Melanie Ho, author of BEYOND LEANING IN: Gender Equity and What Organizations are Up Against, sits down with Rachel and Felicia to discuss the cumulative and ripple effects of discrimination against women in the workplace. The novel offers unique insights in a fictionalized (but very familiar) office as men and women try (and often fail) to create an equitable and supportive workplace. Rachel and Felicia also discuss the app Clubhouse, and look back at their own early career experiences.
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Rachel: Oh my gosh. Felicia Jadczak. Co-founder.
Felicia: Yep, that’s my full name.
Rachel: It was not. I didn’t say what your middle name is.
Felicia: Well, I know your middle name too. So I guess we,
Rachel: No one’s going to out the other person. And I appreciate that. Um, well, hi.
Rachel: What was the last time we did a podcast episode?
Felicia: Was it when I was in my closet?
Rachel: It might be.
Felicia: Literally, not theoretically or metaphorically, literally in my closet. I don’t remember. I think that might’ve been it, but it was awhile ago.
Rachel: Yeah. And what is time, as we’ve talked about? Well, I’m glad that we’re doing this. It’s for a special occasion, but we wanted to start to talk about the book, which is Beyond Leaning In by Melanie Ho. It was released on March 8, days ago. March 8th for International Women’s Day. And we both read the book and we both loved it and we were talking about, and we just decided to hit the record button, because we’re talking about how this book would have been so helpful for us, maybe, when we were in our business settings.
Felicia: Yeah, earlier in our careers. And we will definitely be getting more into it with the author herself, but we were just kind of chatting because, just thinking about our reactions to the book and how it landed for us. I don’t think either of us can really say that we’re in the beginning of our careers anymore, for better or for worse, but we were in agreement that this book would have been really helpful, in a really interesting way, if we had been able to read this earlier in our careers. A lot of what Melanie discusses in the book with specific regards to gender dynamics, performance reviews, and language, and pay equity, and all of these different dynamics that are happening at the workplace, you and I have lived through this. We’ve experienced pretty much almost everything that she covers in the book, I would say. I was telling you, Rachel, that earlier in my career, I really felt like it wasn’t that I wasn’t speaking up or recognizing some of the things that were happening to me, but I felt very alone in the sense that I didn’t have language. I didn’t have a contextual understanding and I didn’t have that higher viewpoint awareness about how I fit into these bigger issues. It felt like I was in my little rowboat trying to paddle against the stream by myself. Something like this book could have been really helpful even just to give some context as to things that I was experiencing.
Rachel: Yeah. I agree. I know we’re a few years apart, but I think the conversations that people are having now are so drastically different than what they were talking about even 10 years ago. I agree, I think for me, honestly, I don’t think I was even aware of the level of systemic bias that was in existence and at play, because what I love about this book is that it’s not about the overt stuff. It’s not about the egregious, obvious, really big stuff. It’s more about the microaggressions, the smaller moments that are so easy to overlook and ignore, but can have a dramatic impact as a whole. I really appreciated that because I definitely also did not have the language or the awareness to judge any behaviors that maybe felt a little uncomfortable, or judgy, or inappropriate. I didn’t even know that it was wrong in any way. I was like, Oh yeah, that’s just the way things are just totally fine.
Felicia: I think what’s really interesting, just to give a bit of extra context for listeners so they understand what even is this book about. It’s essentially a fictional narrative of this company that is, in a lot of ways, failing. It follows a number of different characters through this book. The head of the company, the CEO, is a woman who is older; she’s been very supportive in her career of supporting women. There’s a few more seniors, (they’re junior to the CEO, but they’re in senior positions) who are women, and the different pathways that they’re taking in their careers and choices that they’re making. There are also some younger people, interns, and other staff members. So it goes through each of these characters in this bit of time in this company’s life cycle.
I think what’s really fascinating is there’s certainly the more blatant stuff, and there’s some moments that happen with microaggressions too, but it’s so insidious because you come away from the book where you’re like, okay, well there’s no like “bad guy” or “evil person,” or someone out to destroy these people. Most, if not all, of these people are very well-meaning in their own ways and they all want the same thing, but what’s happening is, whether they’re aware or not, even the tone and the words and how they’re moving in the world- and even someone who is a woman leader, who’s being super supportive- she’s being really damaging at the same time. And I think that’s what’s so tough about it. Something that really stuck with me was there was a moment in the book where someone who’s a little bit more senior, she sits in, and is chatting with some interns. There’s this dynamic where there’s a male intern and a bunch of women. The guy basically expects the woman to answer the phone for him. They say, this is a very common thing, and we’ve been tracking it, and the men never answer the phones and we’re always supposed to answer. Basically they were like, “well, what happens when we’re not here? Is this just with us or is this something that plays out in their personal lives with their families and their wives or girlfriends or mothers or whoever else is in their family?”
I’ll actually read from it, because it really stuck with me. I specifically bookmarked this: “Even if the male intern starts the internship seeing the women as equals, would he continue to believe that when he sees them receiving less important assignments or what he notices that their ideas are less likely to be listened to than his?” I think that’s a very subtle distinction, right? It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, but you start seeing how this gap starts widening from day one. It made me think of moments in my career where I went through the same academic program as a guy who was a year behind me, we both got hired into the same exact team in my last company. But from the very beginning, we started getting assigned different projects. I started getting assigned the fluffy stuff, the cupcake projects of the world, and he was getting assigned these really technical things. I remember feeling really frustrated because I didn’t understand why. Then I also saw his behavior changing, and this is a friend of mine, so it wasn’t like it was a deliberate, conscious, belittling of me or putting me down. But I definitely saw his behavior changing where I could feel myself being put into a box that I didn’t want to be in, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. So yeah, that really stuck with me. I mean, the whole book really landed in a lot of ways.
