women in management

Is gender equality good for business?

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Photo Credit: AP Photo / Richard Drew

Is gender equality good for business?

Generally, attempts to answer this question focus on measuring the financial performance, and stock-market performance of companies led by women CEOs or with female directors.

Last week, for example, market index provider MSCI released a study showing that companies with at least 3 board directors or a higher percentage of women on their boards (compared to their country’s average) generated 36.4% higher returns for their shareholders than companies where women were not as well-represented. This analysis was based on a review of 4,000 global companies since 2009.

We’re not surprised to see gender equality correlated with financial success. Past studies (such as this one from Credit Suisse, and another from Catalyst) have shown similar relationships between gender diversity in the senior leadership and financial out-performance.

So if gender equality means financial success, why aren’t there more companies jumping on the bandwagon? We’d venture to guess that part of the reason is simply that the studies show correlation — not causation. Financial performance is easy to measure but it’s a tricky thing to understand, much less find a “formula” for. Many variables go into what makes some companies more successful than others — as mountains of business books demonstrate.

Another reason may simply be that female representation at the upper echelon of a company is not exactly the same thing as “gender equality” at that company. To use an analogy, having an African-American President of the United States doesn’t mean there is racial equality throughout America.

Don’t get us wrong — It’s certainly important to measure gender equality by tracking the number of companies with female CEOs or directors. However, if you believe a company’s financial success depends on having a culture that welcomes and fosters diversity of thought and opinion, a culture of gender equality throughout all levels of an organization is probably equally important. After all, many critical business decisions are made every day that never make it up to review of the C-suite or director level. The way a digital product is designed, discussions over the way a car’s safety feature is tested, how a new campaign for children’s toys is marketed to households are all decisions initially made at the lower-to-mid levels of a company where diversity and representation of thought are critical.

That’s why we try to measure what all women at an employer think. We ask every woman in the Fairygodboss community whether they think they’re treated fairly and equally to men at work. In analyzing thousands of employee reviews, we’ve found that when women report there is gender equality in their workplace, they also report overall job satisfaction. Since job satisfaction is one predictor of how likely an employee is to remain at an employer — it’s an important measure of employee turn-over and recruitment costs.

In other words, gender equality is certainly good for business in terms of being able to recruit and retain employee talent. Stay tuned for more of our findings about gender equality in the workplace!

Fairygodboss is committed to helping women in the workplace. 

working women

Why We Hate Writing about Marissa Mayer’s Pregnancy

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty

Its the last week of summer and many Americans — including us — are enjoying a bit of a holiday.

While we’re abroad, we are watching the foreign press cover the latest news about Yahoo’s CEO as if it’s simultaneously a business issue, social issue, and celebrity gossip piece all wrapped up in one package. Earlier this week, she announced:

Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.

When it comes to Mayer’s pregnancy, people are mainly talking about 4 things:

  1. Whether she should or shouldn’t be taking a longer maternity leave since she is a role model for other working women
  2. Whether other women should compare themselves to her
  3. Whether we should be judging or discussing her choices at all, since we might not do the same for a male CEO who is expecting children
  4. Whether it matters in terms of her performance as CEO

In other words, pretty much everything you can imagine that could be said about this topic has probably been said. Which is one of the reasons we dislike writing about her pregnancy. We also hate writing about it because we want to simply tell Mayer “Congratulations,” and leave it at that. After all, that’s the normal and proper thing to say to anyone who’s just announced news of twins.

But Mayer is not just anyone. She’s a public figure, one of the highest paid CEO’s in America, and one of the youngest and only female CEOs in the technology industry. Like it or not, her personal life is in the spotlight because she is a more glamourous subject than the millions of other women in America who have little choice but to take a couple weeks of maternity leave after they give birth. We can only assume she has made a self-actualized and well-informed decision, realizes the attention is a casualty of her position, and takes all the corresponding criticism in stride.

