September 25, 2019

Why I Take 50 Women To Dinner

Twice a year for the last seven years, I’ve had dinner with a group of women—all of whom are leaders in our profession. It started with twelve women back in 2012 and last week the number exceeded 50. We eat great food, drink craft cocktails, and the evening is filled with lively discussions for hours. I leave energized by the camaraderie, the new connections which are made, and lifted by the passion in the room.

It started as a simple gesture of picking up the tab for a group of women who otherwise felt left out in a field that has long been dominated by men in the most senior leadership roles. (Numbers of women zoo and aquarium CEOs/Directors have increased but are still below 30%.) I quickly saw that this kind of gathering filled a void. One that brought women together in a space where they could support and celebrate one another. A place to network and share. An event where they felt welcomed and comfortable. Almost by accident, that one dinner blossomed into an ever-growing annual event which ignited a kind of energy never imagined.

But each year, I get the same question, “Why?” “Why do you do this?” Unspoken is the subtext, “You are a 54-year-old white guy.”

  • It’s because of the people in my life—a wife of 32 years who is a partner first and foremost; a son who graduated with a degree in women and gender studies and who continually pushes me to think about my privilege and the power of language around gender and equity; a daughter who is fiercely independent and who already negotiated a higher first salary for herself; a son who is gay and proudly came out to us when he was 17; and another son, our ‘jock’, who is one of the most kind-hearted guys you’ll meet; and finally, a mother who never put herself first, even after 12 kids and 40 grandchildren. These are people who have and continue to shape my belief in and drive for greater equity and creating safe spaces for all.

  • The future is female. We all need to create places where women have a greater and more equal voice at the table. Having more women and more diverse voices in leadership roles makes for better decision making, stronger outcomes, deeper partnerships, and better organizations.

  • Because I should. If men are part of the problem of gender equity issues, we must be part of the solution. I recognize and acknowledge my privilege. I’ve been given much and as a friend shared recently, “We must use our privilege for good”. This is my good.

But notably, it’s because of who I am—

  • There have been lots of articles and news about “toxic masculinity”, from Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign to the American Psychological Association’s new masculinity guidelines to stories about what’s happening at fraternities around the country. While that term is relatively new to my lexicon, I’ve always had an issue with gender norms and roles. I’m not your typical guy’s guy. I don’t fit and never wanted to fit the traditional male role. I have a vivid memory of being twelve and making chocolate chip cookies. My soon-to-be sister-in-law made some offhanded comment, “Oh how sweet, you are such a Susie homemaker”. WHAT? That gender-based comment still rings in my head today.

  • Today in our house, I do the cleaning. I love running the vacuum.  I cook. I know where everything is, and I hate sitting around watching “the game”. I’m not looking for an award. My wife does more than her share. I hate making dentist appointments. I don’t do trips to the ER. She’s the master communicator. It’s 32 years built on partnership and balance. So, I always take offense when someone stereotypes men as messy, clueless, can’t find anything, or remember an anniversary. I’m none of those.

AND I don’t buy into female stereotypes—Women aren’t leaders. Once women have kids, their careers stop. Women are too emotional. Women aren’t natural problem solvers. I’ve seen it first-hand. Women are strong leaders. Women are moms AND CEOs (or Executive Directors). Women are ground-breaking scientists, engineers, and politicians who are challenging the status quo.

The work Zoo Advisors is doing—from these dinners to facilitating workshops to encouraging women to ‘go for it’—is to rid our profession of pre-defined roles and defy stereotypes and biases. Our goal is to create greater equity; for all of us to be seen as who we are as individuals.

So, if these dinners result in connections that elevate a woman to a higher leadership position, or give someone the confidence to go after that next big job, or simply create a network to lean on during tough days, then it’s all worth it.  I am grateful, honored, and privileged to host each and every one of these women for dinner and we can’t wait to do it again next year. #AZAWomenLeadNow

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