Rachel: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. That sucks. I’m hopeful that between this book and the growing awareness of these issues, that there can be more intentionality. The other thing that I love about this book is that the title is very intentional- Beyond Leaning In.
Felicia: Yeah. Thank you for bringing that up. Yes. Let’s talk about that.
Rachel: Yeah. Leaning in is all about, it’s the responsibility for the women to lean into this and to advocate for themselves. But what I think resonates for both of us so much is that when we started She+ Geeks Out, it was very much about wanting to create community to support women in tech and tech-adjacent roles. What we realized is that even though we can do as much as we can as women to advocate for ourselves, if there isn’t someone on the other side of that desk that is able to listen in an unbiased and a fair way, then it doesn’t matter. You can advocate for yourself all day long, but how that is viewed is what will be problematic.
Felicia: In addition to that, I’m going to, yes, and you, it’s also having that awareness as to the water that we’re swimming in. Because you can advocate or not advocate or do all the things from all the different perspectives, but if you don’t have that larger, contextual understanding and awareness, it’s just going to make your efforts that much less impactful in the long run. The other thing that I really liked about the title and the approach of it, is obviously the elephant in the room is Lean In and that was a huge movement and organization and text when it came out originally with Sheryl Sandberg. I was at Grace Hopper, I was at that conference where she launched it. I was sitting in that audience, listening to her, for the first time talk about Lean In and why she wrote it and what the book was all about.
And even then, we have a different perspective on it today in 2021 than we did when it first came out, but even then I remember thinking to myself, well, this sounds great. And I was really excited about it, don’t get me wrong, but I, at the time, was junior in my career and I was very single and literally one of her primary things was find a good partner to support you. And I was like, well, that’s great, but how am I supposed to do that? Where are the supportive partners waiting for me to pick one?
Rachel: Felicia, Felicia, you just gotta put on some more makeup. Wear different clothes. I don’t know. That’s wild. I didn’t know that that was part of it.
Felicia: And that was honestly one of my biggest issues from the get-go. I was like, it doesn’t work that way. At the time, and again, I forget the exact year that Lean In came out, but I remember distinctly, this is probably around the same time you and I actually originally met and started what became She+ Geeks Out. And maybe you remember this too, but a lot of the conversations that we were having around gender at that point in the workplace was around the divide between working mothers- women who had families versus women who did not. I remember it was something that I felt really strongly about because I was single. I had no family, no children, I didn’t even have a pet at that point. I was very unencumbered. I remember just feeling like it was so important to talk about the fact that just because someone is younger or doesn’t have children, or whatever it might be, doesn’t mean that they have to stay late or that they get the extra work, or that it’s okay for the parents to leave early and have different flex working schedules. Remember when flex time was such a big cry that we were all pushing for it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the struggles and things that we need to do to support families and parents. It was just such a divide where it was like, either you’re a mother or you’re not, and there was no nuance as to anything in between. For you and, I think a lot of what gave that initial oomph to She+ Geeks Out was the people we were bringing together were like, we don’t want to talk about balancing work and home life because that’s not what we’re struggling with. We’re not trying to figure out how to get our housework done. We’re trying to figure out how to be in this world and no one’s thinking about us. We’re not right out of college, but we’re not a parent and we’re not senior, so what’s in the middle for us?
Rachel: Yeah. That’s such a great point. And it’s interesting. It’s totally fair obviously. Moms get the short end of the stick all the time. One hundred percent. And also, it’s what, especially this past year, so many folks have seen all the horrific research that’s come out. It is interesting to think about. There is that huge sector of women who leave the workforce because they have not been afforded the ability to have that flex work schedule, and take care of their kid, and maybe share some more responsibility with a partner. Then on top of that, I think the other aspect that people sometimes forget to mention is that people leave this industry because it is not welcoming. That gets left out of the conversation and despite the strong efforts of companies, in their words, sometimes it doesn’t always translate to action. And so I think that if you don’t see yourself, you don’t see a place for yourself then it’s hard to stay.
Felicia: Yeah. And to bring it back to the book, I really enjoyed reading it because it gives you that inside look.We all know the research, right? We know the numbers, we know the data. We can say all the good things, but it comes down to conversations that people are having. That’s something that’s really tricky to pin down. What I really liked about the book is that, for me, I feel like I’ve been given an inside “fly on the wall” treatment for probably a million conversations that were had about me or my peers or in the organizations that I worked at. There was a moment in the book where a few senior leaders that are gathered together to decide who’s going to get assigned to some big international project.
They basically decide for these three different employees whether or not they will want to take the project. This is definitely a line that we have all heard a lot, but they’re like, this lady just had a kid- she’s not going to want to travel. This person has a husband who’s really high up, so he’s not going to want to move. And then this person is fine, because he’s a dad and he’s fine. His wife can take care of whatever it was. I forget what the specifics were, but, that’s how it happens. They assigned some random person to the big plum thing, and the person who’s listening and thinking through this with this new perspective is like, “wait a second, this doesn’t make any sense.”
The person whose husband has a high-powered job, he works for an international company. It’s going to be super easy if they want to move. The person who just had a kid- we don’t know that she doesn’t want to travel. Maybe she can’t wait to get out of the house! And the person who is the father, his wife can’t move because she’s stuck here. She’s entrenched in the area. That’s how it works. It’s just so insidious and really hard. That’s the stuff that’s really hard to change. It’s not even a behavior, it’s just the interactions that people are having.
Rachel: Yeah. It’s that intention versus impact what she talks about as well. And I, for one, hope that companies and teams use this book. I think it’d be a great book club book, for an ERG. Very rich conversations can come out of it.
