There were so many interesting themes from the JP Morgan conference this year that I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to tell first: the focus on oncology, the rush of pharma to digital, the newfound interest in social determinants of health, AI as the all-being, master of time, space and dimension. But considering the times, I decided to go with the chick thing.
This year, more than any other, there were an abundance of women at events surrounding the conference. While the conference itself featured a mere 20 total women CEOs but 22 speakers with the name Michael, as reported in this STAT news article, the tone on the outside of the St. Francis was somewhat better than in prior years. Sort of, kind of.
It’s such a weird time. We have all this #MeToo stuff going on and, at the same time, we as women are unsure how to proceed. Men are completely flummoxed. I have had conversations recently with men I view as rational and entirely un-sexist who claim they have no idea how to behave. I find it totally confounding, as they knew exactly how to behave a few months ago with no trouble, so why change? Yes, there is a heightened awareness of the incredibly bad behavior of more than a few men in positions of power, including those in the venture world, but now everyone is unsettled, me included.
There were at least 8 separate events I noticed during JP Morgan week that were explicitly organized for women healthcare leaders. I went to a couple of them. On the one hand, YAY! It’s exciting to be around all these smart women who are sharing experiences, support and drinks. I love these women and really enjoy engaging with them. On the other hand, BOO! It’s never going to change if we keep everyone separate. The self-segregation only leads to further distance. We know this because we hate it when the men go off on their own and intentionally leave us out. And yet we are, in some ways, perpetuating the same process. I also feel that if the men aren’t on board the equality train, it will never leave the station. This is something that needs to be done together. And yet, if we don’t have these events we may get left out of the others anyway. Aargh.
I am thrilled that the horrible, predatory dirtbags who ruin women’s careers for their own sicko power trips are being outed and ousted – let it continue until they are all run out of town. YAY! I don’t want to minimize in any way the criminal and inexcusable behavior of way too many people. But I do think that some women have begun to lose focus on what is truly unforgivable behavior and what is just some guy being immature or a bit of a jerk. BOO! We do need to have a bit of clarity about what sits in the shades of gray and what is black and white. Is asking someone out at work an act of harassment? Not necessarily. I met my husband at work and thank goodness. I never went anywhere but work at that time so my odds of pairing up any other way with someone other than one of my cats was pretty limited. Did I also encounter people in my work career who crossed a line and acted inappropriately? Yes, for sure. But there was a clear difference and we need to keep the line drawn or we risk losing all ability to communicate.
I am also profoundly tired of hearing men say something that goes like this, “well, you know how men are – they can’t help but think about sex all the time…” as if that excuses any form of behavior. Maybe it’s true that this is how they think and maybe it isn’t (thank god I’ll never know for sure), but there is a big distance between thinking something and acting on it. And by the way, here’s a newsflash: women think about sex too. I do not accept that people can’t control their behavior if they want to. One of the men who recently gave me this sad lament (the part about, you know, how men are so cut them some slack), went on to confirm to me that despite his inability to think about anything other than sex, he would never step across the line himself. So clearly it is a choice, so enough already with the pathetic biology excuses. BOO!
I enjoyed Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes and watched with interest how the women at the awards show wore black in solidarity with the #MeToo crowd. YAY! But I hated how some of the actresses were giving this message while wearing such hyper-sexualized clothing that even I couldn’t tear my eyes away from their largely uncovered female body parts. I am so confused. I do not believe that women should be accused of “asking for it” because they dress in a sexy way. But on the other hand, if you are there to use your platform and spread the message that men should treat women as equals and not as sex objects, uh, cover your boobs while saying it. I found the conflicting images hard to rationalize. BOO! My attitude on this may annoy or offend some people, but what can I tell you? It just struck me as right message, wrong delivery.
