If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.
― Shirley Chisholm
There was no chair at the table for a woman. Not one. In dimly lit offices and dusty meeting halls in England (and eventually the United States), the table was being set. Momentum was gaining and tantalizing new possibilities danced in front of humanity – the birth of our modern world was underway. It started with a few industrious men and soon became a sweeping effort that would take on momentum no one could imagine. The industrial revolution was born out of a vision to modernize, optimize, control, and create an unlimited possibility for humanity.
It was conceived of and designed predominantly by intelligent, white men who saw a better way to get things done and went about doing it. Samuel Slater designed the first textile mills in the United States. Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine. Alexander Graham Bell brought us the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the incandescent electric light, phonograph, and motion picture camera. Gottlieb Daimler, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers…the list of brilliant inventors and visionaries goes on.
These men and many others laid down the foundation for the industrial model that runs our world and economies today. The list is stunning. The accomplishments are jaw dropping. The breadth of their inventions coming out of a time and context when people believed resources were unlimited, the world was for humans to exploit, and men were the superior gender.
And yet, as the blueprint for our modern lives was being laid, the promise of the industrial revolution was incomplete from the start…for there was no chair at the table for the feminine. Quite literally, women and their creative ideas were missing from the table, and so too were more traditionally feminine ways of being that lives within both men and women. As a result, our modern world was designed to be a linear system focused on production, aimed at unlimited growth, and founded in competition. Nature and her cycles were not considered and a “take-make-waste” economic system took root.
When I get quiet, my intelligence tells me it would have been a better world that worked for all if the feminine had had a voice.
Cottage industries, where skilled artisans worked at their pace in the comfort of their homes, were replaced by metal machines and belching factories where monotonous tasks and long work hours were the norm, and where pay was woefully unfair for women and less privileged classes and races. It was a white man’s vision, designed by men, optimized for men, and launched without the benefit of the feminine perspective. It would be easy (and a mistake) to say these men were inherently evil or flawed. I truly believe they were devoted to creating a better way of life. They were pioneers and innovators – men who wanted to help and who were operating out of a context and with a set of unquestioned stories and beliefs that left the planet and many people behind.
When the industrial revolution took off, society valued and rewarded traits that are often associated with the masculine: strength, manifestation, domination, independence, hierarchy, competition, clarity, and production. Receptivity, vulnerability, emotionality, surrender, intuition, tenderness, collaboration, and nurturing (traits primarily associated with the feminine) were seen as weak and held, consciously and unconsciously, as less powerful and “second-class citizens” by the vast majority of people, men and women alike.
Some days I pause to wonder what our world would look like if women had been given an equal seat at the table. Would there be more balance? Would we have taken the whole into consideration and created cyclical systems that respected place and people? Would we have invented and created with a sensitivity towards nature, towards the health and wellness of all beings?
Would we have moved at a slower pace and embedded natural rhythms into our days? Would collaboration and the benefit of the whole be valued over competition and the benefit of the few? Would beauty and happiness be more important than growth and gross domestic product (GDP)? When I get quiet, my intelligence tells me it would have been a better world that worked for all if the feminine had had a voice.
While at times it can be hard to see, a new world is emerging in front of our very eyes.
For thirty years, I have had the honor of walking in the halls of power as a business consultant, executive coach, and torchbearer for a better way of interacting with each other and the planet. I have had the privilege of sitting quietly with CEOs of some of the largest institutions on the globe, designing new systems and cultures that are more humane and that honor the wholeness of its people and the impact they have on the world. It has been a wild and fascinating ride, filled with the same sense of pioneering, challenge and possibility that I imagine the fathers of the Industrial Revolution experienced.
And in these halls, I have longed to turn the corner and see the eyes of strong women shining back at me. For the most part, the eyes that have met me have been of powerful men operating out of old and incomplete paradigms. But the women and the feminine are there more and more. Today it is rare I go into a senior team without encountering women. More often than not they represent Human Resources or Marketing which tend to be associated with more feminine traits of community and communication. Sometimes, however, when I turn the corner, I see a female CEO and my heart stops for just a split second. All over the world, women are in board rooms and lunchrooms, inventing new products, litigating in courtrooms, engineering bridges, writing articles, flying airplanes, or sitting quietly with an employee and lending an ear when no one else will.
These women have learned to embrace the masculine, to harness their power, compete, focus, manifest, and lead. And the ones that have done it well have held their feminine traits as sacred and not compromised in the quest to become male impersonators. They are wholehearted, powerful women that stand as examples for us all with strength, vulnerability, and their masculine and feminine inextricably braided together.
But what is new, is that right next to them I am seeing more and more men who are reclaiming what they have been denied for so long – their feminine, their softness, their intuition, their receptivity. I see men in positions of power who are showing up willing to share their emotions, willing to say they “don’t know,” and willing to trust the power of their creativity and the strength of collaboration. This is what gives me hope at a time when hope sometimes can be hard to hold onto.
Every day as images come pouring in of whales washed up on our shores, their bellies filled with our “take-make-waste” society like giant sentinels showing us that our way of life has real costs to sacred beings from the deep. Or, women bravely tell their #MeToo stories and find their voices as they share the anguish they have kept buried for so long. Or, scientists sound the alarm that we are on a catastrophic course, while many politicians and business leaders try to undermine their message…I want to lie on the ground and weep for what is lost. But then I remember the faces of the good men and good women I know who are in positions of great power. A small and growing number of them are waking up and learning how to live their lives fully intact, with eyes wide open. They are taking back their birthright to be a whole person who has the power of the feminine and masculine to draw on. They are embracing leadership development and executive coaching and working to make our institutions more conscious and more balanced. They are the designers of the next industrial revolution putting people and planet at the center from the start.
Only from this place of wholeness do I believe we have a fighting chance to turn this world around. And when I go to sleep at night, I find comfort not only in seeing the faces of these leaders, but also in imagining the millions of young people who know in their hearts that this is the way forward and who are willing to fiercely stand up for what is right, just, and humane in the world.