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Leadership at All Levels

Solving Gender Equity, One Mind, One Thought at a Time

Tricia Kagerer | April 23, 2021

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6 women holding hands and walking toward sunset

On June 24, 1928, 28-year-old, unmarried, and uneducated Peggy Dalton from Craamford Farm in Gorey, County Wexford, Ireland, boarded a ship, The Adriatic, headed for Ellis Island in New York City. She was alone.

Peggy's father, a farmer like his father before him, wanted to be a good father and protect Peggy's future. He insisted that Peggy either marry a local farmer who lived nearby or follow her older sister's path and join the convent. Everyone around her believed her to be a spinster, washed up at 28 with no other options. Everyone around Peggy told her she was in peril; she had to do something with her life, and that with each passing day, her options became slimmer. Peggy disagreed.

On the 4th of July, Independence Day 1928, The Adriatic pulled into the port at Ellis Island, and Peggy began her new life, which was by no means an easy one. She worked as a caregiver for a sick child. From the start, Peggy experienced homesickness, knowing she would most likely never see her family again. Yet, the pursuit of her dream, living on her terms, was exhilarating, and she felt free. Within a few months, she met Thomas Aidan Prendergast. He arrived in New York about a year prior and grew up about 5 miles away from Peggy in Ireland. He was selling life insurance policies in the evenings after working on the docks most days. He had an appointment with Peg's friend. He knocked on the door, and she opened it. Tom forgot what he was there for and asked Peg out to dinner. A few short months later, they married and had two children, both of whom were the first in the family ever to attend college.

I wonder how that despite all of the prohibitions Peggy faced and despite the numerous barriers that existed in 1928 for women—money, traditions of not traveling alone, little education, poverty, or the stock market crash leading to the Great Depression—Peggy changed her life anyway. She never wavered from her conviction to live her life on her terms. She faced many prohibitions head-on.

Peggy arrived in the United States during the most famous Prohibition of all when the United States enacted laws to ban the sale of alcohol. Yet, even when the sale of alcohol was illegal, people figured out a way to buy alcohol anyway. To make ends meet, Peggy made hooch (moonshine) in her friend's apartment in the bathtub and sold it out of a baby wagon. When asked about her experience living through the Great Depression, she responded, "I never felt poor a day in my life after starting my life in New York."

If you haven't guessed by now, I am the proud granddaughter of Peggy Dalton Prendergast. She lived to be 95 and was one of the most influential women in my life. We spent many a Sunday morning over a cup of tea discussing what gave her courage. Her answer was simple: "I never made a habit of listening to what others told me." Each challenge made her more resilient and "made life much more interesting."

If my grandmother had listened to Prohibition supporters and not mastered her inhibitions, I would not be standing here today.

What Is a Prohibition?

History confirms without a doubt that various "prohibitions" have held women and minorities back. American women didn't obtain the right to vote in America until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet, 50 years later, discrimination is still alive and well. The 2018 #MeToo movement revealed that the laws did not automatically change behavior spanning every industry, including new media, film, construction, and farming. The 2020 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations shed light on the social injustices impacting people of color and put lives at risk.

Historical, societal norms prohibited women from earning a living, setting the expectation that women should rely on men to bring home the money while women took care of the children and household needs. And when men didn't bring home the money, spent it at the pub, or never came home at all, women were left to their own devices to figure out the money and keep food on the table. Even when the laws change or the policy is updated, the behavior and treatment of women and minorities do not magically improve. It takes years, perhaps centuries. Women to this day earn 20 percent less than men for the same work. 1 Despite policy and law changes, prohibitions persist, including pay inequality, undervalued work, and antiquated caregiving notions.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed deep-rooted gender inequities in the business world. Nearly 3 million American women left the labor force in a COVID-induced exodus. Working women, frontline workers, and single mothers had to choose between caring for their children and earning a paycheck as day cares closed and schools went online. The pandemic has forced us to take a look at disrupting the outdated narrative that women are only vital in the workplace so long as parenting and caregiving responsibilities don't interfere. As the fear of the pandemic subsides and women return to the workforce, we must learn from this experience so that it does not repeat itself at the next sign of crisis.

Subtle Prohibition

While some prohibitions are blatant, like stereotype gender roles, others are more subtle and permeate workplaces even with the best of intentions. For example, in 2013, NASA went to great lengths to ensure its 2013 graduating class of astronauts was 50 percent women. This is a fantastic feat, a practice that other organizations should emulate. But, on March 29, 2019, the first-ever female-only spacewalk was canceled due to a lack of availability of two proper fitting space suits for women. A subtle, overlooked issue: a properly fitted personal protective equipment (PPE) stopped the walk.

