I had one of those moments today that make you realize how complicated the challenge of achieving equality of the sexes in the workplace (or anywhere) really is. I was sitting in the lounge at the gym watching the communal TV. On the screen: Piers Morgan and another guy talking about Hurricane Irene and specifically about the flooding at the Jersey Shore (now that is a Situation). A basic run-of-the-mill middle-aged white guy who looked to be about 50 years old sat down next to me on the couch to watch the TV, which had no audio since the sound was turned off.
For no obvious reason, Michelle Bachman came on the TV screen in the middle of the hurricane story. I said, “I hope that the audio is saying that she got washed out to sea in the storm.” My new seatmate says to me, “It must be really hard being a woman and watching her in a leadership role.”
Because I just can’t help myself, I said back to him, “I really don’t think of it that way. I just think she’s her own isolated idiot. I mean, when you see a guy on TV who is an idiot do you feel that it’s hard being a man?” Poor guy. I could just hear him screaming “DEFENSE, DEFENSE” inside his own head.
Clearly the guy was not trying to offend me at all. His response to me was, “I just meant it would be great to have a female president and it’s too bad that’s what we have to choose from. I didn’t mean to offend you.” Honestly, I wasn’t offended; I was just being matter of fact, and that’s what I said back, but by that point the poor guy was so uncomfortable that our relationship was clearly not going to blossom further. He was visibly relieved when I got up to leave.
To me this incident is just fascinating, albeit discouraging. Men are generally just taught to believe that men are men and women are…different and most of that teaching is simply part of the wallpaper, not intentionally passed on from generation to generation. I mean, of course women are different (as I like to say, Men are from Mars, Women are from Earth), but not different in ways that are professionally meaningful. And yet the discomfort between the sexes persists.
Someone else I know and respect–a partner in a private equity firm who has two grown professional daughters–once told me that he always asks CEO candidates he is interviewing what their father did for work. I asked whether he also inquired what their mother did for work and he looked at me blankly and say, “no.” I asked why not and he said that it just never occurred to him to ask and that he was embarrassed to admit it. Again, he was not trying to offend and I know him well enough to know that he is not fundamentally prejudicial against women, but the facts speak for themselves. We are still living in a world where the men who are currently in charge don’t view themselves as favoring men over women but so often still do through their actions, typically without even realizing it.
There was an article in PE Hub not too long ago where a venture capitalist lambasted the author of a Washington Post article about how, among other things, women entrepreneurs are treated differently (worse) than men. The author of the rebuttal article said it was “offensive tripe” that this even be suggested; that he didn’t treat women any differently and that any decent VC would not do so either. The vast majority of people who weighed in on his story (besides me…can’t keep my mouth shut) were men. And pretty much all of those men said that they knew it was true that women were given the short shrift when they seek venture money. I suspect that most of these men would say that they, themselves, would not do such a thing and I believe that this is truly the way that most of them would seek to behave. I just know from my own experience, and that of my peers, that the stereotypes are so ingrained in the learning of our male colleagues that it sometimes shows itself in very strange ways, even among those who are by and large more enlightened.
And yet, women aren’t always their own best friends in the endeavor to achieve true equality. I am heading tomorrow night to a meeting of female venture capitalists. We have a group of about 30 or so that gets together to socialize, talk business, etc. every few months. My feelings about being a part of a “women’s group” are so ambivalent. On the one hand, it’s absolutely great. Smart women, fun to be with, we can talk business, we can talk family, we can talk smack about whatever we want. I like these people and respect them. We have fun together even though we are all very different from each other (aside from the obvious). We have an agenda for tomorrow’s meeting that will have us discussing the IPO market and other highly relevant professional topics. It is definitely not a fluffy little hugging session where we all eat bon bons and sip Cosmos. These are some serious women with accomplishments galore.
On the other hand, it also can feel like it’s not helping solve the problem when we meet as a separate group, as if our gender is a meaningful categorization. Since we are often not invited to the sporting events or the golf games or the poker games with the guys, it is nice to have our own gig. But does acknowledging ourselves as a group reinforce the issue of being different? Sometimes I wonder. I always think when I go to these women-focused events that if there was a really smart guy out there they would work hard to get themselves invited; best place in the world to find a date. It is interesting how women often overtly say to themselves or others that, “Hey, I’m not a card-carrying militant women’s rights type, but I just want to be around the people I really like and use what we have to our advantage,” as if they need to apologize for communing with the gals–so damn complicated. We should just be able to go, have a good time, learn something and move on without dwelling on the gender issue at hand. But nothing is ever that simple. Do the guys fret when they get together as a group? Short answer: no.
I am thinking of conducting an experiment. I am going to stake out that couch at the gym until I am sitting next to another middle-aged white guy when Rick Santorum comes on the TV (since I live in liberal tofu-eating, tree-hugging Marin County, there is almost no chance of sitting next to one of his supporters and there is a surplus of guys that fit the description). I’ll say, “It must be really hard being a man and watching him in a leadership role.” I’d be curious to know what you think the response will be. Feel free to post in the comments section!