Felicia: So one thing that the book touched on briefly really landed for me because I’m thinking a lot about this, is at one point, one of the main characters is talking with someone else who runs a different company. They’re talking about how the world is changing and how they can support younger women and all this good stuff. They’re both women CEOs. One of them says, “I told this woman yesterday that the only way a woman can advance in business is by taking on more stereotypically masculine traits.” That’s definitely a theme that comes up with the generational divide in this book. We’ve seen this as well, playing out in real life, where women in an older generation who are more advanced in their careers, a lot of them got ahead by fitting into a very masculine, dominant, way of being.
Even in the book at one point the CEO tells another woman, I would have never worn that lavender blouse- it’s too feminine. And the younger woman is like, “are you kidding me? I’m wearing a suit and the color of my blouse is not going to help me get ahead?” I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The reason this really stuck out for me is because, even today where I think the conversation has evolved so extensively from when you and I first started really thinking about this stuff and getting into it, what really annoys me and bugs me is that we’re still operating within the patriarchal framework. So you talk about things like what skillsets are desired and what it takes to get ahead and how do you be successful? And we’re looking at it through a male lens. It’s not even cultural differences, but things like speak up and lean in and all this stuff. Why can’t we reframe it from a feminine approach? What does it take to have to basically dismantle the frameworks that we’re operating in? What would it look like if we looked at getting ahead in business from a feminine perspective, not even a feminist perspective, although I’m down for that, but a feminine person.
Rachel: Well, and I’m going to blow your mind. What about a gender neutral perspective? What if there wasn’t even about that? What if it’s just like, hey, bring your best self and you know what, these are the things that we need for a person to do their job and that is what we’re going to focus on. It’s not going to be about what they wear. It’s not going to be how they talk. It’s not going to be what time of day they do that work. It’s going to be, here’s the thing we wanted to get done.
Felicia: In the book the way they illustrate a little bit of this is one of the older characters is thinking about when she came up in the world and how it behooved her to do a lot of data sharing and talking about numbers. When she tried to talk about relationships, which is something that’s seen as traditionally less masculine, she was shut down, and was basically told don’t do this, otherwise you’re not going to get ahead. Yes, absolutely, beyond the gender binary, is that ultimate next step too. It really frustrates me sometimes to think we’ve been talking so much, especially this past year with COVID and a lot of the social unrest and injustices, but what does it look like? What does true liberation from oppression look like? We have to get out of what we’ve been operating in. I have also been seeing a lot of people talk about things like, if you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. And then I think that next step is, well, I don’t know if this is the table for me. Maybe we don’t need a table. Maybe we need a new table. We need a different table. We need not a table at all. That’s the mentality I really want to like, lean into for 2021
Rachel: I love that. But I would like to talk a little bit about Clubhouse. I think this could be a little DEI Roundup. So Clubhouse (if anyone hasn’t heard by now I would be very surprised), essentially is a 2021 version of a party line, an app that is specific to iPhone, that is audio only, where people have conversation, that is also invite only, so you have to be invited. Then you’re cool if you get invited into these things, and it’s growing in popularity. So that is what Clubhouse is. I was initially annoyed because someone told me about it and they were like, you should join Clubhouse, it’s going to be amazing! And I was like, I can’t, I have an Android. So that right off the bat was like, oh, okay, well, that’s a thing.
And then Felicia, I think you mentioned first the issues around folks who are hard of hearing and deaf, that can’t use this platform at all. Then someone sent me an article from Forbes, which we can include in the show notes that goes deeper into the issues around exclusivity. I am fascinated by the fact that I shared this within a variety of my circles and it’s essentially been crickets. Even on my LinkedIn where I get a fair amount of engagement, I think I got one like and no comments, which is very unusual for when I post stuff. So I don’t know if it’s some AI algorithm trying to block me from doing this. Or if we have to question how much we really value inclusivity. Because this thing is not only exclusive, so how much do people like exclusive still? And then also things that are just new and trendy. We’re not talking about people really sacrificing. We have a million platforms that we can all engage on at this point. If you don’t want to look at a screen, guess what? You can turn the video off on zoom and still hear everyone. So I don’t get it, and I sound like an old lady, but those are my thoughts.
Felicia: Yeah. Thank you for sharing, First of all, and for kicking off this conversation, because Clubhouse is the latest trendy, hot, new thing on the block. I think you and I, Rachel, are really similar in this way that we resist hopping on board the latest and greatest. We are both still watching the Oprah interview with Harry and Meghan. We did not watch it when it first came out. We both are new to Animal Crossing. We’re a year behind literally like the rest of the world. So I think we share that propensity to resist.
Rachel: It makes me sad, because I actually like new tech, but you’re right now, I feel like a Luddite.
Felicia: It’s not true for literally every single thing, but I think that’s something that we share a little bit of. From my perspective, you know, Clubhouse, I of course was aware of it, but I kind of resisted it. I already have a lot of stuff to do in my personal life, I don’t have time for a new platform, it’s going to fade away. But I did recently get on it. The other thing too is I just don’t like the idea of having to hunt for an invite. It felt gross to me. I’m part of a lot of different Facebook groups and I would always see people saying, oh, I have five invites. And then there’s a hundred comments. I don’t want to be part of that grubbing for an invite to something that I don’t even know what it is. I did get an invite in the last couple of weeks and so it was from an organization that I’m tangentially part of, they were trying to bring people in to have conversations. I figured, why not? So I got on. I do have an iPhone, so I got on, I poked around, I listened to a couple chats or whatever they called them, and I honestly haven’t really been on that much since. Now, first, I think, yeah, there’s definitely some accessibility issues for sure, which I don’t think this is going to come as a surprise to anyone, but by nature, it’s an audio app that’s designed for people who can hear, and there’s no support for people who have hearing disabilities or who are hard of hearing or have are deaf. And so that’s not a great thing. I have hearing aids and I’m hard of hearing. I think I can pick up most of what people say if I don’t have closed captions or subtitles available to me, but it does make it easier.
