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

Ellen Pao on Meritocracy

Photo credit: dcJohn / / CC BY

Photo credit: dcJohn / / CC BY

Lately we have been thinking about the discrepancy we see between younger women starting their careers, and women with several more years of work experience under their belts.

It’s a generalization, of course, but many of the youngest, most ambitious women we hear from are often least likely to believe that gender equality is an issue in the workplace. Take Elizabeth*, a Harvard Business School student in her late-20’s. She’s worked in a difficult, male-dominated environment prior to business school and believes her gender is irrelevant. Elizabeth admits things might look different one day when she has children, but at the moment, she sees no difference between herself and male counterparts. (*Elizabeth’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)

When we speak to the youngest women in the work-force, we often hear things like “I don’t feel like there is any difference between me and my male counterparts. I can do anything they can do.” A Pew survey shows that 41% of millennial women think that being a working parent does not make having a career more difficult and 25% think no further work needs to be done in improve gender equality in the workplace.

Anecdotally, we hear these beliefs in our conversations. We also notice this viewpoint seems to shift — almost imperceptibly at first — as careers progress.

Ellen Pao describes this transformation in an essay she wrote for today’s issue of Lenny. Much like Elizabeth, she says: “I grew up believing the world is a meritocracy. It’s how I was raised, and it made sense for a long time.”

This belief sustained me, mostly, through my early 20s. That was 20 years ago, when I saw my prospects as awesome and full of possibilities. I was fresh out of Harvard Law School, and my classmates and I thought we could do anything we set our minds to do. I believed in the system, because it seemed to work, and frankly it was just so easy to believe

After a few scrapes, bruises, hard work, compromises and work-arounds, things started to look different:

But after a while, we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong? Eventually, there comes a point where you can’t just rally and explain away all the behavior as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself. And the glimmers of achievement are too few and far between. You see patterns, systemic problems, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what industry you pursue.

This is similar to the comments by former Yahoo President Sue Decker in her career reflections on the same topic:

I, and most women I know, have been a party to at least some sexist or discriminatory behavior in the workplace…At the same time, the men who may be promulgating it are often very unaware of the slights, and did not intend the outcome. And for the women, it happens in incremental steps that often seem so small in isolation that any individual act seems silly to complain about. So we move on. But in aggregate, and with the perspective of hindsight, they are real.”

While this evolution in perspective may be far from universal, it certainly does seem to happen often. There may be a lesson (or two) to draw from that journey. Pao, herself, ultimately draws the hopeful conclusion that things are improving.

While the world may not be a pure meritocracy, neither is it a horrible place everywhere. In our community, for example, there are some very happy women satisfied with their work, career achievements, and ability to balance their personal lives. We’re obsessed with what they share in common, and are currently studying what they say. Stay tuned!

Fairygodboss is committed to helping women in the workplace. Join us by signing up at 

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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  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

How Many Shades of Grey in the Kleiner Perkins’ Sexual Harassment Lawsuit?

Employee lawsuits are not something you see every day.  A sexual harassment lawsuit is even rarer.  And I’ve almost never heard of a sexual harassment lawsuit in the venture capital industry (not least because so few women work in that industry).

All these reasons alone make the Eileen Pao vs Kleiner Perkins lawsuit quite notable.  But then you read the allegations and realize how much it sounds like a movie script.  I’ll leave those interested in the full story to read it here, but some highlights:

  • Pao is currently the CEO of start-up, Reddit
  • Pao alleges that she “succumbed” to repeated sexual advances by a co-partner
  • She is married to an African American hedge fund manager who was previously openly gay
  • She is suing Kleiner for $16 million and refused to settle via arbitration (which would have kept the sordid details private)

I’d love nothing more than for the women of the VC industry to review their employers en masse.  Unfortunately there are so few women in the industry that its unlikely they’ll risk revealing their identities — unless its about happenings in the distant past.   (Note: Anonymity hasn’t stopped everyone from sharing what its like to be a female VC).

Most Fairygodboss reviews have been left by women with balanced views and positive opinions about their employers.  However, its important to recognize that there are some women who’ve had terrible experiences at their companies.  For that reason, Fairygodboss’ database includes a list of every company that has been sued in the past decade under the Equal Pay Act (which mandates that men and women be paid equally, for equal work).  While an employee lawsuit over pay is a far cry from a guilty verdict for the company in question (and may not be representative of a company’s overall treatment of women), we decided to provide this information for our community.  At the end of the day, we believe transparency is the best policy and everyone should have as much information as possible.

working women

Americans Think #Equal Pay Is Working Womens’ Biggest Issue

You have have seen the media furor over Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s (subsequently retracted) comments at a women’s conference this week.  The attention he received for his advice that women not ask for raises is at least probably partially because equal pay is the number one issue Americans believe that working women face.  In this Gallup poll conducted a few weeks ago, these were the top 5 issues that Americans, overall, believed were an issue for working women:

  1. Equal pay / Fair pay
  2. Equal opportunity for promotion, advancement / no gender discrimination
  3. Jobs, unemployment, availability of jobs
  4. Sexual harassment, better treatment/more respect in the workplace
  5. Access to childcare / better childcare

The question was posed as an open-ended one so the fact that the answers clustered was due to users having independently provided similar responses.

Interestingly, working women answered quite similarly to men and women who didn’t work outside the home.  Working women themselves agreed that equal/fair pay and equal opportunity for promotion/advancement were their top 2 issues.  However, they believed childcare, work/home balance, and sexual harassment were the next 3 most important ones.

Equal pay is something we’ve written about before, but how to really define the issue — much less fix it — is one of the reasons I believe it remains a persistent issue.  We hope that if enough women report their pay at Fairygodboss, we may perceive differences against larger compensation studies and discover companies where pay may seem to be unfair.  Even if not incontrovertible, there may be a consensus of opinion that will be hard for employees and a company to ignore.  Similarly, unequal opportunity for promotion/advancement is something that’s virtually impossible to prove in most cases.  This makes the opinions of women who’ve been there and lived through relevant situations important to listen to.

working women

How Data Can Make Discrimination Lawsuits Matter More

Today, an article reports that there may be a “legal basis for work-life balance”. “Disparate treatment” of employees on the basis of gender is illegal.  But the devil is in the detail.  Is a company that requires employees to work X hours in the office breaking the law if X hours of work impacts men and women differently and those hours can’t otherwise be justified?  

I’m no legal expert but this seems like a losing argument.  An employer can almost always rationalize a profit-motive for a work requirement.  And its probably unreasonable to say that all policies need to impact people (even protected classes of people) equally in order to be valid.  For example, a company that requires a certain amount of travel will probably disproportionately disadvantage pregnant women, older people, and disabled employees compared to others.  And yet, travel might be an intrinsic requirement of a role that’s crucial to a company (e.g. international salespeople).

Fairygodboss’ whole mission is to bring transparency to the workplace by creating a database of company information and employee reviews.  I’ve recently decided to add certain legal information into the mix.  Users will be able to see which companies have been alleged to violate certain equal pay laws.  While allegations are not the same thing as a guilty verdict, I think its still useful information for any prospective or current employee to have.  

I know there are real costs and absurd outcomes in a “lawsuit happy” society.  But there are good outcomes from litigation, too.  And certain things do not change unless lawsuits are filed by people who’ve been wronged.  Sometimes, even lawsuits and the PR/financial/legal headaches they cause for a company don’t change much in a corporate culture because the news holds so little public attention for such a short time.  I hope the addition of this legal information raises a more lasting awareness.