Apply that same set of circumstances to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as construction industries that have longstanding prohibitions about accepting women. Not only do these historical prohibitive hiring practices deter women, but ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and overpriced "shrink it and pink it" PPE creates an additional subtle barrier. Women brave enough to enter the field face confidence issues and a greater risk of injury.

Prohibition Stems from Bias

Most prohibitions stem from bias. Bias is an inclination of temperament or outlook, a persona, and sometimes unreasoned judgment—a prejudice. Unconscious bias is tricky because people are unaware of the biases they hold. Bias can be so ingrained in a culture and a society that they go entirely unnoticed by many. Unfortunately, do not assume that self-knowledge of a bias will change behavior. Some people have no intention or desire to change their way of thinking.

Bias comes in many forms. Negative bias occurs when someone experiences an adverse traumatic event like bullying. The event makes a much more memorable impact on one's psychological state than several positive or neutral events. Humans tend to remember one negative event more than 100 positive ones, impacting how we show up in the world, how we make decisions, and what risks we ultimately take. I can recall vividly the first time I was made fun of on the playground and the first time I was bullied while working on a construction site. Unfortunately, I can't recall as quickly the many happy days on the same playground. I can remember the emotional fortitude to show back up on that project site the next day to face the bully and continue to do my job. I could have easily internalized the situation and let the negative bias fester in my head. But I was resilient and showed up the next day anyway.

Prohibition Is Only Half of the Problem

Focusing only on removing prohibition is only half of the equation. The skills gap will continue to exist. We will never solve the pay gap, and people will become even more polarized on this issue of inequality. One side will insist that it's solved, while the other feels they can't achieve their goals but will never understand why. The status quo causes division in society—each side arguing that the issue is either gone or still exists, which prevents a comprehensive solution. We can't fully "realize" this progress until we recognize prohibition's legacy while simultaneously addressing inhibition.

What Is Inhibition?

Inhibition occurs when your voice in your head tells you that you can't do something. It stems from our past experiences creating limiting beliefs about ourselves. When we don't know ourselves fully, we carry wounds from experience. Maybe it's from letting down an authority figure in your life or from not getting the job you wanted, not finishing a degree, or an abusive or failed relationship. We internalize this failure or fear of letting others down. This leads to a victim mentality manifesting in an internal struggle with not being good enough, not being ready, worthy, or allowed. A common example of inhibition occurred when a friend expressed an interest in starting a business. I encouragingly said, "I think you should do it!" Her next reply was, "I wish I could, but I can't. I don't have enough money." I replied, "How much money do you need?" She answered, "I have no idea. I just know it would fail." The voice in her head—her inhibition—shut her down before she had a chance to dream.

Inhibition Stems from Years of Prohibition

Is it any wonder that women and minorities have inhibitions? It results from living in society and cultures where prohibition has conditioned women to stay quiet and play small. The reality is that just because we remove the barrier doesn't mean the conditioned response evaporates overnight.

Consider comparing the prohibitive workplace norms that have existed for years to Pavlov's dog behaviorist theory of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a learning procedure involving pairing a stimulus with a conditioned response. Ring the bell, and the dog salivates even when there is no food.

Pavlov found that objects or events could trigger a conditioned response. The experiments began with Pavlov demonstrating how the presence of a bowl of dog food (stimulus) would trigger a conditioned response (salivation). But Pavlov noticed that the dogs started to associate his lab assistant with food. His assistant began ringing a bell before feeding the dogs. The dogs salivated when they heard the bell, even in the absence of food.

Let's apply Conditional Behaviorist Theory to historical workplace norms. Women have been conditioned to play a support role in life, putting everyone else's needs first. Women who venture out of traditional roles such as caregiving or teaching have often been met with negative comments, opinions, and even harassment creating a proverbial target on their back. We see it play out every day in social media and the news. Women in a leadership role being called names, ridiculed, or judged for their physical appearance or wardrobe choice. This creates conditioned behavior to retreat, not to pursue, and to "stay in your lane." Women who dare to be assertive are told to smile more, to catch more flies with honey, and if they don't comply, they may ultimately face a harsh judgment.

How the Exploration of Inhibition and Prohibition Benefits Humanity

Having worked for over 30 years in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, I often hear men respond, "The laws have changed. We now have diversity and inclusion, affirmative action, etc. What more do people want?"

I once believed that women were held back—prohibited—by society from advancing. Having been one of the only 1 percent of women who navigated a career in the C-suite of the construction industry, I thought I was just more resilient than most. After writing a book, The B Words, and researching limiting beliefs, my mindset has changed. I've seen companies spend a fortune on diversity initiatives that never achieve results. We have made some progress in fixing inequality, but we can't fully "realize" this progress until we recognize prohibition's legacy while simultaneously addressing inhibition. We must take three critical steps if we ever want to create lasting change.