And definitely for television, I can’t really watch TV or movies without closed captions. I just miss too much. It’s something where I can still participate if I really wanted to, in these conversations, but I probably am missing some of it. And like you said, it’s a party line, so it just seems like a big free for all. There’s moderation, of course, but there’s a lot of talking and it gets really confusing. Again, I’m just talking about my experience, but because I do have the hearing disability, I know my brain processes sometimes slower. So what I hear, I don’t always understand, and it can take a few moments or even a minute or two to click together. And when you have, you know, five or ten people all talking over each other at once, that doesn’t really lend itself for understanding.
There’s also issues around the fact that a lot of disability advocates and people who have disabilities and who are active and allies are saying this app doesn’t care. And I think that’s the bigger issue. They don’t care. The actual, literal design is to keep people out. The thing is that, you know, you are keeping large amounts of people out. It’s not just about, do they have an Android or an iPhone, or do you care or not care or whatever. They’re keeping people out who might want to be part of it, who had the invites or who have the technology. And they just can’t literally engage with the platform. I’m part of this group, which is called Diversability. It’s a disability community online, which is a really great resource, if anyone is out there who is interested in partaking who has a disability. They’ve been having some interesting conversations. I think the founder and some other people from the group are on Clubhouse. They’ve been talking about, come join us, we’re having conversations. When I joined myself, there are quite a few different disability focused groups that are having conversations and are active and there are rooms or whatever they call them that are disability focused. And that’s really interesting to me. And the conversation is really around this exact issue. It’s sort of the chicken and the egg. Is it better to join in something like this that’s not accessible to push them to be more accessible or to help them or provide advice or insight? There’s also people who are saying, “this is great because this is a place where I’m finding community and that’s important.”
You and I know that. But then on the flip side, there is the other side of it too, which is, it’s not accessible still. I was joking about Andreessen Horowitz, but they are the backers. I read something on Twitter the other day, do you think that at any point in the process when they were signing that check, do they care about anything related to this? No, absolutely not. And that speaks to a larger issue. So anyway, I’m venting about all sorts of things.
Rachel: I agree with everything. The whole thing of like, oh, finally people have a place where they can have a community. I cannot think of a pocket on the internet that does not have a place for it somewhere. To me, it’s just another platform. There are a million platforms, there’s a lot of different ways and anybody who wants any little sub group of anybody can find a little home. I’m sure I’m making a blanket statement that’s not always true, but you can use other platforms to create this. Unless you want to create an environment that is specifically designed to be exclusive for folks. Which seems very strange to me.
Felicia: I think, I think that’s what it is though.
Rachel: I know. And that is what is so problematic, which is why I’m like, okay, I get it. The tech industry is very problematic in many ways, but look, it’s 2021. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word- inclusivity. It’s something that everybody cares so deeply about, but when it comes to this platform, when it comes to one particular tool, it seems to me like trendiness and exclusivity wins over inclusivity. It’s just wild to me.
Felicia: Yes. I agree. I think a lot of it ties back to what we were talking about earlier from the Beyond Leaning In conversation around how we value things and how our systems are set up. There are a ton of VC, and angel investors and tech people on Clubhouse. And we know that VC and investing is predominantly, still male and white male. It’s not exclusively, a hundred percent, but that is a huge population. We can go into all the data later about who’s getting funding and all that good stuff, but what I found really interesting was that with that in mind, and you don’t know this because you didn’t get onto Clubhouse, but when you sign up for Clubhouse, like a lot of other platforms, you get in, you create your name, and then they give you a list of people that they have you pre follow. Again, you and I are, I think, very tech savvy. For me, I don’t want to follow all these people. It’s not user-friendly. You have to manually go in and unclick every single person, and it’s like 50 people. Because I had to manually do this with my little finger, I was looking at each of the people that they wanted me to pre-follow. And this is the thing with Clubhouse. Unlike other platforms that you may be familiar with, there is no directory and there’s no central area. So basically when you get in, the only way to find groups and people is by inputting your contacts, these pre-followed people, and then you start seeing pop ups of conversations that are happening.
Felicia: And then you basically, it’s sort of like a little labyrinth. You can follow one person and you see who they follow, and then you see what groups are they part of, and then you join them and it just keeps going like that. But there’s no way to know what else is out there because there’s no directory. So if you’re pre following these people, you have to look and see who are these people that I am listening to? A lot of the people are tech. A lot of them were men. A lot of them were white, not all. I do want to note that Clubhouse, I believe, has BIPOC founders and a lot of the early buzz and press was because it was being built as a community where BIPOC people were gathering and having conversations.
So I don’t want to negate any of that, because that’s also an important point. But also, and this is a whole other thing to bring in, and we haven’t touched on yet in our conversation, there’s a lot of people, right wing political people with some really damaging viewpoints and concerning conversation topics. So there’s this underbelly, but what is happening is that anyone who’s signing in, who doesn’t have the wherewithal, or the know-how, or the tools to unfollow or only follow who they choose to follow, is automatically getting rolled into this group of people that now, whether you like it or not, that’s who you’re getting access to. And that’s who you’re hearing from and who you’re listening to. That’s a whole other issue. Again, it comes down to accessibility and user design and intentionality and how they’re designing the platform and ultimately, what are the goals for the platform?
Rachel: Yeah. Well, I just hope that everyone just pays a little bit more intense attention and just look within if it’s needed. That’s all I’m saying.
