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In 1959, white journalist John Howard Griffin underwent treatments that temporarily darkened his skin pigment, allowing him to understand the discrimination faced daily by black people in the U.S. South. His powerful, influential book about the experience, Black Like Me, sharpened my understanding of racial injustice.

I thought of it recently while reading Transitioning in the Workplace: A Guidebook, which tells of how male executive and physician David Pizzuti opted to transition to female in 2015 while continuing to work as vice-president of global regulatory affairs at a major U.S. pharmaceutical firm. After five decades, she wanted to find and be her true self. But an unexpected result was that as Dana Pizzuti she lost David Pizzuti’s “male privilege” – and, like Mr. Griffin, she saw firsthand the problems others faced.

For Ms. Pizzuti, unlike Mr. Griffin, the change was permanent. And she noted in an interview that while Mr. Griffin was an impostor as a black man, she was an impostor before her transition – as a man. “This is who I truly am. I am not playing a role,” she said.

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Putting aside those distinctions, Ms. Pizzuti’s transition, like Mr. Griffin’s, is an unusual way of revealing truths, in this case about the workplace. Male privilege is something men don’t see; like fish, we blissfully swim in the waters that naturally surround us. David Pizzuti didn’t see it; only as Dana Pizzuti was it revealed. “I didn’t face what a woman faces climbing up the ladder,” she said. It was simply easier for David than it would have been for Dana, even with the same acumen and skill set.

She views male privilege as an unconscious bias that favours men and their abilities, giving them an easier path to success. “I didn’t think about male privilege as I always had it. I never realized I was gaining an advantage because of my gender. But now I see there is a lot of frustrations for female junior executives on how to compete – how to be aggressive without being viewed negatively. It is hard for them to navigate how aggressive to be in a situation,” she said. Although not someone who yells, she has experienced how being aggressive is praised in a man and viewed as negative in a woman.

Ms. Pizzuti has fumbled in particular with the ephemeral notion of “executive presence,” which can make or break a career. It has something to do with bearing, voice and conveying authority. As a man, it came naturally. As a woman, it has been a struggle, even though she is essentially the same leader. When transitioning, she worked with a voice coach to find a female pitch that would be suitable. But the attempts seemed a bit falsetto and less credible. Many women, she notes, find they need to develop a different pitch when making a presentation than when chatting informally with friends.

Even though her team’s performance remained excellent after the transition and subordinates were happy with her leadership, her own performance reviews see-sawed. She was told at one point that although the organization could not identify the problem, something was missing. Perhaps that something was maleness. Eventually, after losing out on a promotion, she left to become senior vice-president of regulatory affairs and clinical compliance for Rigel Pharmaceuticals, based in San Francisco.

Her advice to companies is to recognize that these biases exist. In particular, be tougher on yourself in hiring. In most industries, it’s easy to get a list of capable if not enticing male candidates. Don’t rush to pick. Instead, work hard to develop a balanced pool, with top-notch female candidates. And when women are hired, make sure there is support, including workplace groups where gender issues are discussed and male executives – including senior officials – take part in listening and learning.

When Ms. Pizzuti came out, women in that firm had been planning to form such a resource group and asked her to sponsor it. She was cautious and suggested that might be a mistake. “You’re perfect,” she was told. “You have seen it from both sides.” And that’s why, as with John Howard Griffin, we should pay special attention to the message.

Cannonballs

  • A key reason people don’t enjoy work, says trainer Dan Rockwell, is they feel powerless to make things better. How could you change that in your workplace?
  • Consultant Vadim Liberman says that with a hot job market, workers are increasingly “ghosting” jobs by blowing off interviews or accepting jobs but not showing up for work. He says companies had it coming. It’s the Copper Rule: Be as rude to others as they are to you.
  • While struggling to make transparency transparent – it’s a fuzzy concept – James Everingham, head of engineering at Instagram, came up with these four components: clear and consistent communication, clarity on how decisions are made, honest and clear feedback, and admitting when we are wrong.

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