Sexism, Sororisluts and Start-ups

A few days ago I got a message from Dan (not his real name), an old college friend who works for a large technology company.

Curious to your thoughts on…why only 15% of computer science grads are women. For me, interesting topic – especially one I’d want your POV on, as at [our company] we make an extra effort to drive equal opportunities for women. Personally, I see many women who are handed opportunities as undeserving, as they don’t have the capacity to operate within market conditions at the needed level. (I feel the same way about many men who are in over their head too).

I didn’t respond because my impression was that no matter how carefully crafted, how well-researched, how brilliantly written my message, it wouldn’t change Dan’s mind — and it would take a lot of my time and energy. So I ignored Dan and his deep concern about the many undeserving women who are snapping up jobs at tech companies. After all, a whopping 16% of software engineers are women — clearly the odds are stacked in our favor [sarcasm]. Cry me a river, Dan.

But this week two articles brought Dan back to mind. First, the New York Times ran a blog post about Google’s release of employee data indicating that just 17% of its employees worldwide are women. The post itself is benign, but the comments are harrowing, suggesting that sexism is as pervasive as ever. A day later NPR reported on Evan Spiegel, the 25-year-old founder of Snapchat, whose college emails referring to women as “bitches” and “sororisluts”, and suggesting them as objects to be peed on, have come back to haunt him.

And I was reminded that there are thousands of Dans [see: Pax Dickinson] out there spewing garbage about how so many underqualified women are getting good jobs at tech companies, while virtually ignoring the fact that many, many more underqualified men get jobs at tech companies (and are paid more). Dan does mention that some “men are in over their head”, but he calls women in the same position “undeserving”.

Dan and the NYTimes commenters are what happens when Evan Spiegel grows up and becomes a brogrammer. Evan knows that it’s no longer acceptable to talk about peeing on sororisluts, and that he has to pay some lip service to caring about diversity and gender discrimination. But in his heart he knows that he and his frat buddies got where they are because they are the smart ones, and he is annoyed by the “preferential” treatment women and minorities get. Because of that perceived preferential treatment, Evan thinks that most women can’t really get the job done — they’re just there as tokens to political correctness.

Consider this scenario: one of Evan’s male colleagues makes an error on a spreadsheet — an almost inevitable part of spreadsheets, as Ken Rogoff and Thomas Piketty now know — and Evan chalks it up to an oversight. If a female colleague makes the same mistake she “isn’t up to the task” or “isn’t too bright”. Sororisluts don’t grow up to be techies.

If Dan is reading this, he’s probably thinking that he isn’t like Evan. He would see the two errors equally. Dan — like most people — thinks that his assessments of candidates are based on “the facts”, ie. whether a candidate legitimately has the skills to do the job or not. But research shows that Dan is wrong. In fact, regardless of their actual skills, most people — men and women — consider men “better” at math. This bias persists even when managers are given hard information indicating that a female candidate is more skilled. A group of researchers from Columbia, Northwestern, and University of Chicago Business Schools found that many managers knowingly chose a lower performing male candidate over a higher performing female.

For someone who likely prides himself on valuing science and statistics, Dan should realize that his assertion that women are “handed” opportunities in tech is, at best, observational bias. With such a small number of female technologists, it’s not likely that Dan has come to know more than a few women in his field over his career. He would have to know at least 30 to even approach a statistically significant sample. Not likely. Equally important, Dan suggests that there are both unqualified men and women at his company — perhaps a sign that the company isn’t doing a good job hiring either sex. But in the case of women, they’re being “handed” opportunities; in the case of men they are “in over their heads”.

Now maybe Dan, like Larry Summers, has in the back of his mind the idea that men are innately better in math. He doesn’t say it out loud, because, of course, you can’t say it out loud. He just knows. For the record, research suggests that there are marginally more men than women at the very, very top of the math cognition pyramid. But, on average around the world, men and women come out equal on math measures. Mathematician Terri Oda has created a terrific presentation on this so simple that even the bros should get it.

Maybe Dan is asking if women are so damn smart, why aren’t more of them founding their own start-ups? Here’s why: men are 40% more likely to be funded by venture capital than women. And that’s after an academic career where — regardless of their qualifications — women are less likely to be mentored by professors. Following school, women are less likely to be hired in math and science jobs that would allow them the networks and experience to launch a start-up. And women shouldn’t even think of revealing that they are mothers: you’re 79% less likely to be hired and 100% less likely to be promoted if you do.

