Let’s Be More Than a Number

Recently, I had a chance to arrange representatives from a nonprofit organization based in Japan that encourages “diversity and liberal education,” to speak in front of high school students in New York. 

There were 3 of them from the organization.

2 men, 1 woman.  33% representation of female! Woohoo! 

Reality though, was far less than that. 

At the meeting, the 2 men kept talking, while the 1 woman stayed silent.

Female “representation”? Less than 1%. 

It’s not the numbers. It’s what’s happening behind the numbers. Hear that, Shinzo Abe

As the world preaches diversity and countries fight to increase women’s labor force participation, we continue to fail to take the more important step to translate that number into momentum building waves of permanent, lasting change.

Are women there physically? Yes. Are they counted in the numbers? Yes. 
Are they heard and seen as leaders, or even active participants? No.  

The incident itself soured me, but it burned to the core, when a few days later we received a thank you note from the delegates. 


It was a note from the Japanese delegates to thank us for connecting the two communities. 

It came from the woman. The two men were cc’d. It was a very courteous, thoughtfully written email. She sounded upbeat, full of energy. Where was this person when we really needed to hear from her that day in front of the students? 

She, despite not having a voice on stage, was the one who took the time to draft the email, while the men were casually cc’d. They were probably doing something else that advanced their position as leaders and ‘doers’, like giving a TED-talk like session or being the subject of an interview.

Mind you, this is NOT a form of representation. It’s doing the work of someone else (the men who spoke should have done it, if they really were leaders). It’s someone else putting unspoken pressure on you because somehow, that’s your ‘job.’ The students never got to see this side of her. The energy behind the thank you note, only addressed to me, failed to inspire when inspiration was most needed.  

It might be fine for now, but imagine this getting repeated over and over again. What do we feel as women? What is our worth? No wonder women leave the workforce. Our babies and children respond a lot better to our attention and care than most of our male colleagues.  I have not experienced this myself, but my hypothesis is that because the experience of childcare is such a direct response to one’s time and contribution, it becomes such a rewarding, meaningful time for them, way beyond growing a career. If the workforce does not deliver the same sense of contribution, the same type of reward, the feedback they deserve for doing the job they were meant to do, the tipping point will always un-favor the career building process.  


To the bosses and men – if you decided to bring this woman along to represent your company, have her participate. Don’t let her just be a number, a person with long hair and a skirt standing in front with you to make you look like a diversity champion.  If she hesitates to speak, ask her to, because it’s HER JOB. AND it’s YOUR job to make sure it happens, too.  

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