Felicia: Well, I can tell you- I have it. I don’t really use it. I haven’t deleted it. I do think it’s interesting in some ways, still. I want to keep tabs on what kind of conversations are happening out there. But it’s not really something that I’m spending a lot of time on, but it is interesting to see who is.
Rachel: Well, maybe in six months we can revisit and see if the platform has evolved.
Felicia: Yeah, for sure.
Rachel: And see how that goes. But I loved this conversation!
Felicia: I always love having conversations with you.
Rachel: I know, me too. I hope that we get to do these more often, because there is so much that’s happening. And I know it’s hard for us to sometimes be like, “Oh, let’s just hit the record button. Maybe other people will find this valuable.”
Felicia: Yes. If you found this valuable, let us know. Cause we’re just chatting.
Rachel: Yeah. And if you did not find this valuable, also let us know, tell us. We like feedback. I think we did it. I think we wrapped this baby up. We will hope that you follow us in all the places and stay in touch with us. We are always doing new and exciting things, I like to think. Maybe not launching new tech platforms, but that’s okay. We’re doing other things. Maybe in the future, we’ll get that sweet, sweet VC money. Just kiddin, that’s not our jam. All right. Talk soon!
Rachel: All right. We’re live. We’re not live. We’re recording. Hello Melanie! Hello Felicia. Hi, this is Rachel and we are so excited to have Melanie Ho here. Melanie is the author of Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations are Up Against. A unique business book written as a novel, which both Felicia and I read, and love, and can’t wait to talk about. But I also wanted to share that Melanie is the founder of Strategic Imagination, a firm dedicated to drawing on the power of the imaginative arts to drive transformational change, and is a really good artist who makes really good web comics. So welcome, Melanie. Let’s just get this party started. Tell us your story, your personal history, how you got here, where you are today, your origin story, all that good stuff.
Melanie: Thank you for having me, and well, my recent origin story is that I did a lot of soul searching at the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly I wasn’t traveling. I was able to sit still for the first time in, I really don’t know how long and just thought about the passions I’d had for a long time. I most recently, before my pandemic soul searching, was a senior vice president at a research technology and consulting firm in higher education and K-12 called EAB, and I loved my job, but there was something that was missing. I found myself continuing to return to actually the interests I had when I was younger. And I just loved the power of literature, and art, and film to change how people think. I had gotten a PhD in English, and then I had gone on to this other career that I enjoyed and I was learning a lot from, but I found I kept circling back to those older interests. Even in the last few years in my consulting work with college and university leaders, finding that college and university leaders were getting stuck when they were trying to imagine bigger, bolder transformations for their organizations or their strategic plans, and I had found that a number of Fortune 500 companies like Boeing and Nike and Lowe’s were hiring science fiction writers and comic book artists to help them envision their futures. And I just loved that. And so all of this kind of swirling in my head over the summer, I decided to found my own firm called Strategic Imagination, really all about when organizations are stuck, when individuals are stuck, how do we use the power of the arts and fiction in order to help people get unstuck? And my first project for that has been Beyond Leaning In.
Felicia: That’s so exciting, and I didn’t realize that Strategic Imagination was so young. So we’ll definitely have to dig into that a little bit more, but first let’s talk about the book because it just came out what two days ago, I want to say. As Rachel mentioned, we both read it and we loved it, but maybe you can start us off for listeners by sharing a high level overview or like a synopsis of the plot of the book.
Melanie: And thank you so much for reading it. As a new author, I have to say I’m just so excited whenever anybody has read my book. The book tells the story of, actually, multiple characters, but it begins with Debra. She is the CEO of a tech company. It’s a startup. She’s a baby boomer, she has worked hard across her career to smash all those glass ceilings and to lift up other women. And her company is actually known as a good place for women to work. They’ve won awards and she’s been profiled. And so she’s really puzzled at the beginning of the book when she realizes that they do the numbers, they do an engagement survey, and they find that at senior levels, women are less engaged than men. And they’re also departing at higher rates than men when they look at their retention data. And so it’s a little bit of a mystery as Debra is trying to understand what that disconnect is. She keeps trying to understand. And she feels like the younger woman, those in their thirties, forties, advancing into leadership are kind of biting their tongues and she doesn’t know why. So she enlists the help of a younger woman named Cassandra and kind of does a reverse mentorship where Cassandra helps her understand the perspective of rising generations.
Rachel: You know, I think it was so interesting that you chose to make it a fictional story, and I would love to hear what inspired you to write it that way and what your process was for writing the book.
Melanie: There were so many things that made me want to write it as fiction. So maybe I’ll begin with that. I started thinking about the book back, actually in 2013, when Lean In came out. I had just moved into a senior management position at work. I was really excited that this book came out by a Facebook executive because it seemed like everybody was talking about it and maybe this would bring attention to the issues for women in leadership. And yet it brought attention, I think, to all the wrong things. Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In is very specific that she’s not, with one book, trying to solve the entire problem of gender equity. She has one specific message that is in her book. She says there are other things you also need to look at. And yet it felt like, not just corporate America, but when I would talk to friends in other industries too- nonprofit, education, etc, it seemed like organizational leaders everywhere had taken Sandberg’s book as this shorthand that now the only problem that we needed to solve was women needed to lean in and it put all the blame on women.