To Dan’s question: why are only 15% of CS grads women? It’s sexism, stupid. And just like you and Pax and the other bros aren’t afraid to to “tell it like it is“, I’m not afraid either. You’re empirically wrong that women have an advantage in tech (or any other US industry for that matter), you’re wrong that good women in tech are “unicorns”, and you’re wrong that math is too hard for Barbie.

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Why do men dominate “women’s work”?

Last week The Atlantic reported on a study that indicates male babysitters are paid at a higher rate than female sitters, even though babysitting has traditionally been “women’s work”.

Theoretically women, as a group, should have developed expertise and networks over the years that would lead to higher pay as sitters. I’m not talking about comparing one individual’s qualifications or salary to another’s — I’m talking about statistics. Statistically men, who have dominated financial services for centuries, make more in that industry; women should have the same advantage in industries they have traditionally dominated. But that’s not the case – not in nursing, secretarial work, or babysitting.

This hits home for me because I’m a fundraiser at a nonprofit organization. Fundraising was for hundreds of year the purview of women who were overeducated and underworked in a society that would not support them in other fields. Yet to this day women in fundraising make less than their male counterparts.

In fact this can be said of nonprofit leadership in general: what was once “women’s work” is now dominated by men. Among nonprofit with budgets larger than $25 million, only 21% of nonprofit leadership positions are held by women, though a whopping 75% of nonprofit workers are female. At nonprofits with budgets larger than $50 million, female CEOs make 35% less than their male counterparts.

Part of the culprit is almost surely the move towards a more “businesslike” nonprofit environment — a move that I mostly support. However, when it comes to women our society still assumes that men can run a better business. That someone with experience at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can better translate those skills to nonprofit management than someone who is promoted from within. This is especially true in the largest nonprofit organizations that pay the most.

To be sure, this is a nuanced debate. There are times when bringing in an outside voice with a different set of skills can be of extraordinary value to an organization. But it hasn’t been good for women.

It’s also true that women who leave the corporate world often leave the workforce all together, while men may take their experience to an organization with greater meaning. Ironically women end up giving their time and skills to these organizations anyway — but women give them for free as volunteers, not as employees.

Finally, it’s worth noting that nonprofit boards and powerful donors, who are largely male, play a role in choosing the CEO. And they choose people they trust, people who look and act and are educated like they are — which is why there are also few minority CEOs in the nonprofit word, even at organizations that serve diverse populations.

Are you in the nonprofit world? Any other thoughts on why women aren’t getting ahead in an industry that we should dominate?

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Our Mentors Have Forsaken Us

I’m getting tired of hearing from executive and former executive women with grown children who have suddenly come to the realization that having a fulfilling career and a family is hard.  Recently these women have talked down to today’s working mothers, letting us know once and for all that we can’t “have it all”, that we shouldn’t strive for “perfection”, and that they wouldn’t recommend their daughters follow the same path.

Thanks for the tips.

Let me put fears to rest.  Today’s working mothers are under no illusions.  We know that it’s hard because we live it every day, and because many of us have studied the data and know what we’re up against.  The last thing we need is the women who should be our mentors, who should offer practical advice and support, telling us that our ambitions are unrealistic.  Of course, this is untrue.  Just ask any of the women who have been writing: they are a former Director of Policy for the US State Department, the President of Barnard, and the former editor of Good Housekeeping, among others.

The alternative would be to offer real, usable advice.  Write a piece that gives actual, from the trenches advice about navigating a corporate career track while having kids.  Be honest about hiring help and enlisting spousal and family support.  Look back at the amazing successes, and acknowledge that no one can know whether your career ambitions harmed or helped your family.  Plenty of stay at home parents have trouble with their kids, and lots of working parents have paragons of achievement.  And vice versa.

Even more to the point, many of these women are in positions to actually enact change at least in their own companies, if not more broadly.  They could be testing innovative policies and exploring new solutions.  They could be writing about that.  Fascinating indeed that the only company I’ve heard publicly exploring these issues and publishing data is Google, run by mostly men.

But writing substantively about these issues doesn’t sell magazines or drive traffic.  It doesn’t foment the same kind of conflict and culture wars.  Leaving me to surmise that there is a coterie of women at a certain level who are positioning themselves to write books or become talking heads at the expense of my generation of women.  They know that their perspectives are controversial, and that’s why they take them.

