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!

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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

Choose Yourself AND Do the Right Thing

Heidi Roizen is a successful, former entrepreneur and partner at venture firm, DFJ.  This weekend, she wrote a post about her experiences as a 20 and 30-something year old female entrepreneur (she’s now in her 50’s).

Heidi starts by recounting stories that were personally familiar to me.  In her 20’s some men treated her like a sex object and didn’t take her (or her pitch, job, position) seriously.  These men were investors, partners, customers, and pretty much could fall into any category of dealings she had.  In her 30’s (I presume), when she was pregnant, she also was treated differently but this time it was doubt about how pregnancy and motherhood might affect her odds of success or her qualities as a investee, partner, customer, etc.

So what was her advice?  Largely, she was pragmatic and human: she advocated that women treat each situation on its own merits, consider context, intent and then to do what made the most sense.  In many cases, this meant simply walking away from a person or situation that was personally unacceptable.  Heidi explains that she does not recommend making a big, public stink:

“I am not recommending calling out bad behavior and shaming the individual or individuals responsible.  In a perfect world people would have to account for their behavior.  But as an                           entrepreneur who spent years in a daily battle for existence, I did not feel like I could afford the hit I’d take in exposing these incidents.”

I completely sympathize with this advice.  But its a false notion that you have to choose.

The whole point of Fairygodboss is to minimize the conflict between choosing to do the “right thing” and “choosing what’s best for you”.  

One of the beautiful things about the internet is that communities and communication have created a lot of options and paradigms for transparency.  Women can share anonymous information about companies and individuals, such as the ones she encountered, without exposing themselves as a martyr for the feminist cause.  Women can also communicate with each other in protected forums.  This can be both about past events as well as present ones, depending on the individual woman’s level of sensitivity.  For example, Heidi obviously feels more comfortable sharing her former experiences  now that she has a few decades between her and those events.  She also sounds incredibly open to giving other young women advice (which is her own stated motivation behind the blog post).  She has done something helpful for women reading her blog, but I hope Fairygodboss will do the same thing, at scale: give women who find themselves in Heidi’s former situations a bit more (safe) empowerment to expose things that shouldn’t happen.

You can read Heidi’s post here.