And because I was at this critical moment in my career where I had just moved into a senior position, I suddenly really wanted to understand the issue. So I, like Felicia, am an avid reader and just obsessively started reading everything I could find. It’s so interesting, there’s so much research out there. And then I thought, well, I wish everybody would read this, but they’re probably not going to, because at the end of a long day, most people aren’t going to pick up all these tons of research on gender equity. So I wanted to write something that was more digestible and fun to read, that you’d enjoy it and get invested in the characters, but also that hopefully would mean that men would read the book too, not just women, because we need men in the conversation. And then the more I started writing it as a novel, the more I realized that there are all these other benefits of a novel, because every single diversity, equity, and inclusion training I’d been in, people would often shut down because it’s hard to deal with all those difficult emotions. It’s hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes, especially when you have difficult emotions. Then there’s research by psychologists on how novels can help develop empathy and how novels can give us that critical distance, and so I felt like a novel could help make any research more digestible by getting you invested in characters, but for issues around equity, there might be these extra benefits.
Felicia: Yeah. I really loved the novelization approach. And I will say- when I first started reading it, I was like, “Hmm,” just to be very honest, because you start with a staff roster, which is basically the list of characters. And I was like, what is this? I feel like we are used to more of the research approach or your viewpoint and what you’ve learned and now you’re sharing it. But I think what I really liked about it was A) it was really approachable, but also B) and this is something Rachel and I were chatting about earlier, a lot of what came out of those characters interacting with each other is the really subtle nuances that’s really hard to speak to in a dry research paper, where you can say, “here’s the data and here’s the numbers,” but you don’t actually see how that plays out in a conversation where both people might have good intent, or they mean well, but then it’s still a damaging result. That is laid out really nicely and effectively in the book. So I love that part of it, but I did mention that list of characters and you’ve got like 20, 25 characters in the book. I would love to know a little bit more about how you came up with those characters. Especially for the ones that maybe you don’t share similar identities with, or maybe haven’t had the same exact experiences with. What was that process like in terms of coming up with the people that populated the novel?
Melanie: So I started with the characters who were actually least like me. Debra, the CEO, and Jack, the CFO, who are both in their sixties and I’m 41. I started with them because I wanted to put myself in the perspective of leaders who are trying to run a company, it’s hard enough. They’re going from 30 minute meeting to 30 minute meeting to 30 minute meeting all day. And their intentions are good. A lot of my goal with the book was to show that despite our best intentions, this is just really, really hard stuff. And the fact that it’s hard stuff is why we need a book-length novel, or any book-length project, to really understand it. Because so much of our impulse, I think, at work is to look for the quick solution. I talk at the end of the book about the whack-a-mole problem and not just about gender or equity in general. Organizations find the quick win, they want to kill the problem and then it’s going to pop up somewhere else. Part of my goal with the novel and with the characters was to show how hard it is to solve things. That, to me needed to start with just getting into the perspective of Debra and Jeff. So I started with them, and then I went to the character who’s probably most like me, who is Cassandra, Debra’s reverse mentor. After the three of them, it sort of populated out. Like I needed to give Cassandra some friends, and I needed to give Debra a team.
Felicia: At least Cassandra had some friends, cause yeah, she was dealing with some hard stuff.
Melanie: Yeah. And her friends are her lifeline, like for many of us at work.
Rachel: How did you decide to give away particular types of information about the different characters?
Melanie: A lot of the decisions that I needed to make around the characters was how much information to give about each character. And there are things that made that more complicated, I think, for a novel that’s about work and that’s trying to combat people’s unconscious biases. For example, I didn’t worry when I was giving a male character a girlfriend or a wife, and actually with all of the male characters they learn things through their girlfriends and wives. With the female characters. I thought, if I give a female character a romantic partner who is a man, then suddenly they’re going to be defined by that relationship and people are going to read into everything going on with them at work, “Oh, is that because this is happening at home?” in a way they wouldn’t ever do with the male characters.
I had this moment of just being very conscious of, what are the assumptions the reader comes in with, and how is that assumption going to help me? How is that assumption going to hurt me as far as wanting them to get into the story? Then another question for me was just how much detail to give about the characters, and actually there’s very little physical description of any character. What’s interesting to me is sometimes I’ll ask people what they think different characters look like and whatever character they identify most with, they just think looks like them, unconsciously.
There’s a little bit of an interesting thing about fiction, maybe in comparison to non-fiction, is that it allows you to make meaning for yourself. What I actually love, is the conversations I’m having with early readers, where they’ve made meaning that I didn’t intend at all. People actually have come up with backstories and features for these characters, and things going on in their lives. It’s really fun, but that’s what I hope readers will do. And actually I’ve been in conversations with folks, like how can we formalize that? Have visual artists, for example, be able to draw scenes and draw in the gaps. It’s like fan fiction. Take a scene that you just read. If you change the location, put it in your industry, put it in your office, change the main character in this scene, what does that do to it?
Rachel: Love it. So I wanted to ask a question about you feature a tech company. Obviously tech companies are sort of the area of focus for a lot of people when we talk about this work. It’s interesting, we do a lot of work with a whole variety of industries, and so I’m curious how translatable you think it is to different industries?
Melanie: Yeah, I mean, I think the sad thing is how translatable it is. The same challenges. Women face them in every single industry. And that includes not just for-profit industries, but not for profit industries. So talking about my writing process, the first, really super messy draft of this book, I started during NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. And the point of NaNoWriMo is that you’ve finished a bad draft. I mean, it doesn’t have to be bad, but mine was bad. You finish a draft during the month of November by just committing to writing lots of words every day. And so in my NaNoWriMo draft, because I felt like there was a message I wanted to say about how the same challenges are true for women across industries, I actually had multiple companies. And the character Cassandra, who is the reverse mentor in the final version, she actually is visiting company to company and seeing the differences, but actually more than that, the similarities.
