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. 


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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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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

Don’t Do The Naughty Thing

Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Professor Adam Grant recently authored an article about unconscious gender bias in the workplace.  The article describes numerous research studies showing that unconscious bias exists, but unlike the typical article on the subject they actually suggest that awareness of our biases isn’t enough.  Moreover, they point out that sometimes creating awareness actually cements our stereotypes, making them even more stubborn.  So what do we do about the biases we don’t even realize we have?

Professor Grant did something simple: he told his MBA students he never wanted to see such low female leadership numbers in his own classes again.  Sandberg and Grant write:

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

In other words, you have to actually to do something as simple as giving people an explicit order.  Its the parenting equivalent of it not being enough to tell a child that X behavior is naughty….you actually have to tell them explicitly, “Don’t do it!”

One of Fairygodboss‘ goals is to summarize for companies how their female talent views them.  Many women are happy with their companies and how they are treated, but for those corporate cultures that don’t do a good job of this, we will consider taking the next step: telling companies explicitly “You can and need to change.”

working women

What We Can Do About the Unconscious

Countless studies show that unconscious bias affects our preferences, choices and decisions.  I’ve always been fascinated by this topic because people don’t generally think we make stupid mistakes — much less the same stupid mistakes — over and over.  From Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling “Thinking Fast and Slow” to the latest book I’m reading, Bridget Schulte’s “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play“, its clear we are not as rational as we think we are.  This NYTimes article shows that even when its about the weather (i.e. the gendered names of hurricanes), people have biases (these, with life-and-death consequences).

In the context of gender in the office, women often tell me things like: “Its unintentional”, and that people “mean well” but that unfair things happen even when the perpetrators are “nice people, and not someone I’d consider sexist”.  The academics and journalists who write about these topics are aware of the very same anecdotes and the fact that these biases pervade women as well as men.  So what can we do about it?  Does writing another blog post or tweeting about our flawed cognition really change anything?

One of my hopes for Fairygodboss is to create a lasting, living document of both conscious and unconscious company behavior.  With enough anecdotes, incidents and decisions, whether a policy or culture is “unintentional” stops mattering as much as the actual outcomes and facts.  If you’re a woman who is worried that you’re being unfair to an employer by discussing something that you think was not “intentional”, consider how many “well-meaning” incidents it takes to add up to an unacceptable situation.  Sometimes a truly well-meaning company may not even notice something is happening until the weight of evidence becomes apparent.  You truly might be in a isolated situation.  But it also might be a lot more pervasive than you think.  Sharing is one way to find out and we hope you share by joining us.