectives than white people, and gays and lesbians have different perspectives than hetero people, and so on. This doesn’t mean their voices should be excluded, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about those perspectives. Taking “fem” subjects and making them into “women’s” issues, which only women speak about, is hugely damaging to our discourse. Feminism is a human issue, and we all need to be part of the conversation.
So should two white dudes have co-authored this book on femininity? If they were smart, conscientious, and balanced, why not?
Back to the Professor, who, two weeks later, is still making my blood boil through my ears. Without considering me as a person, she tried to use me, and my sex, as ammo to dismiss and devalue the hard work we had done. She trivialized me into a prop in her tirade against my partner, something at least one other prominent woman writer in the audience noted afterwards, simply because he is a man and I am a woman.
Did the Professor think she was rescuing me? Did she assume I was feeling left out and mopey because I wasn’t on the cover of the book? Did she hope to embarrass John in front of a crowd of people by elucidating some hidden sexism based on the byline? Did she hope to embarrass me in front of a crowd of people by implying that her sense of misogyny was more finely honed than mine, and therefore she was a better feminist than me? Isn’t that kindof, er, unfeminist?
I don’t know, because she didn’t approach us after our talk, and she didn’t join us for the drinks we hosted later, although we invited all. I would have welcomed the opportunity to tell her I didn’t need her defense. My hope is that the book will help people work together to solve to real problems, rather than argue over trivial things like claiming credit. But apparently that wasn’t hers.