Saturday, May 14, 2005

Women in business: a tougher row to hoe?

I saw Safra Catz, President at Oracle, give a keynote recently at the Professional Business Women's Conference. It wasn't a let-your-hair-down kind of speech, and it sounds like she got a little more relaxed at this smaller gathering reported on by the Merc [reg.req'd.]

The theme of "having to be better and work harder" comes up and according to the article "resonates" with the women in the room. And with me.

But let's be clear...I doubt it's just women who have to be better and work harder. I'm sure every African-American in a white-dominated environment feels the same. And so on and so forth...down the list of minorities in rarified places that have to be "role models" and "represent" their entire race, religion, gender. etc. etc.

The reason I think the gender issue continues to be such a compelling and important one is that women aren't even a minority! The gulf between their representation in the population and their representation in certain roles is wide. (With Carly gone, less than 2% of the Fortune 500 have a female CEO...meanwhile over 30% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6'2", despite being represented in the population in only single digits...according to Malcolm Gladwell anyway.)

Speaking of Carly: I read with interest about her recent commencement speech at a North Carolina college.

I read about her experiences as a female sales person in a male-dominated environment and tried to imagine being introduced as the "token bimbo" or taking clients to lunch (lunch!) at a strip club. Then I tried to imagine taking some of male colleagues to a Chippendales performance to entertain a female customer. Only I couldn't really couldn't quite imagine it. How hostile were both those situations she found herself in? Pretty hostile. Yet she had no choice if she wanted to succeed. She could refuse to go, and be marginalized. She could protest, and be considered a harridan. Or she could do what she did...suck it up and shut up and go along. None of those options sound as good to me as people not putting her in the situations to begin with!

And speaking of Malcolm Gladwell, he spends quite a bit of time talking about "unconscious bias" and ways to overcome it. When it can truly be with the erection of screens to block symphony auditioners from symphony maestros...the gulf between the genders dramatically recedes...and in short order.

But you can't do that in the workplace, now can you? Or in academia, apparently, where a recent government report shows that enforcement of federal rules prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded academic programs is lax.

I don't know what the solution is exactly. I know that I don't understand when women object to well-meaning men deciding they're going to take a look at their behaviors and examine whether perhaps they really are operating with unconscious bias.

I'm all for it.

I wonder if somewhere the guy that called Fiorina their "token bimbo" is still around and reads about her remarks. And more interestingly: would he say to himself, "what a hyper-sensitive whiner" or "what was I thinking?"

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