I am so ambivalent about how to move the dialogue ahead. There seem to be some people who are born to a life of prejudice and power-tripping and others who would never act that way on purpose but have been raised in a culture that is so heavily tilted away from female empowerment that it’s hard to function correctly. I heard one particular story during JP Morgan week that I can’t stop thinking about. A man, a very accomplished guy who is a mentor in the CSweetener program I co-founded (to match women executives with mentors), got mentor-matched with a female entrepreneur who reached out to him after getting serially rejected by venture capitalists during her quest for financing. She specifically wanted this self-proclaimed “big ass white guy” to help her translate her pitch into something to which others from his tribe would relate. And he did help her, directing her to remove the hedge words and the modesty from her pitch. He directed her not to say she had “one of the best solutions” but “the best” solution; to project confidence and be more assertive. And she got funded shortly after.
I imagine that getting this right must have been quite a needle-threading exercise. Because women acting too confident and assertive can also be viewed as threatening and other things that begin with B. We as humans suck at letting women excel for the same traits we appreciate in men and vice versa. Our prejudices run so deep. I read another article today in the Atlantic about how, despite nursing being one of the fastest growing and best paid emerging careers, some women would not want their husbands to be nurses because it implies something…off. We are all so confused.
And today (January 14), when I opened my San Francisco Chronicle, there was a Dilbert cartoon that captured it so well. It basically tells the story of a women asking Dilbert out to lunch for networking purposes, he rejecting the overture because it would look unseemly, she freaking out because she can’t get ahead because no men will network with her, and he wondering if she was flirting with him. HELP! Scott Adams may be the great philosopher of our time.
I am hopeful that the recent spate of horrible disclosures does something to reopen communication between men and women in the workplace in a productive way. Companies with gender diverse management teams make far higher profits and produce far better return on equity. For those reasons alone, men should be psyched to have us around and prospering. And we women have to help ourselves too. Not every overture is abusive; not every sexist action is intentional. When those things happen we need to point them out and help give pointers on how to overcome unintentional bias. It will become obvious very quickly who is worth investing in and who isn’t by their response to the advice. We also need to have the self-confidence to keep saying “No” when we mean “No” and not succumbing to the fatigue that I fear will overcome this issue pretty soon, as everyone is exhausted from hearing about it. We must all keep fighting, but fighting in unity for the betterment of all. Yeah it’s Pollyanna-ish (a female character I might add), but it’s also badass to stick to your guns even when no one else wants to listen and you know you are right.
And men need to have more self-awareness. If you are organizing a conference, putting together a board of directors or assembling a management team, look around. If everyone looks just like you, try again. If all you can think to say to the women at your company is how cute they look, keep it to yourself. If you don’t know the women you need to know to recruit effectively, ask for help. Be proactive and ask how you can make the environment at your company more comfortable for all involved. Don’t be shy, be laser-focused on higher profits driven by gender equity. Your shareholders will thank you.
I hope that next year’s JP Morgan has more about action and less about frustration on the gender front. I wish that the numerous VCs and CEOs who signed last year’s MassBio pledge to do something about gender equity reported on what they did about it and were held accountable for making some progress. I hope that the conference works a little harder to balance the gender equation. I know there are enough great women out there to feature, as just today, when David Shaywitz and I taped four Tech Tonics podcast episodes, we found we had invited four women as our guests. It was entirely unintentional; they just happened to be the people we found most compelling this month.
So perhaps that’s the crux of what I wish (just call me Pollyanna): that everyone could just start appreciating people for who they are and what they have accomplished and forget about what gender they are. I know it’s an absurd thought and will never happen, but what if it could? Maybe we can all open our eyes just a little wider and make a point of inviting women to participate in panels and events and management teams when we normally don’t, and including men in the women’s events so we can slowly brainwash them to realize how great we can be and how we are not gunning for them. At a minimum, let’s teach our kids the right way to act so we can stop talking about this once and for all. Because if my daughter has to grow up and 50 years from now write a blog about gender inequity and how bad it is, I swear I will rise up out of my grave and lose it. And you don’t want to see me being quite that assertive. Trust me.