25 Rules For Sons

A few days ago, one of my professional contacts shared a list titled “rules for sons” on LinkedIn. It was filled with advice like, “the man at a BBQ grill is the closest thing to a king,” and “carry two handkerchiefs. The one in your back pocket is for you. The one in your breast pocket is for her.”

Lists like this are always making the rounds. This one may have started with a 2015 book titled “Rules for my Unborn Son.” There are other versions online, but they’re all the same story. Manhood is about wearing sport coats, working the grill, asking the pretty girl out, marrying the woman, playing team sports, and maybe serving in the military.

I scrolled past, but found that it was still bugging me after a couple of minutes, so I went back and left a two word comment: “Misogynist claptrap.”

He (you knew it was a guy who shared the post, right?) responded almost immediately that I had clearly not read rule 23: “After writing an angry email, read it carefully. Then delete it.”

LOL, right?

I severed the LinkedIn connection. No harm, no foul – but I don’t go to LinkedIn looking for irritation, and arguing in the comments section has never, even once, changed anybody’s mind.

I shared the story with my spouse, and she said, “You should tell him, and you should tell his employer too. Those people scare me. They can’t hurt people like you, but they can and do hurt people like me.”

So in the spirit of “hey bro, not cool,” here’s the deal:

Truth in Advertising

My contact is the regional sales lead for a new company. His job is to open doors, get meetings, develop relationships, and eventually to make sales.

For a person in that position, LinkedIn is a marketing tool. This guy is an experienced professional. He knows what he’s doing here, at least at an unconscious level. His list – like this blog post – is signaling to his community about what kind of a person he is and what he expects of the rest of us.

No matter the title, this is not about any notional “sons.” Instead, this is how he expects the men in his professional network to act.

The message is that my contact is a certain kind of businessman. He has a firm handshake, looks you in the eye, and is an experienced negotiator. You know he’ll close the deal and then you can both go home to your wives and kids.

Under the hood, though, the inverse message is also clear: We’re supposed to think less of men who don’t make strong eye contact, who wear nontraditional clothing, who (for whatever reason) don’t marry the girl or work the grill. Those people aren’t up to this guy’s standards.

He also keeps a clean hankie on hand in case one of the ladies is overcome with emotion. Good dude, right?

So What’s The problem?

Lists like this rise from a nostalgia for a time when gender and relationship roles were supposedly simpler. Men were men, women were women, and there was a well defined and correct way to fill either role.

Of course, those roles were radically asymmetric when it came to the workplace. Women were (and are) paid less, under-promoted, subject to outright abuse and subtle neglect, and generally treated like second class human beings. We’re going to be grappling with the fallout of those antique and chauvinist ideas for the rest of our lives.

Even worse: The idea that there is a single correct way to experience gender is incredibly toxic. Our society is slowly and haltingly coming to grips with the diversity of human experience – and lists like this, while superficially innocuous, are a step backwards.

Things weren’t actually simpler back then. Rather, people who didn’t fit into the dominant patterns either adopted an ill-fitting persona at great emotional and mental cost, or else they were excluded, ostracized, and subject to violence and even questionable medical procedures aimed at correcting them because they were somehow wrong at being themselves.

The problem with pushing this as some kind of misty eyed ideal in a professional / business context like LinkedIn should be apparent on the face of it.

The Inappropriate Thing

The thoughtful reader might go back, look at the list, and say that this blog post is a bit of an uptight overreaction. There is no particular word or phrase that stands out as inappropriately crossing some clear line. That’s how this sort of signaling works. The inappropriate stuff emerges gradually as we establish some spaces (the grill, the locker room, perhaps the board room or the industry event) as masculine and therefore subject to different rules.

This is the gateway to some really nasty stuff. Once we start down this road, we’re just a fraternity induction and an MBA away from the @GSElevator twitter feed.

More on that at the end of the post, but first allow me to share another example:

The All Male Conference

A few years back, I was invited to speak to a meeting of the US sales and engineering teams of an early stage technology company. I was already a customer, and my team was in the middle of a proof of concept evaluation of their new product.

When I arrived, I was struck by the massive gender imbalance. It was an all male event with at least 50 men in attendance. The two women at the conference center were the receptionist who gave me my badge, and the person who served the coffee.

