What men (and women!) can learn from “Barbie”
Yesterday, CNN reported that “Barbie” topped “The Dark Knight” to become Warner Bros.’ biggest movie ever at the American box office. Barbie exceeded the $1.2 billion mark globally, and Greta Gerwig, Barbie’s director, now bears the title of the highest-grossing woman movie director in history. Combine this with Taylor Swift’s Eras and Beyonce’s Renaissance world tours, and we have an excellent peek into the power of the female purse and perspective on the global economy. But that’s a blog for another day!
For every ally reading this article, there are many lessons that can be learned from the Barbie movie. However, in our short attention span era — and without giving too much of the plot away — if you do nothing else, please read the following quote in which America Ferrera perfectly captures the nature of the challenges facing every woman in the workplace.
You can read the full speech here.
This simple paragraph should be discussed at every possible upcoming ERG and staff meeting! We know that one of the most important steps of allyship is listening. Use this quote as a conversation starter with the women and other underrepresented groups in your workplace.
To learn more about how the messages of Barbie show up in the workplace, I want to examine four common situations portrayed in the movie: Empathy (or lack of), covering, counting and the double-bind dilemma.
I had already started talking about empathy as a leadership skill when the pandemic burst into our national consciousness in early 2020. As the workplace was turned upside down, leading with empathy became crucial to leading teams through the crisis, retaining talent, protecting productivity and preventing the worst effects of the 2021 Great Resignation followed by the Quiet Quitting era.
In the movie, Barbie and Ken both learn a great deal about empathy and its effect on their culture. As long as Barbie was living in a world perfectly designed for her with all the affirmation and opportunity she could want, she had no desire for change. Why would she? But when America Ferrera’s character Gloria opened the portal into the “Real World” dominated by patriarchy, Barbie gained a whole new insight into women’s experiences there, which were very different from her own. Is this how white men feel when they open their eyes to the experiences of people who must operate in a world that is not set up to serve them? Barbie also learned to have empathy for Ken’s experience in an “every night is girls night” world where he was routinely excluded and dismissed from full participation.
Empathy allows for a different perspective, which often awakens a desire for change. Empathy is integral to The 4 Key Actions to Advance Women, and it’s achieved through listening to the experiences of those who are different from us. One of the most important questions we can ask our colleagues is “Do you believe men and women are having different experiences at the company?” And really listen to the answer.
After her eye-opening experiences in the Real World, Barbie concluded that to reach their individual potentials and be successful, both she and Ken needed to be fully themselves, without depending on the other for identity. This is an insight into “covering” in the workplace, which refers to people being unable to bring their whole selves to work. The majority of people cover at work to some extent, but it’s worse for women and a lot worse for Black women, who are twice as likely as overall women to cover, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report. This begs the question, what skills and contributions are our organizations missing out on as we expend energy covering up who we really are?
During her encounter with the Real World, Barbie was surprised and dismayed that she couldn’t find one woman working at the construction site or in the boardroom. In fact, she expected the whole construction site to be made up of women, and she was confused to hear the Mattel CEO’s convoluted explanation of why there were no women in the C-suite. Will Ferrell hilariously tried to explain how much the company actually valued women, although not one had a seat at the table.
For Ken, it was an equally amazing epiphany that there were many men in leadership positions in the Real World, and that he was actually treated with respect in society. Although he was frustrated to learn he couldn’t just rise to the position of CEO or doctor without any credentials besides “Beach,” he was heartened to hear from a male executive that the patriarchy was in full force although they “hid it better” now.
In my Leadercast article, Steps to Leading With Emotional Intelligence and Inclusion, I wrote that women and other under-represented groups will tell you they are familiar with the concept of counting. This refers to counting how many people of your gender or race are in a meeting you are attending. Both genders are working hard, but women are working significantly harder as they constantly have to deal with being one of a few in the room. This is also true for people of color. But this is something that is rarely experienced by white men in America. Typically in leadership meetings, men are the majority, and as such, make the rules.
In McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report, they confirmed that senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be “Onlys” — the only or one of the only women in the room at work. “Women who are Onlys are more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience microaggressions, including needing to provide additional evidence of their competence.”
When Ken “counted,” he was able to experience the confidence-building that comes with seeing people who looked like him in positions of power, making him believe he could achieve the same. Barbie “counted” at the board meeting and saw no one like her, which means no women had a voice at the table. Although her face was the literal face of the brand, the Mattel C-suite did not want her running amok in the Real World and upending the status quo. What they really wanted was to put her back in the box, silencing her voice and any perspectives she would have had to share.
The Double-bind Dilemma
Gender stereotypes create a no-win situation for women leaders. In her article Let’s Get Real: What it Takes to Champion Women at Work, Danielle Terranova writes about the precarious balancing act female executives must perform in today’s workplace.
“While most organizations tout equality and aim to embrace the unique qualities of female leadership, they also expect women to mirror traditionally masculine leadership characteristics,” Terranova writes. “The dueling and unrealistic expectations we impose upon women creates such a narrow and precise definition of female success that most women feel they are walking a tightrope in order to survive.”
In my article The Meritocracy Myth. The Unwritten Rules of Promotions and the Workplace, I wrote that there are extreme perceptions in which women are labeled as “too soft” or “too hard” but rarely “just right.” Whereas acceptable men’s behavior can range from table-pounding aggressive leaders to quiet introverts, women are judged more narrowly. In practice, women leaders are often held to higher standards and yet receive fewer rewards than their male counterparts. It is completely wrong, and yet it goes on every day.
Terranova suggests that strong male engagement by men who care deeply about supporting women in leadership positions can help remedy the double-bind dilemma. As I do, she advocates listening to understand. She also suggests checking for unconscious bias before giving feedback or career development advice to a female executive as well as being visible, vocal advocates for change in the organization.
For too many men, Barbie will just be seen as a frivolous movie. But for allies, it provides an amazing learning opportunity. The challenges and barriers women face are real. It’s impacting your employee turnover and your bottom line, whether you care to admit it or not. If leaders and allies truly want to help drive change in their companies, they will begin having deep, meaningful conversations, not just around the four barriers that I’ve identified, but around all the challenges that women face.