In the end, we decided to write about her pregnancy because it gives us an opportunity to say that we believe many women — and also men — experience biases and social pressures that make things very hard to be a whole person at work. Being a whole person means different things to different people, but pregnancy is special example simply because its physically impossible to hide, and affects so many people in the workforce.

Even in this day and age, women continue to experience discrimination because they are pregnant, and also subsequently when they become mothers. This is often despite the best intentions of companies and colleagues. These problems are persistent because they are rooted in biases (conscious or not) and cultural ideas of what it means to be an “ideal worker” and truly committed to our work.

However, that doesn’t mean progress can’t be made. We started Fairygodboss because we believe many companies and organizations don’t look closely enough at gender equality in their culture. Transparency is an important step in creating change – and Mayer has been nothing if not transparent. She has shared her own choices very openly (i.e. a short maternity leave and her on-site personal nursery) and announced big changes to Yahoo’s policies (i.e. expanded paid parental leave and restrictions on working-from-home). Whatever you may think of her personal and professional choices, at least we’re talking about things that matter to a great number of working women — and that in many cases, really should change.

Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace for women by creating transparency. Join us by signing up at Fairygodboss.com and reviewing your employer.

working women

Do Female CEOs Make Life Better for Other Women?

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 11.27.51 AMPhoto Credit: Time Magazine

Fairygodboss members sometimes say their companies have “a boys’ club feel”.  But what exactly does this mean?  In some cases, they are literally referring to a group of similar-aged, similar-looking men with similar backgrounds running their companies.  But rarely is a company’s senior management exclusively male in this day and age.  And can a company with female leadership or even a female CEO be a “boys’ club”?

We think the answer is yes.  And we found an explanation for this in an unlikely place: Elizabeth Warren’s NYTimes best-selling book, A Fighting Chance.  Whatever you think of her politics, Warren’s story is incredibly inspiring and compelling.  Raised very modestly in Oklahoma, she was the first member of her family to attend college, and got into politics late in her career.  Time magazine ran a piece called “The Sheriffs of Wall Street” with a cover photo we’ve shown above: all 3 were women.  The article profiled Sheila Bair, then chair of the FDIC, Mary Schapiro, former chair of the SEC, and Elizabeth Warren, then chair of a panel monitoring the 2008 TARP program.  Warren reflects on the lack of women in finance:

What is it about finance that makes women so scarce in the corner offices?  And why indeed were three women now the sheriffs of Wall Street?  I can’t answer for Sheila or Mary, but I do have a thought about why I had ended up in this position: I was an outsider.  I had never inhabited the cozy world of high finance, never played golf with a foursome of CEOs, never smoked cigars at the club.

If a woman trying to advance must “fit in”, she faces an uphill battle.  Most women look and act differently to men, and there’s not much they can do about that.  Some companies recognize this and have decided to train their employees about unconscious biases that tend to be based on pattern-recognition. Biases and assumptions about women and mothers are one of the reasons women in finance – and many other industries — still remain “stuck in the middle” of corporate hierarchies.

Being an “insider” is about more than just fitting in, however.  Warren describes a dinner she had with the former Treasury of the Secretary who gave her advice about how to be more effective in politics:

He [Larry Summers] teed it up this way: I had a choice.  I could be an insider or I could be an outsider.  Outsiders can say whatever they want.  But people on the inside don’t listen to them.  Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas.  People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say.  But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule.  They don’t criticize other insiders.

Our point is this: As more women become senior managers, a ‘boys’ club’ is less literally about gender, and more about group-think.  After all, if the few strong women at the top can’t be critical of their peers, it means they’re unlikely to be advocates for dramatic change.  Its perfectly fine — and very laudable — for these top women to encourage and support other women.  They can do things like give advice, serve as a role model, mentor other women, and participate in their companies’ womens’ support groups.  Don’t get us wrong.  These are all very important things that we believe make a difference.  However, it’s much more difficult to criticize their companies’ recruitment, retention, and promotion policies even if that is where change really needs to happen.  Being critical and advocating really hard change typically means they’re speaking out against other insiders.  And insiders protect insiders.

