Paula Stone Williams lived the first 60 years of her life as a man and then transitioned to life as a transgendered woman. Having experienced multiple genders, Williams offered a unique perspective on gender roles and how to achieve equity in the workplace during a keynote speech at the 2020 GreenBuild virtual conference. The speech is part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s broader efforts to create a more inclusive community.
Williams knew she was transgender at age 3 or 4, but “no gender fairy arrived” to shepherd her through the process of becoming a transgendered woman. She built a career, raised children, but felt a sense of authenticity was missing.
When she finally came out as a transgender woman in her 60s, Williams was able to be herself, but in the process lost every job, including her role as CEO of a Christian organization. “In this country, you can be fired from a religious organization for being transgender,” she said. As a trained psychotherapist and pastoral counselor, Williams continues to work with clients.
When people ask her whether she feels “100 percent woman,” she responds, “I feel 100 percent like a transgender woman.”
Life as a transgendered “alpha woman” is very different from life as an “alpha male,” she explained. “Before I had a few pairs of shirts, a few pairs of pants, and a few suits. Now, I have a closet full of clothes. You can’t wear the same thing too often or other women will notice and judge you for it.”
She told men in the audience that “the culture is tipped in your favor, and you don’t even know it.” Women in particular have a hard time being seen as leaders. “If you speak too strongly, you are known as ‘that woman,’ which means not leadership material. It’s a knife edge.”
“Men also interrupt women twice as much as they do other men.” When she was a man, Williams said she was guilty of the same: “I was a bad interrupter.” To stop this, “men need to assume women know what they are talking about.”
“Men need to show deference to women. To be a genuine ally of gender equity, men need to be an accomplice or assistant, give power to another person, and work at their direction.”
Williams offered a slew of statistics to outline the challenges for women in the workplace. White women make on average 79 cents for every dollar a white man makes; Latina women, 59 cents; and African American women, just 54 cents. Only 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, who also hold just 22 percent of senior vice presidents positions. 6.6 percent of Silicon Valley’s leaders are women, as are only 3 percent of the leaders in venture capital firms. Williams argued this helps explain why there are so few women-owned companies in Silicon Valley. Just 15 percent of partners in legal firms are women. Only 17 percent of Wikipedia entries are about women.
Despite the lack of opportunity, women can be more effective leaders, Williams believes, because they are inherently better at “compromise, collaboration, and correction,” which are key leadership traits. “Women are more willing to compromise and have less of their ego at stake. They can find a workable solution. Women collaborate as equals. They are also better at correcting themselves, instead of doubling down like men.”
But Williams identified a few ways both women and men work against gender equity in the workplace. “Women don’t empower each other enough and often only see each other as competitors. In six years as a woman, I have had more struggles with other women than I had as 60 years as a man.” Williams said her five young granddaughters are “already in deep competition with each other.”
To achieve greater gender equality, women need to better support each other, say “I’ve got this” to men more often, and stop apologizing for themselves and their talents. In turn, men need to offer more deference to women and listen better. What is critically important is to “truly listen.”
According to Williams, sustainable design professionals working in the built environment may be further ahead than others in this regard. “You already defer to the planet and the climate and listen to the Earth, which sets you apart.”
“Women are more closely connected to the Earth. For all of us, better connecting to the Earth and its cycles is how we will achieve true gender equity in the world and equity with the planet.”