What is most troubling about these puff pieces on women’s abilities is that the women writing are indeed benefiting greatly from their high-level positions.  It’s easy to tell women not to be the best and brightest once you’re already at the top, making a handsome salary with lots of opportunities ahead of you as a writer and speaker, even after you’ve left your current job.  Who are these women to tell middle and senior level managers that they should stay put, forgoing the same opportunities?

I don’t doubt that those who came before us have plenty of knowledge to share — I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of it from a lot of wonderful mentors.  But these articles aren’t that.  Where are the mentors when we really need them?

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All Choices Are Not Made Equal

In Gayle Lemmon’s recent Atlantic post about Marissa Mayer, Lemmon quotes an aunt as once telling her “never import other people’s limitations.”  I was reminded of this reading New York Times health columnist Jane Brody’s piece today The Ideal and the Real of Breast-feeding, in which she argues that the “breast is best” campaign is making women, particularly working women, feel profoundly guilty.

First let’s acknowledge that breast-feeding is very hard, regardless of whether you work or not, and some women are better off not doing it for various reasons.  And working mothers do face some particular challenges in this area, especially if they are hourly employees who have limited break time.  But acting like nursing and working are deeply onerous, even mutually exclusive, for most women ignores the many thousands who do it successfully — some even happily — every day.

Even more troubling, Brody’s article exudes a “feel-good” feminism (this is a feminist issue) that is more and more present in these sorts of discussions.  In this framework, the individual choices that make us happiest are “the best” for us.  Women who argue passionately for one thing or another are shut down as fueling “mommy wars.”

This promotes a kind of magical thinking that ignores the data.  Empirically, not every choice that makes us happiest is “the best.”  In the case of breast-feeding, the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization all say that breast is best in the first six months of life.  That’s a lot of doctors and research that Brody dismisses.  The same thing happens when we talk about women leaving the paid workforce: we have the longitudinal studies, and they suggest that statistically women who stay in the workforce are happier, healthier, and more prosperous, even if they do face some difficult years.

Would a columnist like Brody suggest that we shouldn’t promote exercise because circumstances make it difficult for some, leading to guilt?  We don’t stop encouraging people to moderate unhealthy eating and drinking habits because it leads to guilt.  And yet with breast-feeding, where there is equally good evidence of benefit to children’s health, protecting the mother from “guilt” becomes more important than giving mothers all the information they need for optimal decision-making.

This doesn’t mean that every mother should breast-feed.  There are lots of reasons not to do it, and babies (including me!) who are not breast-fed do just fine.  But we shouldn’t tell ourselves half-truths about the data — studies show that breast-milk has important benefits, and that it is ideal for women to nurse for at least six months.  Women can and should be able to handle this truth without going haywire.

One of the things that bothers me most about the Brody piece is her complete disregard for evidence.  Over and over again she quotes a 2009 article by Hanna Rosin that was condemned by the American Association for Pediatrics as ill-researched.  Rosin’s data was very thin, and the piece was meant to be provocative above informative.  It should never have been used as a primary source in the New York Times.  Furthermore, for women who live in places with a compromised water supply or weak controls on formula manufacturing, breast-feeding does have important health ramifications for babies.

So why would a journalist of Brody’s caliber rest her case on shaky unscience?  Because she wants all women to feel good about their choices.  Because women need to honor and support each other.

But we can honor and support each other without throwing out rational thinking, math, and science.  The women’s movement, feminism, and indeed, women’s personal relationships need not be about consensus, and we should expose magical thinking for what it is.  On an individual basis, women need to be very, very careful not to import other people’s limitations.

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Who Thinks They Can Have it All?

The Atlantic is nuts for women this week, but it can’t decide whether we should engage in lunatic screeds or talk seriously about women, work, and motherhood.  Either way, I sense that the magazine is in this game for the traffic, not the issues.  That’s too bad because we seem to be increasingly telling women that 1) they should aspire to having it all, and 2) they can’t have it all.  It’s enough to make a girl ask “why bother”?

Take Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.  It’s serious, but framed in a way that is so inflammatory, it’s difficult to parse the good from the bad.  Consider the descriptive copy at the top of the piece (not, I think, written by Slaughter):

It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.

