Last week, author and entrepreneur Michael Hyatt made a surprising announcement: he’s offering a high-end coaching “mastermind” program for a select group of 15 people.
That’s not the surprising part; many consultants and thought leaders offer these types of groups, usually for an annual fee in the low five figures, and including a combination of monthly online and quarterly in-person meetings.
The surprising part is who’s eligible: married men in their 30s and 40s who earn north of $250,000 per year.
Who’s not: women, at any stage in their career, regardless of income, past success, or other qualifications.
The Wrong Kind of Discrimination
I understand Hyatt’s desire to make this a high level group, which requires being discriminating. But it doesn’t require discrimination.
I understand the income requirement, because entrepreneurs at different stages of their business development face different challenges, and deserve to have their dilemmas considered by a peer group that is operating at the same level.
That’s a big part of what they are paying for, just as you’d expect your peers in college to have similar academic qualifications so your courses aren’t too focused on remediation. Plus, if the program is going to be expensive, it’s reasonable to impose an income restriction so that the participation fee isn’t too burdensome.
But what about the other requirements? I’ll ignore the age restriction; since everyone goes through their 30s and 40s at some point, this doesn’t permanently exclude any particular segment of the population.
But married men only? I understand the value of focusing on people in a particular life situation in a church-based mentoring group, or really in any personal pursuit.
But this is business. This is the professional world.
Sure, there may be benefits to a male-only group, but do they outweigh the harm of discrimination?
In the business world, it’s pretty rare to see any kind of program limited to men. It seems like a throwback to the Mad Men days.
Hyatt’s explanation is that, since he is devoting personal time and attention to this group, he wants to focus on the people he can help the most, which he believes to be married men in their 30s and 40s above a certain income threshold, and he wants to provide mentoring that goes beyond business:
It won’t be for everyone. The group will be intensive and very limited. I’m going to be dedicating a lot of my time and energy, and I have to focus where I believe I can help members the most.
…this is not strictly a business mastermind. As I explained in the post, what makes this unique is that we will be dealing with issues outside of the work arena like personal health, marriage, family, etc. While there is definitely overlap between the genders on these issues, I want to be able to address these without that being a consideration.
If women want to offer similar groups for women, he reasons, they are certainly free to do so, and in fact Hyatt has provided tips for starting such groups on his website.
A Basic Civil Rights Issue
As I read Hyatt’s explanation of the requirements, and his defense of those requirements in the comments on his blog post, I had an eerie feeling, and thought, “I bet this sounds awfully familiar to African American people.”
In 1964, the United States outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” For 50 years, it has been illegal to discriminate based on race or gender in hiring decisions.
And it’s illegal to deny people access to “public accommodations,” such as restaurants and restrooms—even those that are privately owned.
In the rest of the private sector, though, one is free to choose one’s own customers and business associates, even if that means explicitly practicing racial or gender discrimination.
Hyatt seems comfortable with the latter, confident in the belief that women will fill the gap for other women.
The only problem is, it doesn’t work that way. As anyone who has read Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book Lean In knows, this type of discrimination has a negative effect not only on the women who are left out, but on society as a whole, which suffers from the inequality experienced by women and other groups.
The Harm Is In The Message
The symbolic power of Hyatt’s decision to exclude women is, of course, much more significant than its practical effect. He’s not just leaving out the handful of women who would otherwise have benefitted; he’s sending the message to women that “separate but equal” is good enough for them.
Even worse, he’s sending the message to men that it’s no big deal that the boys’ club is alive and well.
Even seemingly benign efforts, like informal mentoring groups that meet over dinner, have a negative effect, whether they exclude women officially, or just in practice. To offer a men-only business program is incomprehensible in modern society.
Imagine, for a moment, that BMW released a sports car and announced that only men could purchase it.
Imagine that Harvard begin offering an MBA program available only to men.
Imagine a senior politician announcing that he would only except male interns.
The public outcry would be swift and furious.
Yet when a public figure of Michael Hyatt’s stature does exactly the same thing, he’s congratulated by dozens of his closest fans and business associates, many of whom have made tens of thousands of dollars from their association with his brand, and many more of whom hope to do so in the future.
Don’t get me wrong: Hyatt’s business is his own, and he is free to offer his services to whomever he sees fit.
But the excuse that, technically, the Civil Rights Act doesn’t apply—that’s pretty sad.
Even If Racial Discrimination Is Worse, Gender Discrimination Is Wrong Too
I challenge you to re-read Hyatt’s explanation, and substitute race for gender in his remarks.
The arguments ring pretty hollow when you make the substitution:
“In marketing, this is called niching. I am simply focusing on a market segment I feel the most qualified—and called—to serve. This does not make African Americans second-class citizens, any more than a African American professional organization somehow makes caucasians second-class citizens.”
Of course, he didn’t say that. His comment was about gender, not race.
Of course he’d never make such racially discriminatory business decisions or remarks. Why, then, the disregard for women?
Did the Civil Rights Act ban both gender- and race-based discrimination even though one them is OK? Of course not. They’re both wrong.
I have no doubt that most of Hyatt’s experience is working with white people, so it’s probably fair to say that he is better “qualified” to meet the needs of white people than other groups.
I have no doubt that an all-white mastermind group would have more in common than a racially diverse group.
It might be preferable for those involved, but would it be right?
Of course not.
And a business program that excludes women is wrong, too.
Visionaries with Blind Spots
It boggles the mind that a public figure of Michael’s intelligence and standing would make such a poorly considered decision. It’s tone-deaf at best, and offensive and harmful at worst.
And yes, of course it’s his business and he can do whatever he wants, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best course of action.
I am not questioning Michael’s intentions, but I do question the wisdom of this decision. I believe it comes from a lack of perspective, which is the result of being surrounded and insulated by excessively “like-minded” people—people who’d never patronize a business that discriminated against African Americans, yet don’t see any problem discriminating against women.
If your business meets the needs of one segment of the population better than others, that’s fine (and inevitable). That doesn’t give you the right to categorically exclude people from being your customers, simply because they’re a member of another group. That’s their decision, just as it’s your decision whether to subscribe to a women’s magazine.
Subtle Discrimination Is Still Discrimination
If anyone is offended by my comparison of racial and gender discrimination, I have to conclude that they’re pretty ignorant of what discrimination has come to look like over the past 50 years. It’s shifted from overt cruelty (though of course that still exists) to a subtle closing of doors.
It’s shifted from sin of commission to a sin of omission. Today, discrimination is often about leaving other people out because they are different, and not even noticing.
I don’t think Hyatt or anyone who has commented in his defense would ever commit an intentional act of racial discrimination. I don’t question anyone’s motives, intentions, or hearts.
But when a door is slammed in your face, it doesn’t matter all that much whether the person who slammed it had a good reason. Maybe they just didn’t see you standing there, but the effect is the same: You’re left out in the cold.
It concerns me that Hyatt is surrounded by such an echo chamber, and I hope that he is also seeking the counsel of wise people who do not have a financial interest in telling him what they think he wants to hear. To be blunt, if none of his trusted advisors told him this was a terrible idea, he has far too narrow a group of trusted advisors.
As far as I’m aware, there is no law prohibiting this kind of discrimination in private businesses like Hyatt’s.
But there shouldn’t need to be. It’s so obviously wrong that it’s embarrassing that Hyatt didn’t see the problem.
Do The Right Thing
Mike, do the right thing. Send the right message to your audience. And own this mistake while you can.