Seek Solutions by Seeking Empathy

Back Commentary Nov 30, 2017 By Allison Joy

The planning stage of our December issue typically starts with a conversation reviewing what we mean by “innovation.” Technology is often only part of it — a starting point, if that. Notable innovation hinges on better solutions to existing problems.

And there is no shortage of problems — no shortage of blame, either, and a massive shortage of solutions. Natural disasters, political tensions, violence and loss of life dominate the headlines. Additionally, the recent onslaught of women (and some men) sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment — usually in the workplace — weighs heavily on my mind. It fills me with a deep, existential sadness that can’t be easily shaken off, even over the course of the busiest day. This isn’t something taking place just at the national level, either. In October, the Sacramento Bee reported that over 300 women had signed an open letter detailing a culture of sexual harassment at our State Capitol.

Related: Capitol is Hit by “Me Too” Reports of Sexual Harassment

I have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace. Most women I know — from CEOs to scientists to cab drivers — have been. It is true that the fancier our job titles and the larger our sphere of influence, the easier it is to bite back. Those of us with the power to speak up must, for there are many who cannot risk a bridge burned or paycheck lost. So I would be remiss not to use the platform I’ve been afforded to say: Yes, I have seen it too. This is a real problem. And it’s likely not one we can hope to legislate our way out of.

Instead, it will take some serious soul-searching from those in power (predominantly men) — a process that starts with listening with the goal of understanding. Sutter Health’s chief design and innovation officer, Chris Waugh, notes in this month’s Discourse that empathy is essential to impactful problem-solving. As Waugh says, it “literally means doing your best, even if you’ve never been in that context, to put yourself in the shoes” of someone else.

Chris Milk, CEO of virtual reality company Within, dubbed VR the “empathy machine” during a 2015 TED talk. The phrase has taken off since then, showing up everywhere from Wired to The New York Times to NASDAQ. “Empathy projects” abound, immersing viewers in Syrian refugee camps, the U.S. prison system and on the receiving end of cat calls. The argument is that through these VR experiences, viewers will better understand the plight of others and become more invested in addressing the underlying problems. But while VR may paint a clearer picture than your traditional nightly news, immersion does not equal empathy. When the show is over, you can remove the headset. True empathy — in business and in life — comes from knowing a person, and being open to perceptions and experiences that are not your own.

It would make sense, then, to conclude one element of the solution to sexual harassment is largely staked in more women in the workplace. It’s more women in leadership positions, in the boardroom and with the power to craft company cultures. It’s more women sharing their ideas, perspectives and creative-thinking. It’s more women being heard.

Our December Innovation Issue contains a slew of smart, savvy problem-solvers working right here in the Capital Region — many of whom happen to be women. There’s Alona Jennings of Operation Innovate, who brings mentorship and STEM-education to under-served schools; as well as Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, who works to make agriculture more environmentally-friendly (“Innovation Unlocked”). Briana Aea, an organizer of the Sacramento Indie Arcade, is uniting local independent game developers (“Dawn of the Developers”). Jennifer Gress will oversee Sacramento’s Green City initiative in a push toward more sustainable transportation (“Electric Avenue”). And while not local, certainly having local implications, the UC Office of Innovation Entrepreneurship has been infused with new entrepreneurial blood  — and they’re all women (“Limits to Launch”).

Comstock’s aims to be solution-seeking. (I would also be remiss not to mention that we are a woman-owned business; for more details, check the masthead.) That’s not to say that hard critique isn’t warranted and sometimes necessary, but ultimately if we are going to identify a problem, we ought to also identify some potential solutions, or at the very least, shed light on those trying to craft them. We’re currently vetting nominees for our Women in Leadership issue, which will hit newsstands in March. Nominations close Dec. 8 so there’s still a bit of time to submit yours (submit here). It’s one of many ways to be part of the solution.

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