EqualiSea

The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Mike O’Brien of Seattle City Council on Gender, Part 2 of 2: Dialogue and a Call to Action

SeattleMartha BurwellComment

*See part 1: "Words are Powerful" for context.

What do you do when someone says you made a mistake?

The easy thing to do is to get defensive.  To shut down, ignore it, to say “it’s not my fault!”  It’s tougher to take it as an opportunity to learn.  To say “help me understand what you mean.”

Shortly after I posted a blog last month critiquing Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien’s comments on gender and childcare, I received a message on Twitter: “I’d love to chat about your recent post.  Maybe we could talk on the phone?”

As I dialed his number, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Angry and defensive?  Or open-minded and curious?

The phone rang a few times, and butterflies danced in my stomach. 

This could go either way.

This is Mike,” a friendly-sounding voice said.

“Hi Mike, this is Martha, from EqualiSea, the blog about gender equality in Seattle.”

After the pleasantries were exchanged, he jumped right in, making it clear that he was bringing an attitude of growth and learning.  Apologetically, he explained his earlier comments on gender and childcare: “that was me thinking on the fly…and when I read the blog, it was obvious to me how that comment came across, and particularly seeing as how I’m a white male parent…it came across as something I certainly didn’t mean to say.” 

Though he didn’t mean to come across that way, I explained my concern about how well-intentioned comments like his perpetuate serious gender bias in the workplace.

But let’s take another look.  “What did you mean to say?” I asked.  How can we address the unaffordable cost of childcare?

He paused.  “The vision I have is that the world in which wages are high enough such that it didn’t require two parents to be working to support a family…then the child would have access to either a mother or a father being able to stay home and take care of them.

“Can you explain more?”

If you’re an employer in a market, with a lot more workers than there are jobs, then that gives you the opportunity to continue to drive wages down.  And… wages, at least for service workers, continue to be stagnant, and relative to inflation, going down.”

Photo of Mike O’Brien: Raising John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole 328 by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo of Mike O’Brien: Raising John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole 328 by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Now that’s interesting.  And it doesn’t imply that we should return to the “Mad Men” days.  Let’s see if we can find a way to discuss this concept without slipping into the familiar yet dangerous rhetoric about gender roles. 

We talked about how one way to frame this is with how women’s (and men’s) roles have changed immensely over the past 50 years, but our current employment system hasn’t caught up with policies and benefits. 

This is where we can get creative with business and policy solutions.  Because sadly, the U.S. is at the bottom of the list when it comes to supporting families with policies like paid parental leave and sufficient annual paid time off.

As our conversation progressed, another crucial issue came to light: diversity training

O’Brien explained that he had received training and practice when discussing race:  “but I have to say that I still have a lot to learn for sure. But I feel like I can have a dialogue about race without worrying about as soon as open up my mouth, I’m going to say something that someone will make me regret"

However, he couldn’t say the same for gender: “Even in our conversation today, I recognize that …talking about gender issues I haven’t had much practice or experience with that.  And so I’m a little gun-shy and nervous.” 

I recognize it’s (gender equality) a critical issue, and I hope to over time be more comfortable talking about it. Understanding what my role is as male…and how I can be a strong advocate.
— Mike O'Brien

Which raises the question: Why does Seattle City Council not have more training on gender equality?  This is an action step they could take immediately. 

When we wrapped up the call, O’Brien stated “I recognize it’s a critical issue, and I hope to over time be more comfortable talking about it.  Understanding what my role is as male…and how I can be a strong advocate.” 

Overall, I was impressed by O’Brien’s honesty, and his openness to learning.  He was willing to put dialogue over his ego, and in fact, his comment opened up a great conversation and helped to identify an action step for the Seattle City Council, which I hope they address: 

A call to action for the Seattle City Council: increase diversity training on gender equity for all leadership, including council members.


Take action:  To encourage Seattle City Council to improve the balance of gender and race in their leadership, or to encourage them to increase their training on gender equity,  contact them here.