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What Happened at the Gold Conference Panel on Gender Bias

Gender Bias is Insidious. Men Start out in front and stay there.This week, at Initiatives in Art and Culture’s Gold Conference, the opening evening event – normally reserved for an outing at an atelier or exhibit – was instead devoted to a panel on issues facing women in the jewelry industry.

The topic of gender bias is hardly unique to our industry. But as a small industry, it is perhaps more important to our overall success and more difficult to discuss than for other industries. I won’t try to recap the conversation in a linear way. I don’t think I could. Hedda Schupak kicked things off by asking the panel how the jewelry industry was managing gender bias relative to other industries, and within three or four minutes, the entire audience was involved in the conversation.

Immediately, women began telling their stories. One woman’s career was ruined by a male colleague’s idea of a  “joke.” He liked to tell their co-workers that she had slept her way to her current position. After being passed over for promotions for which she was more than qualified, she approached Human Resources. The HR representative told her that the belief she had been sleeping with higher-ups had led to her being passed over. An investigation discredited the male colleague and his “joke,” but it didn’t matter. Her career there could not recover. She transferred to a different company, and the male colleague suffered no consequences.

Another woman, a senior marketing executive, spoke of advocating to be included in a major advertising agency meeting as part of a powerful diamond industry group. She was the only trained marketing executive in the group, and the only woman — in a market that sells almost exclusively to women. And yet, when the meetings commenced, they made her leave the room. It was humiliating for her (and genuinely stupid of the men).

Participants spoke of women in our industry being belittled, ignored, talked over, humiliated, passed by for promotions. Groped. Raped. Trapped in jobs they could not afford to leave. Of women contemplating suicide.

At one point during this free-wheeling discussion, a women in the audience expressed how upset she was with the panel. She said she had expected this to be a positive experience, claiming, “All I’m hearing is negativity! Stop with all the man vs. woman stuff! ” I could see that several women agreed — and many more empathized — with her.

Then I looked at the faces of some of the men I know well — some alone, and some with their wives. Men who would gladly make gender discrimination disappear. It occurred to me how difficult this conversation must be for them. Yet, I could see that these men were fully present, along with us for the pain and discomfort, willing to listen, learn, and participate. And I could see that none of their wives felt the need to shield them, nor make excuses for them. These wives trusted – and expected – their husbands to handle it.

Painful Things are Hard to Discuss

Ask anyone who has ever been on the brink of divorce, only to turn the corner and go on to have a stronger marriage, what changed. You will almost certainly hear that they finally learned to discuss the hard things in a productive manner. Not necessarily a positive manner — it’s practically impossible to have a hard conversation without saying difficult things, and difficult can be scary and painful. But productive conversations lead to positive outcomes.

This isn’t just a painful topic. It’s a confusing topic. So much of what we know about being men and women, and communicating with one another, is indoctrinated, inculturated social behavior. Much of what we enjoy about hanging out with members of the opposite sex is the dynamic tension and and perspective that comes from being different from one another. But we aren’t really equal, are we? When two groups come together to share experiences and work, and one group has inherently more power than the other, even seemingly innocuous statements and behaviors can be fraught with hidden meanings and interpretations. So there are sandtraps and land mines everywhere we turn.

It’s also very difficult to understand privilege from the perspective of privilege.

One of the things it is hard for men to recognize is how insidious gender bias is. Most men would agree that groping and rape are wrong. But what about all the other behaviors that undermine women? Studies demonstrate that women are expected to answer phones, set up meetings, fill out paperwork, take meeting notes, fetch beverages, bring or order food for office events, and head thankless committees at more than twice the rate of their male peers working the same jobs. Women are still treated as a servant class within business.

Men are more likely to take calls from other men, more likely to return voice mails left by other men, and take chances on men when making decisions about investments. In other words, men have more access to power and money than women have. They are also the often unconscious beneficiaries of presumed excellence. According to Forbes magazine, “when symphony orchestras started using blind auditions by placing candidates behind screens and drapes, the number of women in the five leading orchestras in the US increased five-fold.”

