There are two sides to my career—my day job at Doblin, Deloitte’s innovation consultancy where we advise on, build, and perform innovation for our corporate clients, and my pet project here at MateModern.com, where I write about the evolving role of men in the gender equality discussion. Sometimes, those worlds overlap, like when we sell human-centered design consulting engagements to our clients that focus on changing the role of men. Other times, they collide head on in a messy, eye-opening epiphany that provides a new viewpoint on how we can view both corporate innovation and the gender equality discussion.
One of those head-on collisions happened during another heated debate with my wife over a podcast from The Economist in which they interviewed the flavour-du-jour, Dr. Jordan Peterson, about his views on a wide range of topics.
I've written here about Dr. Peterson before—he is plastered all over magazines, newspapers, and YouTube, normally as the subject of controversy over his critical views on minority rights, white privilege, and feminism. This podcast however did a great job of revealing just a little bit how his mind works.
Dr. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and therefore is deftly committed to empirical evidence as the only source of truth. He is also extremely careful about what he says. Seemingly simple questions about his opinions on topics almost certainly result in him turning the question on the interviewer, and probing into the specific parameters of the question so he can weigh and explain his precise answer.
This approach frustrates many listeners—specifically women. I found that so badly people want to label him a misogynist. What he says so closely toes the line of misogyny that it seems that he uses his words precisely to avoid saying misogynist things, but instead conveys the message of misogyny. For instance, he claims that women first experienced true liberation when the birth control pill was invented in the 1960s. For the first time, women could become sexually promiscuous without the fear of childrearing. This then resulted in a decreased need for men to find and woo a single woman who they would then marry if they wanted consistent sex. Instead, they could engage in relations with women outside of wedlock because the risk of pregnancy for women was so much lower.
However the result of this promiscuity was the decline of the family unit. Marriage had lower utility for both sexes and therefore we paired up less. This meant that women needed to get all the rights that men traditionally had in terms of being able to work for equal pay, vote, own land, be free of discrimination and harassment, etc. because the default was no longer that all men and women were in married families, and the existing paradigm of men being the representative of the household no longer worked for a large swath of sexually-liberated single women.
So, as Dr. Peterson might put it, it’s the sexual liberation of women that has upset the natural balance of the sexes and contributed to an unnatural world in which men and women are forced to work and live as ‘equal outcome’ sexes instead of how we were originally intended to live with men as the breadwinners and women as the caregivers. He believes in a world of equal opportunities, not equal outcomes, because he believes that all the empirical evidence we have would show that all things held equal, men and women will choose different things because we are genetically different, and therefore the idea that we should strive for equality at every level of every organization in every way is false and actually detrimental. He thinks both sexes would be happier if we just went back to our natural order—because that’s what the empirical evidence shows.
To some, this feels like a misogynistic message, but he actually hasn’t really said anything that’s misogynist. It’s all relatively well-reasoned, empirically-backed, and hard to pick apart. I think this is what divides people so much on Dr. Peterson. He says things that when reduced to a soundbite or summarized without context sound misogynistic. And his tone and personality don’t help. But when you play back the full story, with full context and explanation, he actually doesn’t provide any personal opinions. He is simply replaying what the evidence would show us. From his perspective, you can’t argue with the data; his personal opinions carry no weight.
So is this a good way to view the world? Should we all set aside our opinions and just look at the empirical evidence that shows how the birth control pill and liberated, feminist women have pushed our society into an unnatural balance that makes both men and women less happy? Should men feel like victims of the feminist agenda and should we fight back against it?
Uhh…no. Definitively—no. And the reason is…(*buzzword alert*) Innovation!
There is one Achilles’ heel question in every innovation engagement that brings the whole project to a grinding halt, where consultants start working overtime and late into the night to spin a story the Executives can get behind to support keeping the innovation initiative moving forward.
That question is: what’s the ROI? Variations of this might include: Show me the business case. Where has this been done before? What’s the precedent we can follow?
It’s a modus operandi of modern corporations. They have limited resources and are constantly pressured by both senior management and shareholders to deliver quarter over quarter profit growth, normally through cost reduction and penny-pinching product improvement to drive incremental revenue. With this mindset, investment dollars are scarce, and the ‘pro forma business case’ reigns supreme as the dictator of which initiatives get funding and which get shelved or outright killed. We see this every day at Doblin working with our corporate clients (Doblin and Deloitte aren’t immune to this thinking either with our own operations).
At times, the power of the solid business case can be directly at odds with an innovation initiative. The reason? By definition, an innovation initiative—especially a game-changing, industry-creating one that can open up billions in potential market share—is premised on the fact that the market doesn’t yet exist. And if a market doesn’t exist, then you can’t create a business case in the traditional sense.
Common questions that arise: what’s our growth rate? (who knows?!), what’s the size of the market? (who knows?!), how much will it cost us to build? (who knows?!), etc., etc. The fundamentals of the business case can’t be answered because to get certainty, we need to actually build the innovation and test it out, but to build and test, we need investment dollars, and to get investment dollars, we need the business case, and to get the business case, we need certainty. It’s a constant cycle that’s hard to break.
The answer to this is to simply try something. It can be small scale, it can be wrong, it can be low-fidelity. Because once we start trying something, we can learn. And when we learn, we build certainty. And as we build certainty, we can invest more and more dollars over time. But the idea of learning is not necessarily something that is built into the business case. The business case is a hypothetical scenario based on empirical and historical evidence of what we’ve seen in the past, so we can feel better about what might happen in the future. By definition, the business case roots us in what was possible in the past, not what is possible in the future.
And this is where the two worlds collided in the kitchen with my wife when we were discussing the Dr. Peterson podcast. His views on gender equality and the scourge of feminism is not too different from the corporation trying to innovate but being too tied to the idea of business case. Dr. Peterson takes historical, empirical evidence, and holds it up as the single source of truth for how things should be. The corporate innovator might be asked to do something similar, provide historical, empirical evidence, and create a business case that shows how much return can be expected from investment into an innovation initiative.
Both views are the death toll for progress. In my opinion, feminists should be lauded for their audacity, drive, and leadership in fighting for more equal rights. What Dr. Peterson doesn’t see is that it’s actually men now who need to change as well. We shouldn’t hold ourselves to an outdated, historical representation of gender roles. Empirical and historical data has less relevance today because the world has changed. The nature of work is different, the nature of caregiving is different; neither of which really require specific biological traits that traditionally were the realm of men and women respectively that made them either more suited for the physical grind of hard labour or the biological gift of child bearing and breast feeding. Men shouldn’t be fighting for a return to the traditionalist gender roles that empirical data support, instead we should be fighting for a new, yet-to-be-defined role for men that more easily fits with a more equal role for women. More caregiving and less need for dominance or sexual conquest, more empathy and less violence, more meaning and less depression—maybe these are some the places we should start.
Thus, the danger of a historical view on progressive issues, whether you’re a gender warrior or a corporate innovator. You’ll never change society or change your industry if you’re always looking for precedent. By definition, change is reliant on there being no precedent. So Dr. Peterson isn’t necessarily wrong in his views—I will admit they are quite well-structured and mostly fact-based from what I can tell—it’s just his opinion that empirical data is paramount is wrong. As a corporate innovator, you should feel the same way. Don’t limit yourself to what has been done or where you can find evidence of an innovation working out. Instead, create your own future, free from precedent and full of opportunity to define something new and better—whether for your customers or for the men and women in your life.