Breaking gender barriers: Get to know author Dr. Melanie Ho
It’s Women’s History Month and we’re celebrating one of the most empowering authors & visual artists right now – Dr. Melanie Ho! Her new book Beyond Learning In: Gender Equity & What Organizations are Up Against describes the educator’s immense dedication to stand up for women and bring a new dialogue to a tireless & endless form of misogyny within the workplace.
Dr. Melanie Ho is also an organizational consultant and describes to her readers about “reverse mentorship” and what it will take to achieve in today’s society. Ho has also created the Beyond Learning In podcast to encourage women & men across generations to challenge their roles within various organizations.
Luckily, we had a chance to chat to Dr. Melanie Ho to find out more about her novel and the other important projects she’s doing to help society.
What drew you to become an educator in the first place?
I love seeing that spark when someone realizes a different way of thinking or new concept might just change their life for the better. I’ve taught very different audiences from undergrads to senior executives, but the magic of those lightbulb moments is the same.
Have you had any negative experience in the workplace because of your gender?
Yes, definitely. I’ve been fortunate to have had many mentors who helped me advance in my career. But there were also many moments where, like many women, I felt undermined, underestimated, and underappreciated, and wondered, “is it me or is it because of my gender?”
I started obsessively reading books and research articles about gender in the workplace, and trading notes with women in a wide range of industries. That helped me recognize the patterns of gender bias that occur in pretty much every organization.
What are some important lessons you teach your students that everyone could use?
No matter your job, many things in life come down to understanding your audience on an emotional level. What are their fears, uncertainties, doubts? What would lift their spirits? What emotional states do you want to access in your audience? You could be creating an advertising campaign, making a pitch to an investor, or writing a memo to your boss, and this would all apply.
Why do you think the professional world has so many gender gaps?
In my book, Beyond Leaning In, I describe a phenomenon that I call the mental auto-complete. When the iPhone initially rolled out its auto-complete emojis, if you typed “CEO” or “doctor,” all you got were male emojis. The phone didn’t mean to say that CEOs or doctors are always men, but faulty programming led to this biased response. When it comes to gender, we’ve got mental auto-completes that stem from a lifetime of faulty programming, starting even from how male vs. female characters are portrayed in children’s books. That’s a lot harder to reprogram than a phone.
When it comes to gender in the professional world, the mental auto-complete rears its head in all kinds of different ways. For example, there’s an “opportunity gap” where even when women & men hold the same exact positions, men are given higher-profile projects more likely to lead to advancement.
Research also shows that men are more likely promoted based on potential, where women have to “prove it again.” And performance reviews and letters of recommendation are more likely to include praise for men that’s about concrete results and high ability, vs. about effort for women. All of these mental auto-completes lead to women facing unequal treatment at work.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Absolutely. I think it’s unfortunate that the word “feminist” is so often stigmatized. To me, feminism is about believing that people should be treated equally no matter their gender or gender identity.
What made you want to write Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equality & What Organizations Are Up Against?
I decided to write Beyond Leaning In after countless conversations with other professional women, across industries, who were exhausted, angry, and disheartened by how often women are being told to “just lean in.” I absolutely believe it’s important that women have the confidence to raise our hands and take our seats at the table. But you can’t lean in when there are systemic and cultural barriers strapping you back in your seat.
In Beyond Leaning In, I talk about the challenges that make it harder for women to lean in, the unequal rewards and even punishment when we do, and how telling women to “lean in” and act like men ignores the stereotypically feminine traits—like empathy and cross-cultural communication—that are needed more than ever in modern leadership.
What challenges did you face along the way while writing your book?
My goal with Beyond Leaning In was to write a book that would be engaging and useful to both women & men. As I was getting started, a lot of people told me that this was a pipe dream, that it was unlikely men would pick up the book. I had to really shut out these skeptical voices in my head. Too much of the conversation about gender equity is just women talking to one another behind closed doors, and we really need male managers and allies to be part of a candid conversation.
After a lot of thought, I decided to write the book as a fictional case study through the perspective of multiple female and male characters. My hope is that this unique format allows readers to put themselves in the shoes of characters both like and unlike them, and that hopefully this sparks conversation across genders.
How did writing this book help you grow as a working professional?