The thing had a weird and macho vibe: When the national sales lead finished his presentation, his last slide was a picture of some bird, perhaps a duck, that he had run over on the way to the meeting. The room laughed, some uncomfortably. He left the grisly picture lingering on the projector while he took questions.

After my talk, I had an opportunity to meet with the executive team. I asked about the total lack of women at the event, and they laughed and said that they had just been talking about that.

LOL, weird, right?

I pushed, and they told me that they were working on it, but had to take it slow. Dead-duck guy? He brought in amazing sales numbers. He apparently saw any effort at diversity as diluting his talented team with charity cases and low performers. They didn’t want to alienate him, so they had to tread carefully.

I cancelled the proof of concept and insisted that they go only through me for future communications I don’t know what other tricks dead-duck-guy had on offer, but I knew I didn’t want him talking to my team.

This particular story has a happy ending. The company did some soul searching and then hired a global head of diversity, who was the most forceful and intersectional person you’ll ever meet. They made a sustained effort to fix their biased and unbalanced team. Dead-duck guy may still be there, but I certainly never saw him around again.

Along the way they discovered something really important: Their product had a much larger potential audience than they had realized.

The company had been blind to that larger market because so many potential customers had been unwilling to take an initial meeting with dead-duck-guy and his team. They never showed up as qualified prospects.

Let me say that again: The macho, hyper-masculine approach of their best sales guy was alienating half of their target audience. The people who didn’t want to deal with him didn’t call back and explain themselves. They just moved on.

Maybe they took Rule 23 to heart.

Conference Season

I mentioned that the inappropriate thing usually shows up later. Let’s talk about that:

Conference season is starting. That means lots of mix-and-mingle events. The goal is relationship building. There will be coffees, breakfasts, lunch-and-learns, bar nights, and boozy steak dinners. There will be private presentations back at the Air B&B, invitations to travel and speak at the national convention, and so on.

As these invitations ramp up, my experience is that they move more and more into masculine spaces that exclude women. Once there, we always tend to see a bit more of the old “locker room” banter. It’s a ratchet that goes in only one direction.

This happens gradually to avoid anybody getting all weird and uptight when the enticements on offer depart from what we talk about in mixed company.

I mean seriously, you know why they put all the big industry events in Las Vegas, right? It’s not for the child care facilities, I can tell you that much.

Why Speak Up?

Real talk: I’m pretty nervous about posting this article.

I know that my contact will see it – I plan to send him a link (seems only fair). I know at least a few other people who will think I’m talking about them. I feel social pressure against rocking the boat and upsetting anybody.

I felt exactly the same way before I spoke up at that all-male team meeting. It’s super stressful go to somebody’s party and tell them that they are doing it wrong. I was the invited speaker. I checked all the boxes of gender, race, and personal presentation to be welcome, and I still very nearly censored myself.

The thing that pushed me over the edge, then and now, is that this is the same pressure that keeps women silent in the face of uncounted insults and indignities. It gave me just the briefest glimpse of what it’s like to be on the unpleasant side of social pressure to conform, stay quiet, and obey. That brief glimpse was enough to motivate me to speak up then, and it continues to do so today.

As the saying goes: If you see something, say something.

I’m saying something.

Not cool, bro.

5 Replies to “25 Rules For Sons”

  1. Well said, thanks for sharing!
    It’s odd how some things strike me as wrong (I.e. the 25 rules) but then it takes some thought to figure out why it’s actually bothering you. Thank you for pointing out and analyzing this example.

  2. As a female software engineer, Chris, I *really* appreciate this post and the sentiment behind it.

    The sciences are supposedly less uptight about sexual minorities, too, but as with the veiled sexism, I’ve run into exceptions.

    And *then* there’s the racism….

  3. Great analysis of why that attitude and behavior is problematic. Yes because of how it can make women feel, but also men too as there needn’t be one “right” way to be a man. This type of attitude is difficult to combat but necessary to speak out against even if it rocks the boat. It needs to be rocked. Thank you.

  4. Nicely done Chris, thanks for the post. Keep pushing the boundaries. (yes, I’m still at the institute, give me a shout if you’re ever back in the area.)

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