We can’t fault executive women for this: self-preservation is a powerful, natural instinct.  Its probably one of the characteristics of these women that got them to the top, in the first place.  But it does mean that larger changes may, indeed, have to come from “outsiders”.

Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace for women. Join us in our effort by signing up at Fairygodboss.com and reviewing your employer.

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The Importance of Apprenticeship

women in STEM

photo by slate.com

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” – Nobel Laureate and biochemist Tim Hunt at a conference earlier this month.

By now, women in STEM industries have probably heard about Professor Hunt’s resignation from University College London following the outrage over his comments. While there was justifiably outrage public outcry and an outpouring of social media responses (see #distractinglysexy) this article by Sarah Clatterbuck Soper who describes what it’s like for her to be a woman in a lab made the biggest impact on us.  She talks about all the things that make life different and more difficult for women in science labs but we think her most important comment was:

I found myself thinking that Dr. Huang’s counsel [to a female postdoctoral fellow to “put up” with a mentor who looked down her shirt] was regrettably sound. Getting on your mentor’s bad side could ruin your career.

Most successful people know how valuable a mentor can be in our careers.  And in terms of pure numbers, it is far easier to find a male mentor in science — or indeed among management teams in the workplace — than a female mentor.  Many members of the Fairygodboss community talk about the importance of support in the advancement of their careers.  Some call it mentorship and others call it sponsorship.  Apprenticeship is a term that’s not as commonly used, but Soper’s article defines it well:

Twenty-first-century science has a great deal in common with the medieval apprentice system. Young scientists, typically graduate students and postdoctoral fellows like me, join the laboratory of an established principal investigator…Only when this lengthy period of training is complete might a young scientist hope to establish an independent laboratory of her own, but she will always be known as having trained in Dr. So-and-so’s lab.

From personal experience and from the stories women have shared with us, it seems to us that science is not the only place where “medieval” apprentice systems still exist in the world.  One of the most common ways to advance your career is to attach oneself (either purposefully or accidentally) to a rising star, whether that’s a CEO, founder, or other manager.  Countless women talk about the importance of both learning from this individual, and also of being supported, believed-in, and promoted alongside this person.  However, formal acknowledgment of the importance of apprenticeship is a rare occurrence in the corporate world, and apprenticeship is fraught for women with male mentors because of a number of quite natural things ranging from real differences in interests and life experiences, to the perceptions of close male-female relationships in the workplace.  In some ways, we imagine that the science lab may be an easier place for women to successfully find senior male support than the less formalized systems of the corporate world where politics and the need to clothe everything in meritocratic terms obscures the role that apprenticeship plays.  What has your experience been with apprenticeship?  Have you experienced or observed it working between men and women?

Want to support other women? Sign up for Fairygodboss.com and leave anonymous company reviews HERE. 

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Why True Diversity is Invisible

Company culture is invisible, but its also not a secret.  By simply entering a building, people get their first impression of your culture.  But judging a place by office decor and ambiance alone is like judging a book by its cover.  You don’t see culture, but it either makes you happy or unhappy on a daily basis.  It pervades your every interaction at work, and affects everything from your physical posture to whether you “posture” in your office identity.

Unlike culture, most people believe that diversity is visible.  That’s because discussions of diversity focus on the numbers.  And of course, you can simply count up all the women vs men, whites vs non-whites, straight employees vs gay employees, etc.  The ability to count and see things things means there’s media attention on this definition of diversity — and for good reason.  Not only is there something satisfying about cold, hard facts, but the statistics are important evidence of diversity (or the lack thereof).

But things aren’t that simple.  Just as you can’t make a culture open and transparent by simply tearing down offices and replacing it with open-floor seating, you can’t make a company diverse by just hiring more people who have XX chromosomes, different colored skin or domestic partnerships.  This might sound strange coming from us.  After all, Fairygodboss is a company built on the premise that women have unique perspectives and experiences in the workplace.

