Nov 16, 2020 • Avik Das
Since I started writing, I made a point to have important conversations with the people in my life and share those conversations with a wider audience. During Movember, I try to have deep conversations about men’s health. Last year, I talked with a mentor of mine, Nash, and this year, I talked with Erran Berger, VP of engineering for the Consumer Experience org I’m a part of at LinkedIn.
At LinkedIn, one of our core values is open, honest and constructive dialogue, and a culture like that depends on the initiative and support of leaders. Erran has consistently demonstrated that value. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he opened up to the entire Consumer Engineering org as he shared what was top of mind for him both professionally and personally. For that reason, I’m honored to have spoken to him about the expectations put on men and how we can bring about gender equality.
Before starting our conversation, Erran asked me where my passion for talking about men’s health came from. It’s important for me to share that, as it provides some context for our conversation:
Avik: The mental health aspect of Movember is really important to me. I have, in the past, felt discouraged from talking freely about my feelings. LinkedIn, especially this last year, has encouraged everyone to talk more freely, but in general, there’s the idea of men needing to be tough and not showing emotion. I wish I had more close interactions with other men, but sometimes, when I expressed frustration, I’ve heard, “that’s just how it is.” Movember is a movement that encourages us to engage in meaningful dialogue. More than just me, other people are doing the same thing this month, and that encourages me further.
Secondly, as an example of the compassion Erran demonstrates, he prefaced our conversation with an important point about privilege. It’s possible to simultaneously talk about the issues we face as men while contextualizing those issues with the privilege we have:
Erran: As a white male, I could not be more in a position of privilege. I’m trying to be mindful to not have this interview come off as not acknowledging that privilege.
Avik: What does masculinity mean to you?
Erran: So there’s what is the textbook definition of masculinity, but it’s not necessarily one I want to embody. There’s a disconnect between my definition and the dictionary definition. The dictionary definition of masculinity is “Qualities and attributes regarded as characteristics of men” and that is problematic for me because it re-enforces an outdated notion of gender roles. Gender roles have, for far too long and still today, been defined by really outdated expectations of what a man should do and what a woman should do, what men and women are good at. It’s ridiculous. There is no singular definition of what a male’s role in society is, it varies from person to person, from relationship to relationship, from society to society.
And so, for me personally, masculinity means being a good partner to my partner (who happens to be female), a good parent to my kids, splitting and sharing all responsibilities in our household equally with my partner, and trying to be as open and vulnerable with my thoughts, feelings and emotions as I can be.
Avik: This goes right into the other topic I want to talk about: expectations. Having a rigid definition means there are rigid expectations, but what you talked about is, there are characteristics you prefer and it’s all about what you make out of it.
Erran: Yes. And for me, it’s problematic that those [expectations] are influenced by centuries of gender discrimination and inequity.
Avik: You are a leader in a large organization. Have you ever conflicted with the expectations put on you as a leader? How have you found your own leadership style?
Erran: In general, there are traits associated with leadership, like being a strong voice in the room or projecting executive presence. These traits are problematic because they are exclusionary of all sorts of people who can be fantastic leaders. As an example, people connote the term “inspiring”—which is important as a leader—with someone who is super charismatic and can get in front of the room to charm an audience. But certainly, that’s not the only way to be inspiring as a leader. Quiet leadership can be inspiring as well. Introverted leaders can be super inspiring and successful.
Specifically for myself, I put a high premium on vulnerability as a leader. Being genuine and vulnerable helps you connect with people in a way where people will want to follow you. It’s a trait that’s valuable as a leader, but many people may not naturally think it’s something a leader should be because they think it shows weakness and it violates the stereotype of the unflappable, stolid leader.
But being vulnerable doesn’t actually show weakness,it’s quite the opposite. At the end of the day, your relationship with your team and the people you are leading—the trust with them—is foundational above anything else. It’s much easier to build trust when people can relate to you and know you’re being honest with them. Vulnerability and openness is very helpful to build that type of relationship. Then everything else can follow, like inspiration and vision, if you have trust.
Avik: You mentioned this idea of connecting with other people and that being an important part of being a leader. Who in your life do you feel comfortable opening up with?
