Maybe a dozen years ago, I read a book called "Half the Sky," about the need to end oppression of girls and women. It's a great book, full of powerful examples, but it's really the title that has stuck with me. It comes from a Chinese saying, that "women hold up half the sky." That's hardly a surprise, but I'd also never seen it put that simply. Women hold up half the sky, and half of everything else, too. Extend that thinking just a touch, and you see the sort of talent that exists in minorities of every ilk -- and how much we all miss if we don't recognize that talent, nurture it and find ever-more-important roles for those with that talent.
Insurers complain about a talent gap. Well, there's a lot out there that has historically been overlooked.
The way I was raised, there was never any question about the diversity of talent. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from college and had the temperament and intellect to run a large organization -- which she more or less did by having eight of us kids. My five sisters not only all have college degrees but have four advanced degrees among them, including a juris doctor and a Ph.D. The schools granting those degrees include Harvard, Wellesley, Johns Hopkins and Carleton. My daughters graduated from Cal and Yale, and one has a law degree from George Washington.
The attitude of the women in my life has basically been: Do try to keep up.
When hiring people at the Wall Street Journal, I decided to just go for the smartest people I could find. In sports, the line is that "you can't teach speed." Well, I figured you can't teach intellect (broadly defined). In some ways, I suppose I was mirroring my own experience. While lots of metropolitan dailies wouldn't give me the time of day as I was winding up my master's degree from Northwestern, because I didn't have four to six years of experience, after I had spent just a year at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the WSJ was willing to take a chance on an aggressive 21-year-old. I, in turn, took a chance on a young Black woman for a reporting job in the Chicago bureau when I was the deputy bureau chief there. She didn't even have any experience in journalism. She worked in the PR department at Purdue. But she was wicked smart and had the ideal personality for a reporter -- very direct, but with a smile. She wound up being the highest-ranking Black woman in the history of the WSJ. Among the other 25 or 30 people I hired at the WSJ was a straight-out-of-college white woman who became the only managing editor the paper has had.
I highly recommend hiring and promoting based on potential, and not so much on experience. There are loads of smart people who have historically been overlooked because they're women or minorities but who will grow in their roles and do great things if given the chance.
I realize that I'm glossing over all sorts of obstacles. It's not as though women and minorities haven't been standing up for themselves for ages, or as though many of us white males haven't been trying to help. Old habits run deep, and historical patterns will take time to correct, as Amy Cole-Smith explains in this month's interview.
Look at the Chinese quote I began with. The notion that women hold up half the sky comes from Mao, yet his Communist Party still has almost no female leaders nearly 50 years after his death.
So, I'll leave you with another Chinese proverb that has become a favorite of mine: "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now."