”Your voice is a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.” – Emily  Bennington

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, first talked about being a woman and mother in the C-suite on the TED stage in 2010. What followed was the release of her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in 2013, the establishment of the Lean In foundation and in 2014, and, as she recently disclosed in her latest TED talk, the realization that she identifies as a feminist.

Feminist: a truly five alarm word. Conjures up visions of man hating, bra burning, aggressive, disgruntled unhappy women.

It was a term that Ms. Sandberg admits she shied away from until recently. What changed her mind about the importance of embracing that term has been her realization that the problem of women and leadership is much more global than she had originally thought.

The solution is going to require more than women making the choice to Lean In. It requires men and women to come together and talk about gender inequality and the reality of systemic discrimination.

The challenge is how to get that conversation started. Not many of us spring out of bed in the morning eagerly anticipating a conversation about an emotionally charged and sensitive subject like gender equality with a bunch of “feminists.”

I have a couple of ideas about what might motivate us to want to engage in this discourse.

If you’re in business, how about the overwhelming evidence that gender equality will boost your bottom line?  Study after study has established that companies with more women at the senior corporate officer level outperform those with fewer women by as much as 36%. New research from the University of British Columbia shows the cost of a successful acquisition is reduced by 15.4 per cent with each female director added on a board.

If you’re not all that concerned with the bottom line, how about the fact that gender equality is good for families and communities? Whether you’re a man or a woman, your relationship with your spouse will improve. Research shows that couples that share work and home responsibilities equally have a 50% lower divorce rate. They also spend more intimate time together (if you get my drift).

It is always helpful, and I would argue, respectful, to be informed about an issue before diving in and offering our wisdom. If you’re not quite ready to start talking, here are some issues you might want to get curious about.

1. Get curious about the facts

I have been talking and writing about women, position and power for a number of years. My experience is that many of us, men and women alike, aren’t sure why we need to talk about gender, believing as did Ms. Sandberg, that it’s an issue that has been resolved.

The facts confirm that gender equity is an issue that is far from resolved. The percentage of women in C-suite positions and on corporate boards in both Canada and the US, hit a high of 15 – 16%, 20% in the non-profit sector, and has been declining over the last several years. Research released in 2014 shows that women currently hold 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.6 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

The facts are that if a woman and man work full time outside the home, the woman does twice the amount housework than the man does and 3 times  the amount of childcare.

The fact is that the wage gap between men and women has not moved since 2002. In the US women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, despite the fact that, as I have already noted above, women earn a majority of university degrees. The gap increases if you are a woman of colour:  64 cents if you are African American, 54 cents if you are Latino.

2. Get curious about assumptions and stereotypes

As I often share with my audiences, power based disrespectful behaviours like discrimination; harassment and bullying are embedded in human history. Discrimination is a result of assumptions and beliefs that are deeply ingrained in our culture and our psyche, so deeply ingrained that we often fail to either recognize or question them.

Since the release of Lean In, Ms. Sandberg has travelled the globe talking to men and women in a myriad of countries. Her experience has been that the one common cultural norm these vastly different cultures shared related to gender. “All over the world we think men should be strong, assertive, aggressive, and have a voice while women should speak when spoken to and help others.  There is a word for bossy that applies to little girls in every language in the world. It is a word that is not used for little boys because if a little boy leads there is no negative word for it. It is expected. If a little girl leads, she is bossy.”

Ms. Sandberg cited the exhaustive research she has conducted. The data confirms that stereotypes are holding women back from leadership positions all over the world.

Systemic discrimination occurs when we judge women (or any identifiable group) through a different lens.  The research clearly establishes that this different lens negatively impacts women who aspire to leadership positions. Many of the character traits identified as those that leaders should use to get results are ones that we label being a “boss” when displayed by a man. When women exhibit those same character traits we label them as “bossy.” Research shows that while less than 5% of men have been told they are too aggressive at work, women, particularly those in leadership positions, are routinely told they are too aggressive.

Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

Curiosity informs us. Awareness empowers us. Cisco  CEO John Chambers got curious and decided to read Lean In. After reading the book he invited Ms. Sandberg to speak at Cisco and he joined her on stage. He had read Lean In, he told his employees, and acknowledged that all of their senior women had, at one point, been labelled as too aggressive. The reason for his disclosure, according to Ms. Sandberg, was because that realization on his part, and public acknowledgment of it, would benefit not just the senior women, but his entire company.

3. Get curious about who “Leans In”

In her recent interview Ms. Sandberg shares a story about an attending physician at Johns Hopkins who contacted her after he viewed her 2010 TEDWomen talk. He told her it was only after hearing her that it occurred to him that even though half of his medical school students were women they were not speaking as much as the men. He began noticing that when he asked questions the men raised their hands far more often than the women.

He decided to start encouraging the female students to speak up, but found that didn’t work. Curious as to what the reason might be, and wondering if the reason for the silence was that they didn’t know the answers, he told his students that going forward he would be calling on them individually rather than asking them to raise their hands. He quickly discovered that the women were able to respond to his questions as well as, and in some cases better than, their male colleagues.

Ms. Sandberg shares another story about the Governor of a US state, who told her that after reading Lean In, he noticed how, just as she describes in her book, women were not sitting at the table. He instituted a new rule that required everyone invited to a meeting to sit at the table.

4. Get curious about your voice

I have been a working Mother for almost 18 years; a single working Mother for almost 12. Most of my friends are working Mothers; some are entrepreneurs, some in leadership positions. We all know how hard it is.

What I notice though, is that our go to response when we ask each other how it’s going, is something like “Oh fine, good, really busy, but fine.” Many of us believe, as Ms. Sandberg did, that to be successful we have to focus on facts and figures, and leave the fact that we are a woman, the emotion, including honesty about how hard it is, out of the conversation.

How is that belief serving us, our workplaces, our families and our communities?

Does our silence create change or support the status quo?

According to Ms. Sandberg “Everywhere in the world women need more self-confidence because everywhere in the world women are told they are not equal to men.”

While I might agree that many women could use more self-confidence my belief is that men and women are different but equal.  I proudly identify as a feminist. I believe that we would all benefit if we had more women in leadership positions. I see it as my responsibility to use my voice to ignite conversations that will promote respect and meaningful equality for all human beings throughout the world community.

What about you?

Whatever your gender, will you add your voice to the conversation? Will you choose to speak up for equality and respect?