Women Still Lack Representation in Jewelry Business

In the jewelry industry, it is difficult to identify the percentage of women in leadership, as so much of the industry is very private and family-owned. However, of nine major jewelry industry associations, women make up only 20.5% of overall board seats. This is a far cry from the 50.8% of US population represented by women, or the fact that – other than engagement rings (which, even if men buy them, women still heavily influence) – women make a whopping 78% of women’s jewelry purchases (and wear over 90% of all jewelry sold).

When women cannot penetrate places of power, and cannot benefit from the same presumed excellence that men experience, it damages our ability to improve our lives.

The solution to these problems isn’t A) try harder and B) be patient. We’ve been trying damn hard, and we’ve been more than patient. The solution is for men to make a point of bringing women into their circles of power. If every enlightened man would do that for just two women, how fast could things change? Educated, qualified, hard-working women are extremely easy to find. If you’re reading this and you don’t (realize you) know some of these women, give me a call. I’ll be happy to make the introductions.

In addition to issues of access, presumed excellence, and equal treatment, many women on the panel and in the audience agreed that sexual harassment continues to be an issue in our industry. Jenny Luker and Brandee Dallow talked about the sexual harassment training initiative the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) has put together with the Jeweler’s Vigilance Committee (JVC) to educate jewelry  businesses. We need this training at all levels. If people won’t stop harassing one another because it’s the right thing to do, then at least let them be aware of the legal consequences. If you have never been through a sexual harassment training before, please avail yourself of it immediately. Apparently, character and ethics are not sufficient to solve this problem. So let’s all get educated. The more of us who understand what sexual harassment is, the more likely we are to take the proper legal action when it occurs.

But what about all the behavior that is discriminating, yet doesn’t meet the threshold of illegal?

The Difference Between Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

I am a big fan of public shaming. It doesn’t happen often enough, because women are trained to politely laugh off inappropriate comments and behavior, and men are trained not to notice it (or to not go against other men). But imagine this: What if, every time one of us – male or female – heard someone else (male or female) make a gender discriminating comment, we said, “That’s not cool. Don’t say things like that.” Publicly, calmly, in-the-moment. If we consistently shamed the behavior, the intentional discriminators would become intimidated, and the obtuse would (hopefully) become educated.

It’s unrealistic to expect people to stand up for themselves in this way. If you’ve ever been at the receiving end of a personal attack, even a joking one, then you know it can take your breath away and leave you feeling unable to respond until after the moment has passed. We must step up and denounce discriminatory behavior for others.

Where’s My Prize?

Later that evening and again the next day, several people asked why some are women so averse to discussing the topic of gender bias. I suspect that some have simply drunk the social Kool Aid. Issues of gender bias are currently all caught up in our divisive political discourse – though frankly, they shouldn’t be identified with any political position at all. Some people don’t like to think deeply and resent being required to do so.

But some women are carrying around the pain and shame of their own victimization, and self-preservation demands that they keep it buried. My heart goes out to them. It takes a lot of resilience to discuss terrible things that have happened in the past. And now, I have another insight, which came from a woman in her 30s who was in attendance. As we left the building that evening, she asked me – her eyes filled with tears – “Where’s my prize for sucking it up all these years? Because that’s what I’ve had to do.”

That, perhaps, is one of the hardest things to explain to gender-discrimination-deniers and the chauvinism-blind. How we suck it up. How we laugh it off. Not because we want to. Not because we think it’s funny. Not because we aren’t humiliated and angry and sick of it. Tired of it. All of it.

As Barbara Palumbo said, we suck it up because this may be the only jewelry company in town, and we can’t afford to spend 15 years in a different industry learning new skills and getting back to what we are earning now. We suck it up because we don’t want to move away from family and friends to do work we love, work that supports our families. We suck it up because the next place could be just as bad, so why make the sacrifice in the first place?