Melanie: And so I really wanted the reader to see that. I guess, a few things out of that, I had a book coach who kindly looked at the book and said, this is very confusing. I also realized that part of what I wanted to show is the cumulative effect of the smallest slights that women encounter across any given day and also how a bunch of characters are all interconnected, And how that interconnectedness means that this event over here can actually have an impact on the business over here. So to be able to both make it easier for the reader to follow, but also to show that interconnectedness, realized that it all had to be at one company. And it happened to be that Debra was the character I wanted to stick with. And she was the CEO of a tech company. So it became a tech company.
Rachel: Perfect. And I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, it is sad how translatable it is across industries.
Felicia: You know, we loved that the book was really specifically about those nuanced issues as opposed to a larger issue that’s super obvious or an industry specific issue necessarily. In the book, you do introduce some terminology around things like intent versus impact, microaggressions, and so maybe you could talk a little bit more about that and how that relates back into the workplace.
Melanie: Intent versus impact is a concept I first learned from my former colleague, Jesse Bridges, she’s the Chief Diversity Officer at Everfi, and I’ll share a personal story. It was actually after something I experienced where in a meeting a man who actually had been probably the best mentor and advocate I’ve had in my career, had undermined me. It was this terrible experience because in the moment, I don’t think he was thinking. He was busy with something else and he said something in a tone that was just incredibly patronizing. And I felt it. And I could see a few other women in the room probably feeling it, and I managed to recover. But it felt terrible, partly because he was someone who had been such an advocate for me. Actually, even though this was pre pandemic, it was recorded on Zoom, because about half the folks were in the office, the rest of the folks were remote.
And so I sent it to Jesse, who was the Chief Diversity Officer at this company that we both had previously worked at, and asked her to listen to it. She helped me understand intent versus impact, because I had that moment that women often have- the am I being too sensitive? She said, no, this is what’s going on here. There’s a difference between intent and impact. And yes, this gentleman’s intent was entirely good. He’s your advocate, he didn’t mean to do that, but this was still the impact, and that’s what we need to resolve. Her telling me that both reframed how I thought about my own experience, but also helped me have the language to have a conversation with this mentor of mine, because I was able to say to him, “I understand all these reasons why your intent was good. Now you need to understand all the reasons why the impact was not good.” And so that’s a theme that really runs throughout the book. One thing I say in the preface is that none of the characters here are villains. They’re all people who want their organization to succeed. They want a more equitable workforce. They care about each other, but often they unintentionally do things that have a bad impact.
Felicia: That was something that really landed for me too, because there is definitely one, maybe two, characters, I think you could theoretically have set up as the villain, and even with those characters, you feel for them. I think that’s a huge impact of the book, that it shows that it’s not about someone being a horrible person. It’s about how damaging these little things can build up to over time. Even someone who’s damaging workplace relations, they’re coming from a whole perspective, and have stuff going on with them, and they’re fitting into different systems, and tropes, and things like that. That was really interesting for sure. I love that choice.
Rachel: Agreed. Felicia and I talked a little bit about this as well. I just wanted to talk a little bit to what I think is one of the most interesting parts of the book- the generational differences. Felicia refers to herself as an elder millennial, I am a Gen X-er, I think Melanie, you maybe…
Melanie: I claim Xennial.
Rachel: Nice. I love it.
Melanie: I’m theoretically, I think the last year, of Gen X, but I actually feel like a millennial. So I just say I’m a xennial.
Rachel: I love that. So we’re all relatively close in age. I think it’s just so interesting to have the language and the tools that are available to folks now. Felicia and I were reflecting a little bit on, what if we had had these tools back in our day when we were you , because we didn’t. There’s such a benefit that the current generations have to have these tools and have this language. And yet, another part that I think resonated with us very much was around the interns, who are the youngest in there, and they’re still dealing with some of these issues. I’m just curious what, even though we’re all sort of more, I really don’t want to use the word, so I’m not going to say it, but we’re more awake and aware to these issues, yet we still struggle with them. So I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on what your hopes are for maybe the youth of this book and how you see not just the generations like ours who were sort of more in leadership roles, but the folks that are coming up, handling this work.
Melanie: I think a lot about the book is getting what’s talked about behind closed doors out into the open, because I think that’s a big difference too, just in terms of, as people advance up the ladder, they become more aware. I’ve had, I’ve had conversations with baby boomer women who have read my book, who have daughters who are in their twenties and early thirties, and saying that actually their daughters are still at the point in their careers where they’re starting to see the challenges, but aren’t yet seeing them enough to actually realize they’re there. And they think it won’t happen to them. It will happen to them. So I hope that part of the value of the book is really helping people in different places with different things. So when I think about the woman who’s in her, and it’s not just about age- where you are in your career, the woman who is in middle to senior management and has started to experience the things here, that it helps them make sense of what happens to them. It gives them a new framework, gives them vocabulary to have conversations with others. For men, and I’ve had a number of early readers who are men, and those are fascinating, wonderful conversations. I think for men, it is actually helping them understand the challenges that women face. That even if they have close female friends and family and colleagues, they still aren’t hearing all of the things that are discussed behind closed doors. There’s still a part of it that they don’t have access to, and this actually gives them that access. And then I think for women who are starting out in the workplace, if you know what might happen to you, then in the moment can help mitigate the risks, or prevent it even, sometimes.
Rachel: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Felicia and I were chatting a little bit about the hope for this book. We could see it be used in teams and certainly with the folks that we work with, as ways to foster some really meaningful discussion.
Felicia: In addition to the launch of the book itself, you also have been rolling out this series of web comics. Rachel knows this, I don’t think you know this Melanie, but it’s like my favorite thing in the world. So I’m a little bit obsessed with them and I love that it’s not just the book, but there’s a visual aspect to it too. And that it kind of condenses a lot of these big topics into these digestible, Instagram posts, and visuals. And so tell us more. Was that something that you did because you wanted to support the book? Were you already doing art around this stuff beforehand? Where did all that come from?