Erran: Family, first and foremost: my immediate family, my brother and sister-in-law, and my extended family. Then my friends. I have a really close group of friends, many of them men, but not only. If I’m having a tough time, with a personal or professional issue, I can go to them, and I know I won’t be judged but will be treated compassionately with support.
Relationships are bi-directional. The relationships I described are ones I’ve invested in for decades. In order to get to that depth of understanding, compassion and support, that’s not something you get within a short amount of time. Different people have different thresholds to engaging in those conversations, in terms of comfort and trust. I trust people pretty quickly, I feel comfortable and vulnerable pretty quickly, but every relationship takes time.
Avik: You’re right about relationships being bi-directional. What are some of the things you have done, and other people have done, to foster that level of closeness?
Erran: I don’t think there’s any substitute for just spending time together. Especially now [during the pandemic], it’s hard forming and building on relationships when you can’t see each other face-to-face. It’s actually really hard. I don’t know what the science says, but spending time in person versus doing it virtually, being able to hug and touch and laugh in close proximity without a mask, seeing their face… somehow there’s an emotional and a psychological element I think is really lacking right now.
Time spent, being vulnerable to each other, talking about difficult subjects, being emotional, these are all things that build layers and layers over time with every successive difficult conversation.
Avik: This is great, because it tells people this time [in the pandemic] is tough and it’s not your fault. This is just the world right now.
Erran: In fact, it requires we all work harder on these relationships, because we have to make up for the lack of in-person communication, the serendipitous moments that happen when you’re just hanging out with friends or family.
Avik: The last thing I want to ask about is: you recently went on paternity leave. Why was that important to you, and should companies invest in paternity leave?
Erran: I’m glad we’re talking about it. This gets to the core of the problem with [the textbook definition of] masculinity in society and how it manifests itself. When I have a baby, I cannot nurse my child, I cannot breastfeed my child, I cannot give birth to a child. But quite literally everything else that comes with raising a child, I can do. Yet, there is a fundamental meme in society—about what the role is of a man versus a woman—that assumes a bunch of stuff from the day you come home from the hospital with the baby.
The consequence of that is women’s careers are affected when they have children and take time off. There’s a lot of data to support the negative impacts [having a child] has on women’s careers, and it’s hugely problematic. It’s important we acknowledge that men can play a very active role in the raising of our children from the day they are born. It’s incredibly important to our families that we do so, that we have open conversations with our partners about how responsibilities will be shared.
And the only way I can truly play an active role is if I’m at home when the most is required, which is when there’s an infant at home. So when I frame it that way I felt like I had no other choice than to be at home. That’s why I took so much time off and I would encourage any other male employee of LinkedIn to do the same thing that I did.
Avik: As you pointed out, this idea of men not taking a role in their parenting is an example of clearly defined gender roles, and it’s something we need to change. I’m very grateful you set that example for the organization, and of course, because we work at a company that sets that example as well.
Erran: Men taking longer [paternity leaves is] one way we can start to break down gender roles and how we can bring about gender equality across the board, both in society and in the workplace. It’s by men leaning much deeper into behaviors and responsibilities that have been traditionally associated with women. It’s good for us as men, and it fixes some things that are fundamentally broken about our society.
I found this dialogue very insightful. Some of the key takeaways for me were:
Masculinity is what you make of it. You don’t have to adhere to the textbook definition where it’s problematic, or where it hurts you. Most importantly, masculinity is positive if you make it positive.
Vulnerability is an important trait for leaders, and really for everyone, as it builds more meaningful connections with others.
Relationships take time to develop. There is no substitute for time spent together, having honest and open conversations. This is especially hard now during the pandemic, when connecting in person is often not an option, so we need to work harder to establish these relationships now.
Men need to take an active role in raising their children, regardless of what traditional gender roles prescribe. This is the way we can break down those gender roles, benefiting us men and our future generations.
Thanks again for talking to me, Erran!
If you want to donate to Movember in order to fund their various men’s health-oriented initiatives, please find me at my Movember page at https://mobro.co/akdas. And if you’d like to share your story about men’s health, I would love to talk to you.