Some of My Best Friends Are Women
March is Women’s History Month, an annual recognition of the positive contributions women have made to society. Now in its 31st year, the designation corresponds with celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8) which, according to the official website, is “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”
While this annual tribute is designed to raise awareness about women’s issues, there are some who feel focusing attention once a year in a concentrated way has the unintended consequence of less media coverage the remainder of the year.
Unfortunately, in today’s Me Too times this is not the case. We continue to read countless news reports about ongoing sexual harassment in the workplace and that women still are being compensated less than men for doing the same job. Despite increased enforcement of non-discrimination policies and the investment of millions of dollars in unconscious bias training, it seems like little or no progress is being made.
As someone whose career has been dedicated to enabling equity and opportunity for all, I have spent a great deal of time analyzing how this is possible. At the end of the day, I have learned that truly diverse and inclusive environments happen because someone was intentional about making it a reality.
For employers, that means setting goals about the demographic composition of their workforces which reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and holding everyone accountable for achieving objectives.
But what about our own lives? If you believe you are committed to making the world a place where everyone is valued for who they are, how do you know if you are part of the solution or just a bystander?
Speaking for myself, I know I have not been as intentional in diversifying my circle of friends as one might think. This seemed antithetical given what I did for a living and the fact that I gravitated towards women at work and when I was volunteering in the community for organizations like the Human Rights Campaign. On top of that, even though my network at work and in the community comprised many women, both lesbian and straight, the majority of my closest friends still were gay men.
Come to think about it, when my mother was still with us, she would often point this out (as only mothers could) by asking me how many of my close friends were women and how many straight friends I had. My knee jerk reaction was always, “some of my best friends are women...you met Lisa and you know Sandy.”
Like it or not, we all have a natural inclination to develop relationships with people with whom we have something in common, such as where we grew up, or who have backgrounds similar to our own. Which is why after a busy and sometimes stressful week—which often involved fighting for the rights of disenfranchised Americans which included LGBTQ people—I tended to default to what was easiest when it came to socializing with others.
To be honest, I just wanted to be off-duty and let my hair down so to speak instead of explaining what it was like to navigate in a heterosexual-majority world which can be mentally exhausting.
As the years wore on and the struggle for equality remained elusive, I came to realize that I was not practicing the very advice I gave to clients. If I was not willing to make it a priority to broaden the circle of people I engaged with on a daily basis, why should I expect others to do the same?
It could have been easy to say that the work I did to combat discrimination gave me a pass. Thanks to my Jewish guilt, this was not an acceptable answer. In fact, a famous proverb by the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel gnawed at me: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
Over time, I was more intentional about who I spent time with and why. After years of asking women in my life to support non-profits like Food & Friends and Whitman-Walker, I returned the favor and donated to organizations focused on women’s issues, like The Mautner Project and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
When forming a dinner party list, my husband Greg and I made sure there was more gender parity among the guests. The sad thing is that not only was it simple to do, it made for a more enjoyable and enriching evening. The best thing is that these are all very simple steps each of us can take. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.