Melanie: There’s another pandemic Hobby.
Felicia: I feel like you were very productive in your pandemic. And meanwhile, I just watched all of Netflix, so I’m a little jealous. Not going to lie.
Melanie: There’s definitely phases of the pandemic. It’s funny because I’ll talk to friends and they can identify, Hey, remember that phase where you were doing- Do you know that app Quarantine Chat? I had this phase where for a month, all I would talk about to anybody was Quarantine Chat. It’s an app that connects you randomly to a stranger somewhere else.
Felicia: What? I haven’t heard of this.
Melanie: No, I have phases of the pandemic and I had a phase in, when was it? I think it was in September. Oh, it was in September, it was actually right after I left my day job. I think if it weren’t a pandemic, and I had left a corporate job, that was pretty demanding, I would have taken a few weeks and traveled. Since I wasn’t going to do that, I took a bunch of art classes. I’ve always done a little bit of art here and there, but I had never really thought about putting anything out of mine into the world beyond maybe, “here’s an Instagram post,” but not a serious one, just oh, here’s my paint and sip. And so I ended up taking a few art classes, and one of them was a comics class and it was taught virtually from New York, and I really enjoyed it. And then I kind of forgot about it because that phase with done. Then about two months ago, as I was finishing up all the production details for Beyond Leaning In, I was just thinking about, well, what’s a good way to get some of these ideas out that’s even more accessible? I hope that as a novel, it’s accessible and digestible, but what if you only have a minute to look at something? What’s a way to get that out? I remembered that previous phase I had in the pandemic where I was taking a comic class, so I thought I would do that.
Felicia: I love that. I’m like, Ooh, I need to like rechannel my phases and productivity, because again, all I did was eat and watch TV, but I used to do comics myself, but it was just about my disastrous single life. It’s been long dormant, but I do love that it is, as you said, digestible. It’s another way to process the information. And it’s just, they’re really fun too. I love your style.
Rachel: I agree. Same. So do our Instagram followers, so that’s good. All right, so now we’re switching gears a little bit. We always ask this question to our guests. What is it that you are currently geeking out about? And ideally not something like gender equity, or web comics, or writing. For example, Felicia and I, now, 11 months later, Geek Out about Animal Crossing. Cause we’re old. Because we’re late to the party. Very late.
Melanie: So I love Airbnb online experiences.
Felicia: Yeah. So do we. What’s your favorite?
Melanie: I like ones that you can do with other people. My mom and I did one on Christmas day, since we couldn’t be in the same place. I live in Washington DC and she lives in San Diego and we took a cooking class, making crepes with a woman in Paris. And my nephews are seven years old and they live in Los Angeles, and we did a magic show together. So that’s been my favorite part of it. What are the things we wouldn’t have done before, but now we can do?
Felicia: I know, I’m hungry now, but it really feels like your theme is learning and doing, and it’s great. I love that approach. In addition to geeking out, would love to know if you have like a piece of advice that you would like to give to people who are thinking, okay, what can I do in this world to make it a little bit better and brighter? Any nuggets of advice to share with our listeners?
Rachel: So real.
Melanie: No, I mean, seriously. One of the best things I’ve done ever is a silent meditation retreat.
Rachel: For how long?
Melanie: I’ve done a week.
Felicia: Wow. That’s awesome.
Rachel: Wow. My husband would love that. Sorry, gender, but you know, I do talk a lot. So.
Felicia: Does it say something about me where my immediate reaction to that, Rachel, was more a reflection on him versus…
Rachel: I love it. That’s why you’re my partner. That’s brilliant. I don’t know that I could do it. That would be a heck of a challenge, but I love that. And I think that was excellent advice. We talked a lot about breathing, certainly, especially over this past year. I have one final question: what’s currently making you happy, or something that you would recommend? A podcast, a book other than yours, not that there’s any better book to read, a Netflix show or movie, anything you’d recommend?
Melanie: So many. I do watch a lot of TV. Whenever anyone asks me that for TV recommendations, I have a hard time. Cause it’s like, well, what genre are you looking for? What mood? That determines what suggestion I will give you.
Rachel: What was the last thing you watched that you enjoyed? And it can be something that is not cool, because that’s how we roll.
Melanie: I love everything on Apple TV+. And I think not enough people have discovered Apple TV yet, but I got it for free with a recent phone I purchased, and literally everything on Apple TV. So I don’t even know how to pick, but Ted Lasso is great.
Felicia:I was going to say, Ted Lasso has got to be on that list. The best.
Melanie: Dickinson is great. Um, what’s the one about the podcaster.Truth Be Told.
Felicia: Oh, I don’t know.
Rachel: I don’t either. I’ve only seen two things on Apple TV, and that’s The Morning Show and Ted Lasso.
Melanie: The Morning Show also good. Yeah. Everything there is good.
Rachel: So we’ll put in the notes just to subscribe to Apple TV.
Felicia: Well then, thank you so much for that Melanie. Beyond that, where can people find you, Beyond Leaning In, what else? How would you like to plug all that good stuff? Share all that with our listeners that they can also read and check you out and all the good things.
Melanie: Yeah. You can find me, my book, my web comics, my podcasts, my I don’t know what else, thoughts on life at www.beyondleaningin.com, and connect with me on all the social medias.
Rachel: That’s very exciting. And it’s probably worth mentioning that we are going to be doing a special contest, which will be available to folks when this is out, in March 2021, that we’ll be giving away some of Melanie’s books. So if you want to get a free book, come to instagram.com/shegeeksout and it will support all the things. Thank you so much, Melanie. We really appreciate the time.
Melanie: Thank you. Great to be here. So fun to talk to you.