working women

Sexism in Hollywood Matters to Women Everywhere

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Shonda Rhimes, as photographed by Art Streiber for the New York Times

Over the weekend, we were fascinated to see how gender equality looks — and feels — in an industry that isn’t well-represented (yet!) in our database: Hollywood.

Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, wrote a long piece based on interviews with more than 100 men and women working in entertainment about why women are so under-represented in the film industry:

  • Only 30.2% of speaking or named characters in the top 100 grossing fictional films were women
  • 1.9% of the directors of the top 100 grossing films were directed by women in 2013 and 2014
  • Only three movies released by the 6 major studies had a female director last year
  • 95% of cinematographers, 89% of screenwriters, 82% of editors, 81% of executive producers and 77% of producers were men in 2014

As Dowd points out, these stats look even worse than the dismal numbers of women in the C-suite, Silicon Valley, or at the highest levels of U.S. government.

While it might be tempting to dismiss this issue as irrelevant to the vast majority of working class women, we think that’s the wrong way to look at the problem.

We believe that gender inequality is relevant for all women, wherever it lives. But the media is a special and important case simply because the industry has immense influence and touches us all — even for those of us who consume relatively little of it.

We can’t avoid the images, the story-lines, the cliches and the stereotypes regardless of how little entertainment content we consume. Our children — boys and girls — soak up up these ideas. And the older they get, the more they  believe in the story lines generated by a surprisingly homogenous group of people.

The problem is chicken-and-egg. How can we collectively make progress on our unconscious biases about gender roles and capabilities if they keep being reinforced? If Hollywood keeps producing stories where surgeons, CEOs, Presidents, executives, firemen, superheroes, and movie directors are men — and do all the leading, controlling, saving, and commanding — it becomes that much harder for the next generation of women to relate to those roles and life paths.

Of course we can make “choices” to consume different content. But that’s only realistic up to a point. That’s why we stand by the efforts by Dowd, the Geena Davis Institute and these brave, individual women who have spoken out (sometimes hilariously succinctly) — at some risk to their own careers and reputations — to spread awareness of sexism in Hollywood.

Thank you for telling your stories — it matters to women everywhere.

Fairygodboss is committed to helping women in the workplace. 


working women

Women Who Lead at Work: by the numbers

Its that time of the summer when many of us are thinking about our last holiday trips and vacations. So instead of giving you more reading this week, we decided to report some recently released numbers by the Center for American Progress.

Women have come a long way in the workplace — but check out the numbers in leadership positions across different industries below:


Disappointed by these numbers? Invite women you respect to share anonymously about how to improve their workplaces for women. Change happens because we act together.

working women

The Importance of Apprenticeship

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“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?

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working women

Maybe Older Women Are the Ones Who Can “Have it All”

If you’ve ever read or discussed the idea of women “having it all”, then you’re probably also familiar with the notion espoused by some women that “you can have it all….”but not at the same time”.

Its somewhat surprising then, that there aren’t many studies or even first-hand accounts of what happens after the intense child-rearing years when family commitments can taper off in a working woman’s life (assuming no responsibilities for elder-care).  Maybe youth-centric media is to blame, but then we saw three articles in the past couple weeks that discussed this exact topic.

The first was a moving “last article” written by a journalist, reflecting on her 27 year career.  While its not a short read, we recommend it for its authentic voice and compelling narrative.  Its the voice of an older woman reflecting back on a career of ups and downs through 1970’s feminism and beyond, while she tried to juggle her family commitments with serious reporting.  She talks about how things have changed — or more importantly, how they have not changed — since the 1960’s when she grew up.  The punchline?  In retirement, she plans on being her first grandchild’s full-time babysitter, in large part so that her own daughter can have better luck balancing her own career and family responsibilities.  She says that she “expected to fall in love with the baby” but

What I did not expect was to find myself, at this stage, with an existential crisis, debating career vs. home life.

Hilary Clinton also recently became a first-time grandmother and the Atlantic decided to pen an article called “Playing the Granny Card” about a small, elite group of women (with Clinton as archetype).  The article puts forth the theory that this group of women might be finding success later in life to be easier because some of the internal difficulties that women face disappear later in life (e.g. family commitments).  External challenges, too, might be easier to deal with as society seems to be “more comfortable” with older, successful women:

An intriguing body of psychological research hints that people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.

Its a long article but thought-provoking about some of the realities that women might want to consider in their own careers.