One of my male colleagues asked me the next day, “Is it any better? Is it getting better?” And I told him, yes, it is. If I compare now to the late 1970s, the statistics support (and I’ve seen) a steady, incremental, improvement. But better isn’t the same as fixed, and gender discrimination is still a real problem that holds us back and leaves women more vulnerable to violence and poverty than men will ever experience.

I do feel bad for some men right now. Men who would never use the phrase “like a girl,” or discount a woman. Men who are conscious that, even though they don’t discriminate, they bear the burden of being part of the solution. These men must take accountability for their gender to make things right. These men suffer the skepticism and distrust of this moment; distrust they haven’t done anything personally to earn.

I even have some compassion for the tin-eared men who say inflammatory things about women because they think they are being funny. Men who may be good husbands and fathers, but who struggle to understand their own bias in order to overcome it. This can be a painful, confusing process. I hope they are tough enough to stick with it and get through it.

But I could never, ever feel bad for men the way I feel bad for women. From the mouthy to the meek, young to old, optimistic to jaded — women have put up with men’s insistence on our second-class personhood while expecting us to keep their homes, extended families, and communities functioning for over a millennium. We’re so conditioned to this bullshit that we don’t recognize it when we do it to each other.

So we must have these hard conversations. We must vent, and listen, and strengthen one another. We may have to re-hash the topic many more times, because we’ve been holding it in for so long, and real change requires a lot of attention. These conversations will help us confess our pain, find our support networks, put on our armor, then get out there and change our world. One chaotic, painful, and exhilarating panel at a time.

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Thank you to Lisa Koenigsberg, PhD, founder of Initiatives in Art and Culture, for making this panel happen at the 8th Annual Gold Conference. Thanks also to Hedda Schupak, panel moderator, and panelists Wendy Brandes, Brandee Dallow, Jenny Luker, and Barbara Palumbo.


Data published in Tim Smedley’s “The Inclusive Workplace“ found that teams that are representative of their target client are up to 158 percent more likely to understand their client. No wonder the diamond industry is in such a mess right now.


Gender Makeup of Jewelry Industry Boards

Organization Male Female % of Women
MJSA

11

4

26.7%

Jewelers of America

15

9

37.5%

American Gem Trade Association

13

3

18.8%

American Gem Society

12

6

33.3%

Jeweler’s Vigilance Committee

30

11

26.8%

Diamond Manufacturers
and Importers of America

26

2

7.1%

Diamond Dealers Club of New York

21

0

0.0%

Natural Color Diamond Association

13

3

18.8%

International Diamond Manufacturer’s Association

6

0

0.0%

 Total gender balance

147

38

20.5%

The only jewelry association with a strong female
board makeup is the Women’s Jewelry Association
Women’s Jewelry Association

2

29

93.5%


References

Bergstein, R. (2017, August 9). Female Self-Purchasing Isn’t Just a Jewelry Industry Pipedream. Forbes.

Catalyst. (2018). Women’s Representation on Fortune 500 Boards Inches Upwards. New York: Catalyst.

Joan C. Williams, R. D. (2014). What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York and London: New York University Press.

M. E. Heiulman, J. J. (2005). Same Behavior, Different Consequences: Reactions to Men’s and Women’s Altruistic Citizenship Behavior. APA PsycNET, 10.

Pham, T. (2016, December 20). Think You’re Not Biased Against Women at Work? Read This. Forbes.

Sheryl Sandberg, A. G. (2015, February 6). Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee. New York Times.

Smedley, T. (2014, May 15). The Evidence is Growing – There Reall is a Business Case for Diversity. Financial Times.

Tristan L. Botelho, M. A. (2017). Research: Objective Performance Metrics Are Not Enough to Overcome Gender Bias. Harvard Business Review.

Williams, J. C. (2014, April 16). Sticking Women with the Office Housework. Wall Street Journal, p. 1.

 

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