Excuse me, Atlantic, are you talking to me?  Who is “fooling themselves”?  Do you think those of us in the corporate world are unaware that there are trade-offs and choices to be made every day?  Furthermore, you do not have to be “superhuman, rich, or self-employed” to be a “top professional” (whatever that means).  I think we could find hundreds of thousands of women who consider themselves top in their game, but do not define as any of these.

The narrative opens with Slaughter referencing her troubled teen, suggesting that his challenges are a result of her absence during the week.  This may be true.  Or it may not.  There’s no real evidence that there’s causality here, but by framing her choice in this way, Slaughter delivers an implicit indictment of mothers with demanding jobs.  All of the points she makes in her piece could have been make equally well without this bit of color designed to provide linkbait for those who suggest that kids suffer in two-career parent families.

This opening was also profoundly unsettling because I’m a professional.  My children are young, and I can’t know how they will “turn out”.  I can’t know whether if I gave up my career tomorrow they would be more successful than they would if I stayed in the game.  I can’t know whether my income will give them opportunities that they wouldn’t have had, or whether my husband’s presence in their lives 50% of the time is any less valuable than mine would be.  But Slaughter’s frame in this piece leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that I might be doing something drastically wrong.  But no hard evidence.  Not a shred real of data.  So how seriously do I take this threat that seems to hang over my home?

And yet there are some gem moments in the piece, particularly the section titled “Revaluing Family Values” that points out the tremendous double standard women face when they talk about caring for children in their non-working hours versus their peers who talk about training for a marathon.  Slaughter tells the story of a male Orthodox colleague who negotiated a Sabbath-observant work schedule, and rightly notes that the same negotiation based on “family time” versus religious observance would damage a woman’s credibility.  Slaughter highlights this effectively, though I wish she would have been more forthright in pointing out that’s it is nothing less than sexism.

Still, I was disappointed.  Slaughter purports to identify half-truths and cliches like “It’s possible if you’re committed enough,” “It’s possible if you marry the right person”, and “It’s possible if you sequence it right”.  Slaughter may think these are myths to bust; in point of fact they are all true.  Not for everyone, not always, and perhaps not in exactly the same way (there is never a “right” time to have children).  But they are good tactics to setting up an environment that allows for women’s success.  These are messages we should be giving women, just as we give at least the first two to men.

Then she goes on to talk about how she believes our culture must change to allow women (not men, although they would also benefit from many of her suggestions) to have work-family “balance” and career success.  Most of these ideas seem stale to me.  Many large companies already allow working from home at least part of the time, and certainly technology has been an enormous boost for working parents.  We do need to revisit the school schedule, for many reasons, not the least of which that there is compelling evidence that our children might do better academically.  Family leave policies that affect both men and women would be helpful, though a year would likely mean that parents would simply not move ahead as quickly as their childless peers.

But okay, all of these are valid.  However, I don’t think Slaughter cracks this nut in any meaningful way.  She doesn’t directly address the two major changes that would need to happen: first, that rethinking the way we integrate work and family needs to become an “everyone” issue.  Even for Slaughter, it’s primarily dominated by women, and as much as I hate to write it, “women’s issues” are not highly valued.

Second, we need to address workplace discrimination faced by mothers head on.  Because lurking behind all of Slaughter commentary is an enormous double-standard for women and men.  The problem is not that women are stepping off the career track; the problem is that the track is re-routed as soon as they have kids, whether they like it or not.  And this means that women languish in unrewarding middle management positions with little autonomy versus senior roles that would allow them to stretch their wings professionally and call their own shots.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Slaughter’s State Department role is not, as she claims, “typical for the vast majority of working women”.  While many of us work long hours on corporate schedules, few of us work the kind of schedule Slaughter had in her government role.  I’d hate to think that young women are dissuaded from aspiring to high positions based on this outline: in truth there are many “top management” roles that allow you to control your time.

But the biggest secret?  Time isn’t everything.  It’s about loving what you do too.  For too long women have lowered their expectations to achieve “work life balance”.  The whole conversation needs an update, not more of the same tired thinking couched in rhetoric designed to polarize.

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Can We Have an Honest Conversation About Feminsim and Motherhood?

I’m growing increasingly concerned about the so-called “Mommy Wars”, but maybe not for the reasons you think.  It’s not because the conversation makes some mothers feel small or belittled (though it does), or even because the very existence of this debate when no such conversation happens about men smacks of sexism.  It’s because the more ridiculous and vitriolic this media-fueled frenzy becomes, the less possible it is to have an honest and conversation about women’s choices and how they affect our standing in the corporate world.