Acknowledge the Legacy of Prohibition

First, we must recognize and acknowledge prohibition and, in some cases, even appreciate it. Acknowledgment and awareness of the brick wall is the first step to resilience and change. Yes, bad things have happened. But, they occur when we give prohibition too much power and let the negative bias permeate our thoughts and stagnate our progress in life.

When we recognize prohibition as a positive—an indication that we put ourselves out there and that we showed up, then being told "no" signifies that you aim for something more, setting meaningful goals, or making necessary changes. When faced with prohibition, we have a choice. Will we internalize it as a failure and allow it to stop us from living the life we were meant to live? Or will we recognize it as a setback, a not the right time, place, or circumstance, and tell ourselves that we can learn from this experience and move on?

Recognize Prohibition Impacts Everyone

The corporate world, designed initially by men, doesn't work anymore for most of us. The tension and low morale now found in many large companies reflect the clash between organizational change and the old ideology. On the one hand, companies furiously reengineer the workplace to accommodate a more diverse labor force. On the other hand, the perceived costs of being an involved father—loss of income, male comradeship, and manhood—remain real. The "bro-code" culture is still strong, especially in traditionally male-dominated industries like construction and STEM.

In some ways, men are prohibited by the lingering bro-code culture stereotype. Yet, the myth of sacrificing your health, marriage, and overall well-being for a paycheck no longer rings true with the next generation. Is it any wonder we are the most indebt, addicted, depressed, and medicated adult population in US history? 2 Is it surprising that male-dominated industries like construction have the highest suicide rate?

Organizations with paternity-leave policies report that less than 50 percent of men use it. 3 Men report a fear of their career's negative impact due to restricted workplace culture and gender stereotypes in society and families as barriers to taking leave when it is available. Men are also less likely to seek help through an employee assistance plan for stress or emotional challenges due to the stigma associated with seeking help.

Isn't it time for men who want to show up authentically both at home and at work to have the opportunity to do so? Do we have to wait for another generation of corporate leaders to recognize that men value time and freedom to be present for their kids or their aging parents just as much as women? Organizations and industries that don't recognize these issues will have difficulty attracting and keeping their future workforce. Resilient organizations that challenge these lingering outdated norms will thrive.

Change the Internal Dialogue

When faced with prohibition, how we show up in the world and what we do about it has nothing to do with gender. It has everything to do with mastering inhibition.

Men are impacted just as much as women by inhibition—that inner voice telling you things that you would never utter to another soul. For those of you questioning right now, "What is Tricia talking about? I don't have an inner voice." That's the one! Now you have found the frequency. Tune in and listen to what you tell yourself. Name them, and claim them.

Tony Robbins Hails the Way of the Superior Man by international bestselling author David Dieda is a must-read for every man to find his true purpose and be authentically masculine in the "new world." Now in its 20th year of circulation and translated into 20 languages, Mr. Dieda encourages men to identify their edge. They stop short or compromise their fullest gift and instead cater to the fear. Men must be honest with themselves and name and claim Inhibition by stating out loud what is holding them back. Honoring the edge creates choices. Staying too far back in fear creates stagnation and a life lived in your comfort zone. Facing fears and doing things anyway build resilience. A life without risk is a life that is not doing anything remotely challenging.

Practice Resiliency by Facing Your Fear

Author Tim Ferris uses the term "fear setting" to address how not pursuing things because of fear can ruin your life. He believes that defining your fears and exploring the worst-case scenario empowers you to move forward, avoiding the "atrocious cost of the status quo." The cost of inaction creates an even more complex life. "The biggest challenge is to be never without conflict."

Create clarity with the following process.

Step 1. Identify your limiting belief. For example, Sandra wanted to start a business but was told her whole life she was stupid by her parents. The verbal abuse led Sandra to believe she could never run a business.

Step 2. Sandra asked herself, "Is this limiting belief a prohibition?" She realized she allowed herself to become a victim to what her parents told her. Society was not prohibiting Sandra from starting her own business.

Step 3. Next, Sandra asked herself, "Is the limiting belief an inhibition?" The answer was "Yes." Sandra allowed what was spoken over her for so many years to become her reality. She asked herself, "What if there is the slightest possibility that is not true?" If Sandra continued to believe what her parents told her, she knew she would forever be a victim. More importantly, she feared that she would cast her own limiting beliefs on her children in the future.

Step 4. Replace the limiting belief with a liberating belief, and change the dialogue from negative to positive.


Create a strategy, face the fear, and do it anyway. Explore the worst-case scenario. Create a strategy around it. Actively seek out help and support if you need it. Remember, we get one chance to live this life. Be brave like my Grandmother Peggy, and take the risk to make a difference in your corner of the world. That is how you become resilient.

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2 Hillary Hoffower and Allana Akhtar, "Lonely, Burned Out, and Depressed: The State of Millennials' Mental Health in 2020," Business Insider, October 10, 2020.