I had a number of friends & colleagues read early drafts of Beyond Leaning In, and there’s a real vulnerability that comes from having people read about characters or plot points you’ve spent hours developing and become attached to. I had to really take a step back from my initial reaction whenever I received feedback. When was I resistant to criticism because I had gotten too emotionally attached to what I had written, but it would be better for the story and the reader for me to make the change?
Why do you think it’s important for women to speak up for themselves in the workplace?
Both men & women need to speak up for themselves in the workplace, but women are more often socialized to be “good girls” and to be a voice for others, rather than for themselves.
Could we see future books from you?
I hope so! I’ve been releasing a feminist webcomic each day in March for Women’s History Month, many of them based on scenes from Beyond Leaning In. I’m playing around with the idea of a graphic novel sequel that would take the concepts in the book further and tackle intersectionality in greater depth.
I’ve also started jotting down ideas for a book about what I call the “strategic imagination,” or the use of tools from the imaginative arts, whether fiction or the visual arts or theater, to help organizations with strategic planning and other objectives.
You launched your book on International Women’s Day. Why did you find it so important to launch on that day?
Along with Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day provides an important moment to celebrate how far women have come, but also to bring attention to the areas where we still need to call for change.
Along with the book, you started the podcast Beyond Leaning In as well. What do you hope to accomplish with the podcast?
Even with the popularity of book clubs, reading is often thought of as a solitary activity. To me, that’s a shame, because books have so much potential to create fruitful discussion and debate. Even if you haven’t read Beyond Leaning In yet, my hope with the podcast is to use concepts and short excerpts from the book as a way to show the type of conversation about gender equity that’s possible.
For example, we have one episode with a wife/husband who read the book together, and one with two male organizational leaders who’d never met before, but both read Beyond Leaning In and discuss their perspectives on male allyship.
You created the podcast with your longtime friend Carla Hickman. What made you want to bring her on as your co-host?
Carla is the type of person who brings new insights into every conversation that she’s in, and so I wanted everyone in “Podcast Audience Land” to meet her! And we’d done a number of presentations and podcast episodes together in a previous job so knew we worked well together. She’s also had a lifelong passion for radio and broadcasting, and so I thought would have a lot of fun too.
How does writing about these topics compare to discussing them in a podcast format?
Writing for me is all about the characters—not just what’s going on inside their heads, but how they’re in conversation with one another, and how we as readers are privy to that conversation and can learn from it. Podcasts to me are similar, it’s about the hosts and/or guests in dialogue. The question in both cases is what’s the conversation that I’m excited to invite you as reader or listener to join.
What do you hope your audience takes away from both your book & podcast?
What makes me happy is hearing early readers talk about how Beyond Leaning In made them feel seen in a way that surprised them, and/or helped them better understand things they didn’t realize about the work experience for colleagues, friends, or family members, especially those of different genders or generations.
I also love hearing readers hear about new concepts from the literature on diversity, equity, and inclusion that they learned for the first time or that crystallized for them after reading the book or listening to the podcast.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
The world is changing fast, and if I’m staying nimble and continuing to grow, then in five years I’m hopefully doing things that I can’t even picture today. But I hope that I’m continuing to find ways to spark conversation and community around new ideas and different ways of telling stories.
What has been your biggest success & failure to date?
In my previous role as an executive, I managed a lot of people, and I see my biggest successes as having helped mentor & coach individuals to grow in new ways. My biggest failures have been the times I got so absorbed by the daily grind that I didn’t take care of my own health—basic things like what I ate, how much I slept, exercising. Not only was this not good for me, but I don’t think any work I was doing was as good in that state.
What are five podcasts & five books you think everyone needs to read in their lives?
Podcasts: Michelle Obama: Becoming (Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations), 1619, by Nikole Hannah-Jones (The New York Times), How I Built This, by Guy Raz (NPR), Binge Mode, by Mallory Rubin & Jason Concepcion (The Ringer), Dealing with My Grief, by Darwyn M. Dave
Books: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, My Son’s Story, by Nadine Gordimer
If you wrote a memoir about your own life, what would you call it?
My dad was an immigrant who was really enamored by how U.S. culture was different from the culture in Asian countries, and he always told me (with awe) that “Americans love self-deprecating humor.” I’ve often thought that would be a funny memoir title about growing up as an Asian American.