What's Jada Pinkett Smith's explanation for Hollywood's nonstop diversity fail? "They like the familiar so they lean towards that in the people they place around them," she tells Newsweek of male executives. It's not just Hollywood.
Whether it's business, politics, show business, or the workplace in general, this is a recurring explanation for why so many people in power looks exactly the same. It's not an overt misogyny or racism, the theory goes — it's just that employers tend to subconsciously want to be comfortable in the workplace, and they are often more comfortable with people as much like them as possible. When the people in power come from a small pool — generally white and male — that's self-perpetuating.
Pinkett Smith, of course, is highly successful. She says she's gotten by through figuring out how to communicate and put people at ease.
"Men have a way of communicating with each other that is very direct and clear...That stood out to me, and I think when a woman gets into the mix, the reactions can change, and men can shut down just like they do in the home. If they don't know how to respond to an idea or disagree with a woman, it can get very complicated. They can't challenge you to a duel or yell and argue like men can do with each other, so that becomes an obstacle that as women we have to find a way around. For me that means remembering to keep that authentic confidence, and to allow the fact that I am a woman to shine through."
I've been doing interviews for a story about why another high-profile workplace is so male-dominated (more on that soon), and this is an idea I've been hearing a lot. One woman said she felt like her male superiors were uncomfortable critiquing her work to her face, maybe because they didn't want to appear sexist, so she was in shock when her employment ended abruptly. Another realized belatedly that she'd alienating her male peers by misreading social cues and trying too hard.
Pinkett Smith says she did the same:
"Early on I really think I attempted to be the loudest one in the room. I wanted to be heard and felt like that was the only way in a room full of men. But eventually I realized that all I needed was my own authentic confidence to get their attention. I think as women we often forget that femininity can be a great thing if used in the right way. Trust me, I had my days of wanting to go ‘dude to dude' with the men in the room, and then it just hit me that that didn't work as well as being confident in myself as a woman and allowing that to show.''
What is entailed by "going dude to dude" versus "authentic confidence" is up for interpretation, and though Pinkett Smith doesn't explicitly mention how she has had to shape her message as a black woman talking to mostly white men, it surely factored in.
But what's frustrating about this type of conversation is that it implies that underrepresented voices have to constantly change themselves to make their peers more comfortable, putting the burden on the so-called "diversity" to put everyone at ease. This already happens, of course, but once in awhile it would be nice to see some of the people in charge thinking about how they themselves could change to make the conversation more welcoming for everyone.
Women On The Verge [Newsweek]