Former Telstra CEO David Thodey has shared the story of how he was publicly shamed in front of an arena crowd by world-renowned diversity trainer Jane Elliott in what he calls “one of the most significant moments of my career."
Speaking at the inaugural Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) executive forum in Sydney yesterday, the CSIRO board chair recalled the experience which he says changed his whole perspective on gender and race.
While working for IBM around 2000, Thodey was invited to an event sponsored by Big Blue at which Jane Elliott would be talking.
Elliott is famous for her then controversial Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment which started in an Iowa classroom in the days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Elliott, then a primary schoolteacher, segregated the class into the blue eyed and brown eyed. She then gave one group special privileges and chastised the other, before reversing the special treatment the following week.
She went on to become a leading workplace diversity trainer for the likes of IBM, General Electric, Exxon, and AT&T, notoriety that brought her to Sydney to speak to a 3,500 strong Sydney Entertainment Centre crowd.
I want to ask you a question
“I was invited to be there. And I was classic IBM, I had my white shirt on, my tie on, a dark suit,” Thodey recalled to the FITT audience of Australia's leading female IT leaders.
“[Before the event] she sat down next to me and I said, ‘Hi I’m David’. And she didn’t really talk to me. Just before she got up to speak she said, ‘Would you mind coming up on stage? I just want to ask you a question.’”
Thodey was brought up to stand on one side of the stage and a Torres Strait Islander woman was brought up to stand on the opposite side. Elliott then asked Thodey how tall he was and how he felt about it.
“I said, ‘I don’t really think about it’. She turned to the Torres Strait Islander woman and asked. She said ‘I’m 5 foot one and well it’s really hard actually. I go into rooms and I can’t see people. I tend to be looking up and it’s really hard and I find it really quite difficult.’”
Elliott then asked Thodey how he felt about being a man. He said: "I was just born that way and I don’t think about it". The woman said: "It’s very hard being a Torres Strait Islander woman. People don’t listen to me when I say things."
“This went on. I was totally unconscious of the awareness of my perspective and someone else’s. This is in front of thousands of people. And I got smaller and smaller. I was really embarrassed,” Thodey said.
But the humiliation wasn’t over. As Thodey left the stage he remembers touching Elliott on the back.
“She turned and said – ‘What gives you the right to touch me!?’ At which point I ran off the stage completely! That was probably one of the most significant moments of my career. It’s always caused me to reflect.”
During his time as head of Telstra, Thodey enacted a ‘flexible working for all roles’ policy and set-up a diversity council. He also enforced a ‘50/50 if not why not?’ missive to all levels of the telco and was a founding member of the Male Champions of Change group.
The problem of gender equity had to be tackled on a personal level, he said.
“You can get all carried away with inclusion and gender equity as an ethical or equality or egalitarian perspective. But this goes deeper and often we don’t have very honest discussions about it and I think it’s really important we do. This needs to be personal because if it isn’t it won’t change.”
Success would only come from being bold, Thodey added.
“You need to be bold. The problem is it’s easy to get into the status quo and not change. The only way I know how to change is push the boundaries. You’ve got to be willing to be unaccepting of bad behaviour, you’ve got to call it out, and you’ve got to be really strong with it,” Thodey said.
“You need to measure you need to be incredibly detailed in terms of the data. Then you’ve got to put in good programmes to support it. Then you’ve got to look for the unseen signals. Talk to people and ask them how things are going because people will actually put up with too much.”
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