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Sexism in Business

Sexism in BusinessMe: “I think she should attend the meeting. It’s her product, her idea, and she got it off the ground. She should present the good news to the CEO in our monthly meeting. It’s a success and I want her to get the credit.”

My boss: “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to subject her to that meeting. It’s just brutal in that room. Don’t worry about it, I’ll handle it.”

Me: Stunned into silence.

This is an actual conversation I had a few months ago. What made it so incredibly awkward, aside from the weird “I’m the big daddy, I’ll take care of the little girl” attitude, is that the person we were discussing was sitting with us. An accomplished, hard-working, talented employee. Sitting right there.

A truly cringe-worthy moment.

This is just one of many conversations, side-comments, and directly sexist experiences I’ve had being a female executive in the tech world. Sexism in our industry is rampant. I know, hate me for it, but it’s true. Being a woman in the tech world is tough. And not like a Barbie “Math is hard!” kind of tough, but tough because the sexism is so ingrained that it comes with the oxygen we breath. And it’s not just the tech guys, I’ve heard women from all industries talk about this. It’s not the kind of sexism we see on Mad Men, or the kind where rear-ends are grabbed or quid pro quo is standard…no no, not like that. The sexism we live with today is much more subtle.

It comes in little packages like, “I’ll take care of that for you, don’t you worry.” or “I think her response is too emotional.” or “I like working with women, they don’t care about politics or climbing the ladder, you know? They have kids and stuff.” Or when the one female executive is left out the scotch drinking celebration in the CEO’s office. Just, not invited. A boy’s club to end all boy’s clubs. But we can’t react to it, because then we’ll be “too emotional” in the workplace.

This pervasive sexism in today’s corporate world is what made Marissa Mayer’s position as Yahoo’s CEO feel like such a big deal to me. It’s a big deal because news like this is so rare. Women don’t “make it”, especially in tech, very often. And we really don’t make it when we decide to have children. So the fact that she was offered, and accepted, this position when she was several months pregnant, makes the situation that much more news worthy. Now, not everyone is like Ms. Mayer. Not everyone has the funds, or the desire, to go through two labors at once: One to bring a new human life into the world, and the other to bring new life to a dying company. That’s a lot of work for one person to take on at once. Bravo Marissa, bravo.

During the whirlwind around Yahoo’s announcement, Mayer told Fortune magazine that she plans to work during a maternity leave that “will be a few weeks long,” some veteran mothers could not help but wonder if she would manage to pull off meetings and strategic planning, or if she would find herself like so many other new moms: sucked into a new-baby vortex that somehow makes the sending of a single e-mail challenging. Of course, Mayer’s estimated worth of $300 million will make it easier for her to have help with child care.

Regardless, I was nervous for Mayer when she first took this position. She hadn’t been a mother before, and didn’t quite know what she was walking into, no one can. Motherhood is something that no one can prepare for, it’s not something you can even try to describe to others. It has to be experienced first-hand, and you never know how it will affect you until you’re in the thick of it.

It’s exactly for this reason that I’m so impressed with how Mayer has handled the transition to CEO and motherhood at the same time. And I’m even more impressed with how the media has covered her position and her announcements. Just six days ago she gave her first on-screen interview since taking the job, and I am very happy that the article doesn’t mention her personal status until the very last line.

Would they have mentioned her entry into parenthood if she were a man? No, they wouldn’t. But it does belong in the article, because child-bearing takes more from a woman. Kudos to the reporter for making it the very last line.

The treatment of Mayer, and her well-deserved success, give me hope that the tides may be turning. That women are being recognized for being capable, strong and a valuable part of the work-force, mothers or no. In addition, there is something that women bring to the work-place that is just invaluable. In this recent interview with Mayer, note her passion and excitement around the personalization of the products she’s responsible for, but also where her focus was as she “shook up” the executive staff at Yahoo. She knows that in order to have a great product and a great team, people have to want to be there. They need to feel valued, and important, (note the absence of a protective “Big Daddy”). When that’s the environment, talented people start to show up.

This is where most female executives smack their foreheads and say, “Um, yeah. I’ve been saying that for years.” While there are some men in higher positions that understand this, in my experience, it usually takes a woman to bring it up. It’s part of the value we add. It’s all about the people, and developing our own highly-tuned people skills.

Which brings me back to the situation I described above. The “boss” in this conversation has daughters, whom he truly loves. And a wife he seems to be very fond of after many years of marriage. He’s not a jerk, he’s not a “bad guy”. In fact, I like him. He is a man in corporate America who’s never been trained to stop and think before he speaks. More than that, he hasn’t been trained to be aware of this pervasive sexism, or that it even exists. I’m sure he would be surprised at his own behavior if he sat and analyzed it for a moment.

But he hasn’t been taught to do that. He doesn’t stop and recognize that those in the work-force who have “kids and stuff” may still be ambitious, smart, motivated and very good at what they do. Chauvinistic attitudes aren’t questioned at all, they’re just accepted “as the way things are”. And for that, shame on us. On all of us. It’s time for more women to speak out, and for men to wake up. Women add a great deal to our work-force, and it’s time we start working towards a cultural shift that reflects that fact.

And while I am very aware that women aren’t perfect, I can’t imagine having the conversation I quoted above with a woman at the helm.

I just can’t.

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