But let’s get back to reality in the workplace.  Are older women good candidates for leadership by other measures, irrespective of social expectations and biases they cannot control?  As it turns out, PriceWaterhouseCooper just released a study suggesting that women “over the age of 55” might be the best leaders for companies undergoing big transformation.  This conclusion was based on a survey of 6,000 European professionals about what qualities would be desirable in a leader of a company that requires huge changes (e.g. in response to technological change, market restructuring, or other industry challenges).  The desired qualities were for:

someone who was likely to have wider experience of settings, people, and also of failure, which engenders humility of perspective and resilience, so that they know what to do when things don’t work

The type of leader these companies need are apparently CEOs who are “open to frank and honest feedback” — a quality that is apparently more associated with older women than older men!

Its intriguing and inspiring to think that maybe this is what it means to “have it all” — and that the last word on the debate really isn’t spoken until a few decades (or more) pass.

working women

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Yesterday we wrote about the fact that creating awareness of our unconscious biases can actually cement them.  If that’s true of our unconscious thoughts, it must also be true of our conscious beliefs.  And apparently most Americans believe that women will not be equal when it comes to leading corporate America.

Pew Research Center has just put out a report summarizing survey results that show American men and women think that even with more time, women won’t achieve equality in corporate leadership.  The reasons?

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According to the chart above, most people think it has little to do with the choices that women make in terms of work-life balance, and much more to do with women being held to “higher standards”.  What are these standards?  When I read this, I strongly suspect that “higher standards” really means “unconscious assumptions and expectations” (aka unconscious biases) about how women should behave and perform.  If that’s the case, then unconscious bias is a huge issue for companies that care about plain old fashioned fairness and meritocracy (much less gender diversity).

The recent publicity companies such as Google, BAE, Dow Chemicals, and Microsoft have received for training their workforce on unconscious bias shows that some companies are at least taking steps to try to solve the problem.  The real question is whether these training programs are effective.  To answer that, you have to measure the “before” and “after”.  Unfortunately doing that is hard.  There are tests to measure that a person has unconscious bias but whether they practice it or not (and whether their behavior has changed subsequent to getting diversity training) is not easy to test.  Short of installing cameras at work to analyze behavior (which, to be clear, we are NOT advocating), its one of the reasons we’re creating a safe place for women to share their honest thoughts about what’s really happening at the office.  After all, things that are unfair don’t tend to go unnoticed, and over time, any changes for the better — as we optimistically believe there will be — will show up as trends.

working women

Female Leaders = More Remarkable Leaders

Generic leadership advice is hard to avoid.  Google “leadership”, walk the General Management aisle at a physical bookstore, or search on Amazon, and you’ll be inundated.  What a lot of these listicles, articles and books don’t do is spell out whether and how female leadership may be different.

Its a sensitive topic.  After all, many female leaders and figure-heads hate being lumped into the “woman” bucket and would prefer to be simply called “leaders”.  I completely understand why it might seem that qualifying their leadership as “female” somehow diminishes their accomplishments.  And many female leaders seem to genuinely believe their gender has nothing to do with their success.

I look at the issue in a different way.  I actually hold the view — call it a ‘bias’ if you wish — that female leaders should be proud of the adjective “female.”  After all, I believe they have accomplished more than their male counterparts.  My view is that its likely that being a woman has been a minor impediment to their success (at best), or created serious obstacles to overcome (at worst).  So when I say “female leader”, you can translate that into: “more-versatile-and-remarkable-leader”.  This article by Anne Litwin about how to be a female leader captures an example of what I believe women are up against.  Essentially, Litwin talks about the fact that many women prefer male bosses, and advises female leaders to adjust their leadership style depending on whether they are dealing with a female or male direct report.  Specifically, she advocates:

  1. Being “relational” with female staff members.  This is presumably because women expect other women to be more supportive and personal.  She calls this “women’s friendship rules”.
  2. Sharing limited personal information.  This is presumably to avoid seeming too aloof/cold.
  3. Listening to complaints and problems, within reasonable limits.

Without passing judgment on the advice itself, the fact that it — and other advice like it (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In also talks about using different language as a woman when asking for a promotion) — exists at all illustrates the extra noise that women leaders have to either tune out or deal with.

Generic leadership books don’t tend to advocate that men deal with women differently.  At most, they generally talk about motivating different personality types or teams through different types of situations.  On top of those nuances, women either perceive or are told they need to explicitly account for gender as well.  It may well be true, but just having to think about it — much less deal with it — takes away mental energy from doing other things that are important for growing into, or cementing leadership.  This may be a “small” obstacle in the grand scheme of things, but that’s why I think wearing the label “female leader” should be a badge of honor.