Girl Power

“I have told my story and thousands of people have heard it. My story is their story. If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” Ellen Pao said after venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins was cleared of gender discrimination toward former employee, Ellen Pao, in March of 2015.

Pao accused the firm of passing her over for a promotion and then firing her because of her gender. Though one of the most recent cases, this is definitely not the first; it is only a small step towards the never ending journey to equality.

In 2011, Betty Dukes and several other workers at Wal-Mart sued the store for gender discrimination in pay and promotion policies and practices. Furthermore, in 2004, the female and Latino, African-American, and Asian American employees at Abercrombie and Fitch alleged that it “violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by maintaining recruiting and hiring practice that excluded minorities and women and adopting a restrictive marketing image, and other policies, which limited minority and female employment.”


From the Beginning of Time

“The term ‘marked’ is a staple of linguistic theory. It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own…The unmarked forms of most English words also convey ‘male’. Being male is the unmarked case,” Deborah Tannen’s There Is No Unmarked Woman states. “Endings like ess and ette mark words as ‘female’. Unfortunately, they also tend to mark them for frivolousness…Gender markers pick up extra meanings that reflect common associations with the female gender: not quite serious, often sexual.”

Since the era of cavemen, women have always been expected to stay home to take care of children. Men were always the head of the household. Men had all the rights and freedom. Men could do everything that women couldn’t do. Even the Declaration of Independence only states that “all men are created equal.” But what about the women?

It is only in the recent few hundred years that women are starting to slowly gain the rights and respect that men have always taken for granted, resulting in men always being one step, or multiple steps, ahead of women. This is one of the reasons that men are currently dominating the higher levels of the workplace.



What Is Wrong?

Women have never had very good success in breaking through the middle management and getting to the top. Though women make up 52 percent of the jobs in all industries, they only account for 14.6 percent of executive officers. Though Pao’s case eventually ruled against her, it demonstrates the insecurity that women feel and it’s only the start of a long way toward equality.

Leading Women is an organization that works with companies that are serious about closing the gender gap at the top. