It’s true when parents withhold from their children, when spouses withhold from their partners – and when organizations withhold from women.

Withholding is a form of controlling.  When parents withhold their love or approval from a child, or deny access to funds or fun things, it’s usually as a way of controlling or influencing the child’s behavior. The same could be said of the spouse who withholds affection or support – or of withholding in any personal relationship. It’s about control – and it’s one of the nastiest ways to control in my opinion, since it’s so difficult to resist. You can fight or address direct attempts to control or influence. But how do you fight the absence of something?

I learned all this years ago through some personal growth work, and I’ve always thought about it in that personal context. It wasn’t until this month that I realized patriarchal structures do the same thing. When a business organization or some other social structure withholds from women, minorities or other disadvantaged individuals, it’s really about control. And it’s very effective.

So far this month we’ve seen two great examples of this. We’ve seen it in sports, and we’ve seen it in medicine.

 

First, there was this article in the New York Times about a lawsuit being brought by some of the women on the US Women’s National Soccer Team. They’re suing for better wages, noting they get paid a fraction of what male players earn – despite three World Cup championships and four Olympic championships.

The men who run these organizations have completely missed the boat. They choose not to promote the women; they choose not to sell products to the people who would be more interested in watching the women. Worse than that, they withhold the best facilities from the women to play on, withhold the best TV timeslots for the women to be seen, and withhold the marketing and sponsorship dollars that would make these women stars.

My comment to that effect was flagged by the Times for its Top 20 comments. In that same comments section, many people (mostly men) claim the wage disparity is due to greater interest in men’s games. Really? Or is that simply what we have all been “fed” through the marketing, sponsorship, selling, and access provided to the men?

There are also hundreds of commenters (both women AND men) who state that they prefer to watch the women’s soccer team – but can’t find them on TV. The women get relegated to play at rented high-school stadiums, not the taxpayer-funded event stadiums that the men play at. There’s no marketing or information about the women’s games, and no decent products to buy that promote their teams. Does this qualify as withholding? I think so.

 

The second example of withholding this month comes in the story of a woman scientist who invented a product targeted specifically at women’s health.

In the Times article I linked above, one paragraph describes the responses the inventor, Ridhi Tariyal, and her business partner got from potential investors at mostly-male venture capital firms:

“Someone told us that the product would only help women, and women are only half the population — so what was the point?” Ms. Tariyal said. Other potential funders wanted to reimagine their technology as a product for men: Was there some way to re-engineer it so that it would measure testosterone? And one guy suggested they develop a machine that a man could use to covertly test the health of his sexual partners, because “women are liars” who spread venereal diseases.

If this was really about money, the men who run most of these structures (investment funds and sports companies alike) would be ALL OVER opportunities like these. Imagine how much MORE money they could make if they paid attention to the other HALF of the population!

Instead, they dismiss 50% of their potential customer base. It must not really be about the money or they would have gotten it a long time ago. So what is it about?

 

It’s about control. Patriarchal structures were built by men, for men. If those structures withhold – denying access, financial backing, sponsorship, marketing, research and product development, or whatever else women and minorities need to succeed – then they can continue to control. Or at least they can try.

This is what is going on. And – like a parent trying to control a child by withholding approval, or a spouse trying to control a partner by withholding affection – it feels icky to me. When something feels icky, you call it out for what it is. And if possible, you move away from it.

This is why women need to move away from efforts to conform (or “lean in”), to try and make the current structures work. You are working against the absence of something. You are dealing with structures designed to withhold and control rather than support and expand. It might work for a while, but you will never remove the withholding. The only way to do that is to walk away and build your own structure.

Women, we could do a much better job of supporting each other as we do that. Women can change the game by stepping up to build the companies. We can fund the science. We can demand we see the women’s national team play at the men’s stadiums. That will give women control over what we (and anyone else who is interested) are able to access.

Michelle Meyer

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