Gender bias was rampant and overt when I entered the workforce, but the times, they were a-changin’ (as Bob Dylan wrote some years before).
So it saddens me to read today’s NY Times article, or hear the many voices online, bewailing the lack of progress toward equal opportunity or pay for women.
Perhaps I was lucky to enter the workplace when I did, blessed by early mentors, well-positioned to seize unexpected opportunities. Whatever the case, my experiences with gender inequality at work have been nuanced: maddening, frustrating, but not show-stoppers.
Yes, like most women, I have stories to tell about overt sexism or unconscious bias from firsthand experience. That said, I’ve seen important, positive changes in workplace attitudes and expectations over the course of my career. But let’s not talk about equal pay…
And yes, I’ve paid my dues in Silicon Valley, where I encountered my share of condescension, arrogance and tacit biases about women’s capabilities and limitations. I spent ten years at Apple and Adobe, where opportunities were plentiful, attitudes not yet hardened — but the glass ceiling was very real. So I went elsewhere.
Today I find myself wondering, is it really so bad? Have things gotten worse, as a knee-jerk counter-reaction to improvements in the opportunities available to women? Have expectations or standards of comparison changed, so people now set a higher benchmark for what’s fair when it comes to equal opportunity in the workplace?
Are we witnessing the fresh scars of a new generation of women who are encountering sexist attitudes and policies for the first time? If so, this is a generation well equipped with storytelling platforms to broadcast their experiences and clamor for better, more equitable treatment. This makes it all the more painful to hear their anguish at encountering the same-old cave man behaviors and attitudes… I had hoped that the collective work of prior generations might have made more of a lasting impact.
When I was in college, Americans had low expectations of women’s role in the workplace. Women weren’t even expected to have, or want, a career. The prevailing attitude was that women should stay at home, busy themselves with children and housework, and serve a well-prepared meal when their wage-earning husband arrived home.
Even my college-educated parents’ attitudes weren’t much more enlightened than that. They expected me to work for a few years, and then exit the workforce to raise a family. They were risk averse, and did not come from entrepreneurial families. They didn’t want their children to do anything that would “rock the boat” or go against conventional norms.
Meanwhile I was attending an all-women’s college with very high expectations of its graduates, and a long tradition of preparing women for leadership roles. To say it was a place chock full of feminists who wanted to change the world would understate the situation… I graduated believing that anything was possible.
Despite my “intellectually adventurous” schooling, my parents urged me to pursue credentials as a public school teacher. Lingering Depression Era anxieties caused them to view a teaching certificate as a guarantor of employability. We were at odds, once I discovered there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of surplus teachers competing for jobs. (Due no doubt to the limited options available to women…)
When I chose to abandon the teacher training track, they worried that this would drastically narrow my options for meaningful work.
Blessed by Luck?
I landed my first job after high school by going door-to-door, riding a bicycle in a mini-skirt. Everyone wore mini-skirts then, and I was too naive to know how inappropriate that outfit was for a job interview.
Under pressure from my parents, I was on a campaign to land a summer job, knowing that my scholarship wouldn’t cover all my expenses. So for two weeks, I hauled out my bike and rode door-to-door everyday, inquiring about job openings and asking for an interview. I was relentless.
One HR manager must have been curious (or killing time until his next appointment) on the day I showed up, on a bicycle, at his company’s front door. Whatever his motivation, he was willing to meet for a few moments… After a cursory interview, he administered IQ and aptitude tests, and then offered me a job on the spot as a file clerk for the summer.
And so it began. His curiosity or openness transformed my life.
Paradoxically, when I began working, there were relatively few recognized options for professional women — but unlimited opportunity because the rules of the game hadn’t been cast in concrete.
Thanks to that first summer job, that company hired me for every school vacation, even the short term breaks. They provided paying internships, across a variety of roles, throughout my four years of college. Thanks to their generosity, I graduated with hardly any college debt.
A few months before graduation, the CEO called with an invitation — and a challenge — to join his company as a “management trainee.” The first woman ever invited to participate in the management program at his company.
Meanwhile all the other women (some with college degrees) were working on the factory assembly line, answering phones, doing clerical work, banging away on keyboards. They were far from managerial roles, and painfully jealous of my good fortune. That said, once I broke the ice (and the gender stereotypes?), other women were soon invited to join the management ranks.
My bosses were men, but they were generous with their time and advice. They made sure I took some accounting classes, to learn what they called the basic language of business.
They overlooked the mini-revolt I led, to stop the practice of requiring women employees to take turns serving coffee to men. (The company bought vending machines, rather than ask men to step up to coffee making task sharing.)
When I later resigned, to move north and join my fiancé (in grad school at Dartmouth), my mentors reached out to colleagues there, inquiring about job openings and sending my resume (meager as it was then) to potential hiring managers.
Thanks to that old boys’ network and my mentors’ willingness to scout out opportunities, I eventually landed a job on the staff of Dartmouth College’s computer center. At Dartmouth I became one of the first people on the planet to use a computer to write, edit, layout and publish documents with the aid of commercial typesetting systems.
And that was the beginning of my journey in high tech.
My key regret? No women mentors who crossed my path at critical junctures… Just men.
I was lucky to land great jobs during the pioneering days of the computer industry. There was no history, there were no hiring conventions, no normative expectations on who could do what. Hiring managers welcomed people with liberal arts backgrounds; computer science or engineering degrees had not yet become required tickets of admission to the workplace. Attitudes had not yet hardened about women could or couldn’t do in that arena.
Here are some of my take-aways, based on my workplace experience:
- Generosity exists, but you need eyes open to see it sometimes.
- Opportunity exists, but not always where you’re looking.
- Sometimes you have to abandon a path, or move onto a parallel path, in order to create new career possibilities.
- Tend your network. It matters. They matter. Give more than you take.
- Pay it forward. If you’ve been blessed by great mentors earlier in your career, take time to mentor others.
- People blinded by gender biases may be capable of unlearning those biases, but it takes extraordinary effort and much repetition on the part of over-achievers to cause them to see things differently.
- Queen Bees exist, sadly. Successful women need to be more proactive and generous about helping other women. Pay it forward.
- STEM backgrounds are very helpful for high-tech careers, but not essential. That said, ambitious women must be financially literate, comfortable analyzing data, and adept at communicating a solid business rationale when “selling an idea” or a proposition.
- As long as gender bias exists in the workplace, and men put artificial limits on the opportunities available to women, then organizations will continue to confront talent shortages — as a direct result of overlooking half the potential work force.
- Women have a lot to offer to the theory and practice of leadership. Companies will fail to achieve their full potential as long as they confine women to marginal leadership roles, or only a tiny proportion of the leadership positions.
As Jesse Jackson has said about Silicon Valley shareholder meetings,
These companies can’t say that they can’t find women.There is no job women cannot do. This is not a talent deficit, it’s an opportunity deficit and a matter of cultural insensitivity.