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How to approach gender bias in the mortgage industry

A response to industry professionals' reactions to Chrisman's confrontation

In the wake of the publication of a scathing column against Rob Chrisman, calling out his derogatory jokes, the industry’s response has been divisive. While I share the author’s concerns about some of Chrisman’s jokes, in my opinion, the author’s approach to initiate change was reckless and potentially harmful to our cause to improve inclusivity in our industry. I’d like to share an alternative approach to change leadership that I think is more effective for anyone wanting to implement change in our industry.

HousingWire published an column on March 16, entitled, Why is gender bias in the mortgage industry still accepted? Time’s up, Chrisman. The author, Jillayne Schlicke, asks an important question, “how is a daily mortgage lending industry email with disparaging jokes about women still a thing?” However, Schlicke’s approach to this question, laden with hostility, may have backfired. Through my experience performing diversity and gender bias training over the past six years, I have made many similar mistakes to addressing bias. In such a sensitive time in our culture and industry, I want to share what I believe to be a more effective approach to bias education and how a conversation about crude jokes could have been more strategic.

Through this contribution, I will outline how I believe this conversation about bias should be discussed and suggestions for both leaders and change agents to navigate our changing culture. All leaders today need to put extra thought into their words and actions as we navigate the new standard for leadership and workplace culture.

1. Start with respect.

To no one’s surprise, the most effective ways to reduce bias seem to be through empathy and respect. A change agent should begin the process with acknowledgement that they understand and respect the person they want to change, while explaining why there may be a problem with that person’s (or organization’s) approach. At the very least, Rob Chrisman deserves some acknowledgement of respect for the magnitude of leadership he has brought to our industry. He has made more progress for our industry than many of us could ever imagine doing, and he has helped countless people through his influence.

However, Schlicke’s column was not only disrespectful to Chrisman but also his followers. When a leader is disrespected publicly, their followers take personal offense. In this case, Chrisman has more than 40,000 subscribers and a loyal following. In order to stand up for the person they believe in, most people will reject and/or ignore Schlicke’s message entirely, thereby pushing women further away from the change they want to make.

Lastly, the sub-headline of “Times up, Chrisman,” disrespects the #TimesUp movement and those it stands to protect. #TimesUp has given a voice to women who have experienced sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. In my opinion, we should not stretch this movement to include ignorant jokes. A joke about the difference between “a Crusty Bus Station” and “a Busty Crustacean” is not in the same category as requesting that a female employee flash her breasts in order to get a loan concession. Associating someone’s bad jokes with harassment or assault is not only extremely offensive to the unknowing joke-tellers but it is demeaning to those who must endure the traumatic effects of assault. As someone who has experienced both assault and gender bias, I think putting these in the same bucket is harmful to progress.

2. Clearly articulate the problem

Men and particularly male leaders are held to a new standard today for appropriate workplace behavior and communication. Thankfully, this new standard is paving the way for women to reach a new level of equality with their male counterparts. However, many men are left in the dust when it comes to awareness of what is appropriate under this new standard.

As change leaders, we must strategically educate through empathy and evidence to encourage others to understand the basis of the problem that needs to be addressed. As one commentator requested of Schlicke, “Share with him which jokes are actually more demeaning than funny, and explain how they don't help women excel in our industry.”

The real problem with Rob Chrisman’s jokes is that it sends the message that women are not welcome. His audience may submit jokes, and his audience may predominantly be biased against women, but his leadership should rise above this sentiment to guide us toward the greater inclusion of women.

While I am grateful that our culture has evolved to a point that we are now evaluating behaviors at a higher standard, we should tread carefully. In the same way that the digital revolution has left many in the dark as they try to adjust to new standards for communication, our cultural revolution often leaves behind those who are accustomed to a certain way of thinking. If we leave them in the dark, we lose the opportunity to move the needle on progress.

3. Explain the personal benefits to change

Most people will not change their behavior if they don’t see a personal benefit to doing so. In this case, Chrisman may not be aware of not only how his jokes impact women, but how it can ultimately impact his prominence or legacy in the industry.

In a world where leaders are held to a higher standard, their consumer base or readership will suffer if there is a question of integrity in the company or individual. In the book “The Naked Corporation,” the authors warn companies of the new standard and consumer scrutiny. “You're going to be naked, so you'd better be buff,” they say. Leaders across industries are held accountable for their actions, whether they like it or not. For example, #DeleteUber gained traction in 2017 as a call to fight against the apparent support from Uber’s CEO for President Trump’s refugee ban. While this did not seem to markedly harm Uber sales, it did force the CEO to drop out of the president’s business council.

Rob Chrisman may be appealing to a majority in his audience by sharing offensive jokes, but he is at risk of suffering the loss of the new majority of young leaders such as myself who associate such behavior with an outdated form of leadership.

In closing, I am glad these conversations are surfacing, and HousingWire is taking the lead by hosting the debate, but I think leaders and change agents alike need to hold ourselves to a higher standard for dialogue.

By associating Rob Chrisman with this movement, you push away him and all of his followers to the point that they will not listen. Let’s use our voices strategically to educate with respect and advocate empathy through the channels that will give our cause the most traction. 

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