We obviously applaud companies who take the time to try to measure and implement recruitment or retention schemes to improve their “diverse” employee numbers.  Of course these diversity initiatives matter and help.  And counting and measuring means the first step to making important progress.  But focusing on just the numbers means addressing and mistaking symptom for cause.  That’s why the words that women leave about their company for other women to read in their reviews are so important to us.  Here are a few excerpts from user reviews to illustrate the point:

While this firm has a good proportion of female partners and senior associates as compared to other firms, the women who make partner have nannies and are available to work essentially 24/7.


Diversity and inclusion is not a passion for [Company X], it is PR


It actually cares about diversity – it is hot on the CEO’s agenda and an issue that is driven from the top and shared throughout the organisation


The company started implementing some policies trying to make it easier for women to stay and grow. Reality is – apart of the legal policies which had to be accepted – everything else is fake. The company pretends to support women, because its a hot topic in the Valley

All we’re saying is that true diversity is harder to achieve than the struggle for better numbers (of women, minorities, or anything else that can be put into Excel spreadsheets).  We love analytics and number crunching as much as the next data-driven start-up, but diversity is amorphous and really hard to measure.

working women

Gender Stereotyping Starts In School

It turns out that gender stereotyping starts early.

By gender stereotyping I’m specifically referring to our ideas about men and women, and the standards they should be measured against.  Whether we are conscious of them or not, people apply one set of standards to men and another set to women.

How early do these different standards begin?  A recent analysis suggests they’re in place by the time people attend university.  Northeastern University Professor Benjamin Schmidt analyzed the reviews left by students on the website RateMyProfessor.com.  What he found was that the following words were commonly used to describe male professors:

“smart”, “idiot”, “interesting”, “boring”, “cool”, “creepy”

The words that were commonly used to describe female professors were:

“sweet”, “shrill”, “warm”, “cold”, “beautiful”, “evil”

In other words, intelligence is something students noted with respect to their male teachers (e.g. they are either “smart” or an “idiot”) whereas for female teachers, personality characteristics mattered more (e.g. they are either “warm” or “cold”).

We’ve previously written about similar findings regarding different female and male standards in written job performance reviews.  What this means is that our gender stereotypes are engrained early and continue on into the workplace.  In other words, we take our gender baggage with us to the office.

Admirable as it may be that some companies have decided to try to train their workforce on gender bias, its not realistic to think most companies will ever do this for their employees.  And bias training may not effectively counteract years of any individual’s engrained habits.  So what is a woman to do?  Every individual must be aware of the standards and lens through which they are judged.  If you believe you are suffering from bias, you can try to talk to your manager or HR department.  But if this fails — or more likely doesn’t seem socially acceptable or possible in the first place — you might have to face the hard decision of choosing with your feet.  You may have to consider looking for a different position or for a role in a company where you think that you will be judged more fairly.  This isn’t an easy decision, but if you think you will not be fairly compensated or promoted where you currently are, you might not have much of a choice.

working women

HR Managers Blame Culture for Gender Inequality

Its that time of year when titans of business and politics meet in secluded, alpine environs.  And so its a good time to revisit some of the work that’s been done out of Davos on gender in the workplace.

Four years ago, the World Economic Forum released a report based on a survey of Heads of Human Resources at the world’s largest employers.  These executives shared their beliefs about the top 5 things holding women back from advancing up the food chain in the office:

  1. Masculine / patriarchal culture
  2. General norms and cultural practices
  3. Lack of childcare facilities
  4. Lack of adequate parental leave and benefits
  5. Inadequate labor laws / regulations

In other words, this report is essentially a “top down” view of corporate gender issues.  When we conducted research on women in the workplace, our surveys reported something similar.  After pay and hours, what women cared most was whether female employees were treated fairly and were happy at the company.  In other words, they cared about culture more than they cared about other benefits like parental leave, childcare and vacation.  Professor Linda Scott catalogues and summarizes similar surveys and research done in the UK, by the OECD, and by McKinsey in her great piece on cultural stereotypes at work here.