I wrote most of this post while on a plane flying to New Orleans to attend the funeral of a loving family friend and adopted relative, Tsip Levitov. She was 95 when she died last week and lived a long, wonderful life marked by incredible achievements, particularly for a woman who grew up in an era when women were expected to be wives and not much more.
Among Tsip’s professional accomplishments were to be the first woman in Miami to enlist in the US Navy in WWII. After the war she spent many years as a bookkeeper and then as travel guide for El Al Airlines and others, accompanying tourist groups on far-flung journeys the world over. She was a self-taught expert on chocolate and traveled the world to sample all she could before authoring a book on the topic some years back (good work if you can get it!). She was a force of nature, the woman who “adopted” my sister and me as her granddaughters when our own grandmother died in 1999. At that point the she and my grandmother had been best friends for nearly 85 years. Both women had wonderful marriages, but also worked outside of their homes, mostly among men, and had careers that meant a lot to them. Both of them were bad-ass old ladies that let no one get in the way of their having a good time or doing what they pleased, personally or professionally.
I was thinking about this in the context of a recent trip I took to Italy for vacation. In my quest to eat everything not nailed down in the Lake Como region, I had the good fortune to participate in an amazing private cooking class in the resort kitchen of the Villa d’Este Hotel. The sous chef, a charming Italian man (duh) took my family through the paces of making pasta from scratch, mixing the ingredients using only his fingers. We made a five course meal together (including two desserts–proof there is a God) in a massive ballroom-sized gleaming kitchen that was busily also trying to meet the demands of the resort guests.
As I stood back at the end of the process and surveyed the scene I realized that every one of the 30 or more people working in the kitchen were men–not a woman in sight. I also then realized that among the very large serving staff in the restaurants I had seen no women. I asked the sous chef, a man who could not have been older than 35-40, if they had any women chefs, cooks, servers, hosts, busboys, anything? and he told me in perfect, if adorably accented, English that only men worked in the kitchen and three restaurants.
Referring specifically to the kitchen itself, his exact quote was this, “We have no women here in our operation for two reasons. First, it is very hard to find women who are interested in being professional chefs in Italy. Second, and I am embarrassed to say this, but having only one woman in a room full of 30 men just doesn’t work. Someone is always jealous and it just causes all kinds of problems.” It kind of took my breath away (although I did manage to still eat the food..what can I tell you? I’m weak before an Italian seafood pasta). What I should have said was, “Why would you stop at hiring ONE woman?” And furthermore, with a double digit unemployment rate in Italy, I am betting there are plenty of women who would love to have these jobs.
Wow, here we are in the year 2012 and this mentality is impossible to escape, even on vacation. While there are clearly more women in professional roles than there have been in the past, it is still an uphill battle to overcome centuries of institutionalized chauvinism not just in the Board room, but even in the kitchen. My daughter, age 16 and pretty bad-ass herself, turned to me when she heard the chef’s response and said, “I thought men always wanted the women to cook for them, but maybe that’s only when they’re saying ‘hey woman, make me a sandwich.'” Smart kid. I reminded her that even today, when you are dealing outside the home in the world of “professions,” women still have to fight for their place at the table, even if, as in this case, the table is made of butcher’s block. I myself have experienced this first-hand very recently.
The profound separation of the sexes is so present in my own profession that virtually no venture firm has more than one woman partner and the vast majority have none. I have the stunning good fortune to be on two Boards of Directors that have two women each on them, but most of the women colleagues I know have no other females at the table. The sense that having one woman in the mix among a large group of men causes problems is a very present feeling experienced by many of my female compatriots. They often speak of being excluded from Board outings and discussions because they aren’t members of the Hair Club for Men, or wherever the Y-chromosome people go to escape their female professional counterparts. It is always so freaking funny to me that chauvinistic, women-hating politicians are always brought down in the end by that whole mentality backfiring on them. Hey Representative Akin, sound familiar? I am always amazed that these overt chauvinists get actual women to marry them. Maybe those women lost a bet.
On the trip to Lake Como I met a fabulous woman, a child psychiatrist who was the first female to be appointed as an Assistant Professor in her department at Penn sometime back in the 1970s. She told me how she had first been denied the promotion by the oversight committee made up of grumpy old men and believed it was solely because she was a woman. When her department Chair begrudgingly admitted that her situation assessment was correct, she wrote a letter to that Board, reluctantly endorsed by her Chair, stating that she had met every single criterion for promotion, believed the denial of her promotion was based purely on her gender and informed them that she would release her letter to the newspaper if she wasn’t given fair reconsideration. She was given the promotion within days but without a single word of acknowledgement spoken. Fast forward to today and she reports that most of the students in the Penn psychiatry program are women and they are making gains in faculty representation, albeit slowly. She asked me if I ever experienced overt misogynous behavior in my profession and when I said yes, she said, “I hope you scream about it and rail against it when it happens. It is the only way to bring about change.” I assured her that, if she knew me better, she would know I wasn’t prone to keeping my thoughts to myself on this topic.
I do see some signs of hope that women are making progress, however slow or small some of those steps forward may seem. The plane I flew here on was piloted by a woman, something that never used to occur. Back in 1970 there were no female commercial pilots but today there are about 5000. Efforts to raise up and support female CEOs are beginning to flourish and there are 18 female CEOs in the Fortune 500? We have 8 females in the Cabinet of the US President (out of 22 cabinet-level positions), and even the Augusta National Golf Club recently offered membership to two women for the first time in their history (herstory?). I hope that Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore accept those memberships, drag all their female friends to the club on a regular basis and leave the toilet seat down, not just to be disruptive (although that could be fun), but also to show the world that problems are not caused by there being one woman in a roomful of men. Rather problems are caused by foolish thinking and closed minds and insecure people who don’t know how to function normally in mixed company.
It’s like that old saying goes, “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Except in this case it should be “women don’t cause problems, morons cause problems.” And to those men who believe that having women in your professional midst is uncomfortable, here is what I have to say to you: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, because we are coming in and it sure as hell isn’t to make you a sandwich.
Postscript: At the end of Tsip’s funeral the Rabbi said, “What all of these stories tell us is that it is good to be a character. If you are not already a character, it is not too late to start down that path. If you are going to do it right, don’t be milk chocolate, be bittersweet.” I loved that. Captured her perfectly and a good message for us all.
Note: a version of this post ran in Xconomy on August 27, 2012