Listen to this story
Men Warn Me About Things. Women Help Me.
An observation about my experiences this past year in entrepreneurship, journalism, and building something new.
I’m a journalist and a programmer. I’m a fan of big ideas and little experiments. I’m an optimist about potential until I have a reason to be a pessimist about reality.
One of the big reasons that I’m now working on mostly my own projects is that when I survey the landscape of jobs that might make sense for me, I don’t see any newsroom boxes that I currently want to fit in.
Part of that is frustration with legacy processes that I watch my network of amazing bad ass women colleagues fight through every single day to make progress on either their work or on improving the nature of the newsrooms they’re in.
Going my own route has been important to me so that I can speak to problems that I’m passionate about addressing. It’s also been a fascinating learning experience as I navigate this path of entrepreneur/journalist/developer. The thing that I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently is the pattern of interaction when I am talking to people about my projects after having reached out to them to learn more about their relevant experience or because they’ve reached out to me.
Put simply, men warn me about challenges. Women try to help me solve them.
It’s an interaction that’s very much in the same vein as Rebecca Solnit’s essential observation about explanation. And while it should be obvious, since this is the internet, I’ll clarify my observations are about the people I’ve interacted with, not every man and woman in existence so your experiences may very well be different than mine.
This isn’t without exception. There have been some wonderfully helpful men who’ve been generous with their time and advice. But for the most part, men tend to take the approach of warning me about all the things that will be hard, all the challenges to look out for, all the things I need to keep in mind, all the ways I could fail. Sometimes, it’s a Venn diagram as some men are helpful but also “concerned about how this is going to work.” These interactions do not frequently go beyond the warnings. They offer obstacles and little else.
I don’t know if they handle other men the same way, but research suggests not. This gendered pattern of questions exists in the funding space as well.
In the Harvard Business Review researchers noted that funders tend to ask men about potential gains and women about potential losses:
According to the psychological theory of regulatory focus, investors adopted what’s called a promotion orientation when quizzing male entrepreneurs, which means they focused on hopes, achievements, advancement, and ideals. Conversely, when questioning female entrepreneurs they embraced a prevention orientation, which is concerned with safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. We found that 67% of the questions posed to male entrepreneurs were promotion-oriented, while 66% of those posed to female entrepreneurs were prevention-oriented.
In my experience, women have proceeded with our conversations in ways that demonstrate that they think of me as a reasonably intelligent human being who has gotten as far as I have because I’m aware of the challenges I face and am navigating them. They ask engaging questions and then often almost immediately and collaboratively brainstorm ideas with me. It’s not that we never discuss challenges, it’s that they don’t assume I’ve never thought about them and the conversation isn’t anchored on pitfalls but what can be done to overcome them.
“I know someone you should talk to.”
“This conference would be really useful to you.”
“There’s this thing that might be interesting for you to know about.”
And more than just tell me about it, women frequently start using their own social capital to help by offering to make introductions or they email or call someone on my behalf. They find me at conferences or events and walk me over to someone to make an introduction, they connect me with their networks. They offer advice and a second pair of eyes on things I’m sending out into the world. They offer ideas and follow through. It’s not been uncommon to hear from them weeks later checking in on how things are going or if I was able to successfully connect with someone they recommended.
Last spring, I was so fortunate to be a part of the ONA Women’s Leadership Accelerator and, among many memorable moments, there is one that has permanently stuck with me. We’d only been in the same room together for a day, and everyone was speaking about what they currently do and what they’re trying to do. We got deep really fast. And there was a pause and someone observed how quickly we’d gotten into the really meaty parts of our work, challenges and goals. And then someone noted why that was. We had each been able to skip that part of the conversation where you have to spend time explaining your background, establishing your expertise and authority so that people actually listen to you when you get to the important parts. We’d given each other the benefit of the doubt — if you are talking about this thing, you know about it and I will listen to you and I will hear you.
I suspect we all prefer feeling trusted that we know what we’re talking about instead of receiving quizzes, warnings and gotcha questions.
If you are someone who genuinely wants to help others in their journey when you have the capacity for it, here are questions you can be asking to provide constructive help. Many of these are questions people have asked me in order to focus our conversations. (Of course, some of these questions only apply depending on how well you know the person or how much you are able to be involved.)
- What’s your current goal?
- What is your next step?
- How much is X a consideration for you?
- Is there a particular challenge you’re focused on right now?
- What about my experience could be helpful to you?
- Are there people I can help connect you with?
- What feedback have you gotten about the [project/challenge/specific aspect]?
- What areas are you concerned about?
- How are you approaching X?
There’s a place for constructive feedback and reality checks in innovation but collaboration and encouragement takes us all a lot farther than throwing out all the possible obstacles. I’m incredibly grateful for the many people who’ve helped me along this journey and I’m working hard to repay and pay forward the kindness and consideration I’ve been shown.
For those of you seeking advice on your projects, I’m working on a follow-up post of how to frame your questions and asks of people who are willing to help you in order to make best use of the opportunity and to respect their time and bandwidth.
Heather Bryant is a journalist, software developer and the founder and director of Project Facet, an open source infrastructure project that supports newsrooms in managing the logistics of creating, editing and distributing content, managing projects and facilitating collaborative relationships. As a ’17 John S. Knight Fellow she studied collaboration between newsrooms. Prior to that, she taught software development in San Francisco and was a digital editor in public media in Alaska.