This week I used my Uber app (I’m so modern!) to get a car from my hotel to a board dinner in San Diego. The driver who showed up was a youngish guy, around age 30, who was particularly chatty and especially interested in business issues. He immediately started grilling me about what I did for a living and, when I told him it was venture investing, he had a litany of questions. How is that different from angel investing? Are the shark tank guys for real? What’s the difference between angel investing and venture capital? How does one get into the field? Etc. It was quite the inquisition, but he was clearly one of those people always seeking to learn and grow. He told me he was enrolled in an MBA program and was eager to engage in his future business career.
And then he asked me, “How many women are in your field at partner level?” I replied with the fact that only about 4-5% of VC partners are female and less than 10% of all people in the field were female. He was visibly shocked. “Have you ever felt discriminated against because you were female? “Yes, I responded; more times than I would like to admit.” “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That’s awful. Can you imagine that in this day and age this still happens?” I responded by saying, “Well, you tell me. You’re a black guy. I can’t imagine you don’t feel it all the time.” And then he said this: “Yes, that’s true, but in America we only make up about 14% of the population. Women are the majority. It is crazy to think this still is a problem for women. If men aren’t going to do it, women have to figure out how to change this.” Boy, oh, boy, do I ever agree with my driver.You can be amazing You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug You can be the outcast Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love Or you can start speaking up
Those lyrics immediately above are the opening lines of a song called Brave by Sara Bareilles. In my view they should be the anthem for professional women everywhere. And if you ask me, change for professional women cannot come until and unless they are willing to speak up and call it out when discriminatory behavior raises its ugly head. Bringing those moments into the light is the only way to change things, as I do believe that our male counterparts don’t always intend to give offense or recognize when they do.Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do And they settle ‘neath your skin Kept on the inside and no sunlight Sometimes a shadow wins. But I wonder what would happen if you Say what you want to say
Two months ago I was at one of my favorite conferences, the MedTech Vision conference, an event where about 200 women from the medical technology field convene to talk about issues in the field. Only women are allowed to speak on the panels and deliver the keynotes, although the conference is open to male and female attendees. The content is not female-focused; rather it is an opportunity to hear an entirely different set of views and from an entirely different set of speakers than the usual suspects. Take a good look at the average list of speakers at the average medtech conference and I will show you a ratio of male to female speakers that looks exactly like the typical board room; 9 men to 1 woman on average. One of my roles at the conference was to be the “table moderator” at lunch for the “Lean In” table, probably the only chick-oriented subject of the day. We had 10 women who elected to sit there and talk generally about the male/female experience and how it affected their careers. The table had about 5 young women within the first 10 years of their career, and another 5, like myself, who can remember when “tweet” was something only birds did.
It was a somewhat sobering discussion, as the newer career entrants were struggling just as the others did to have their voice heard among their male colleagues. One would hope that the experience would change more from generation to generation, but, listening to the group, it didn’t feel that way. In fact, I recently heard Lareina Yee, a McKinsey executive who focuses on women in business issues, discuss how the number of women who reach Director or higher at companies (27% of roles are held by women) and the number who make it into leadership (3-4% of CEOs are women) have stayed basically the same for the past 10+ years despite the fact that 59% of college graduates are women. The number one piece of advice that the more, shall we say, “seasoned” women at the Lean In table had for the younger women was this: don’t be silent; when you see the behavior, call it out, draw attention to it, make everyone look at it sitting there all real and ugly on the table like that unidentifiable piece of the Thanksgiving turkey that no one ever eats. If you allow the behavior or comments to go by unaddressed, you are complicit in accepting them.Everybody’s been there, Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy Fallen for the fear And done some disappearing, Bow down to the mighty Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Not too long ago I was in a board meeting where we (meaning me and my 8 male colleagues) were discussing the hiring of a new VP Sales & Marketing. We had several candidates to consider, one of which was a woman. There are no other women in management positions at this particular company. I raised my hand and said, “I would like to see this position filled by a woman.” 16 eyes looked at me and then there was a kind of laugh that spread around the room, like I made a funny joke. I said, “Why are you laughing? I’m not kidding. Why not prioritize getting a woman on board if there is a qualified candidate? Studies suggest women are better at customer relationships anyway.” Nervous laughter subsides but so does the conversation. But at least the issue was out on the table. After the meeting one of the other board members told me he agreed with me and should have said so in front of the others, that he was embarrassed he didn’t back me up in front of the others. It seems even men feel peer pressure when it comes to supporting gender equality. With respect to the position, we shall see what happens.And since your history of silence Won’t do you any good, Did you think it would? Let your words be anything but empty Why don’t you tell them the truth?
Women at the MedTechVision conference had other advice for young women wishing to overcome barriers to success. One person talked about how important was to accept speaking opportunities when they were presented in order to ensure a woman’s voice was on the dais or on the panel. As someone once said, if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu, so when someone offers you the seat, take it, even when it is inconvenient. Another piece of advice was to be the one who steps up and volunteers for the new/challenging/visible projects when they come up. Raise your hand and loudly lobby for the role. Don’t sit back and wait to be 2nd fiddle.
But the number one piece of advice from every female senior executive I have asked since that Lean In table event has been the same: Speak up. Give word to feeling and don’t stand silently by when you feel you are being treated less well due to your gender. In other words, as Sara Bareilles’ would sing:Say what you wanna say And let the words fall out, Honestly, I wanna see you be brave