This struck me sharply in reading Elizabth’s Wurtzel’s recent Atlantic Monthly post, 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.  Though some may not like me saying it, Wurtzel raises several valid points.  One is that when women give up their economic independence they give up power, and this is a profoundly anti-feminist action.  Another is that highly educated women who opt out to raise children do contribute to corporate stigmatization of child-bearing-aged women, who are assumed to be bad bets.  Large numbers of senior-level women leaving the workforce hurts the collective, no matter how you slice it.

Nonetheless, we can’t talk about these hard truths without acknowledging that care-giving is indeed an incredibly challenging job and that there are some women who are most fulfilled in that role.  Furthermore, one could argue that part of the problem is the childcare in general is not appropriately compensated.  Whether children are being cared for by a parent or a sitter, the job is notoriously financially undervalued.

But perhaps the greatest flaw in Wurtzel’s logic is that most women who stay at home are not one-percenters at all.  Census statistics show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be poor, under-educated, and unable to secure employment.  They do not have nannies, they do not go to Jivamukti yoga, and they don’t get pedicures.  They are struggling and would work if they could.

Indeed, Wurtzel’s vision of stay-at-home motherhood is limited to her narrow slice of life.  Arguably her brand of working, which is about writing books like Prozac Nation and memoirs about addiction has done no more to help real women in the corporate world than the stay-at-home mothers she villifies in her Atlantic piece.

I’ve written about this before: it seems that issues around working motherhood are written by women who don’t actually work in representative environments.  Wurtzel would have found a lot more sympathy with me if she had been able to tell the truth as one who had seen, if not experienced, it up close.  But she can’t, because like most writers covering women and work, she’s not in the trenches.

So here it is from one who knows: women do get side-lined in the corporate world after they have kids.  There is copious data on thisFor every child, a woman’s earning declines 7%Equally qualified mothers earn just 60% of a father’s dollarMothers are less likely to get promoted or receive raises.  They are considered bad long-term bets.  And almost certainly part of this is because some of our forebearers and contemporaries are choosing to opt-out.  Discrimination fueled in part by the choices we make is a significant factor behind the persistent pay gap, and the current brand of workplace sexism that primarily affects mothers.

Can we talk about that without using the term “Mommy Wars”?

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A Tropical Island

The other day a male acquaintance from my MBA program, a soon-to-be father, said that he’d had enough of working in finance in the big city.  He was rethinking his goals, looking to work like a dog over the next five to ten years so that he could move to a tropical paradise and drop out of the insanity.

Of course, this resonated with me because it is the quintessential working mother’s fantasy.  Going someplace where you can live a simpler life, spend ample time with your children, not worry about office politics and getting ahead.  In fact, I suspect it’s the dream many mothers think they are buying into when they drop out of the workforce.

For many — if not most — mothers, work and peace feel mutually exclusive.  It was interesting to hear this future father, someone who didn’t even have a child yet, voice some of the same angst I hear from women all the time.  But I would challenge him with the same question I ask women who want to drop out: is there no way to find true happiness in work?  Do you have to abandon the corporate world and move to a tropical island to find fulfillment?

Perhaps even more depressing, this is a person who could be an ally.  He could stay in the workforce and make it better for himself and us all.  But instead, like so many women in the same position, he plans to opt out.  That’s a sad state of affairs for those of us who know that corporate culture will only truly change when men are as engaged in the desire for change as women.  When the private equity guys show they care about living real lives as much as their wives.

I imagine that many in the corporate world would argue that achieving at the office requires a certain level of misery — paying dues.  I fundamentally disagree.  It’s one thing if you hate your industry, then you need to find a new calling.  But I sense that lots of people like their industry, but hate the corporate politics, the punishing drive for short-term profit over long-term sustainability, and the grinding hours wasted on useless meetings and tasks.

Can we recalibrate our corporate environments to build institutions that don’t force people to choose between working and fulfillment?  Places where great jobs and progressive career movement don’t require forfeiting peace, leisure and family?  We can, but the people who care have to stay in the system, making it better for themselves and others as they gradually take the reins from the previous generation.  In other words, we have to find our tropical islands in our own backyards.

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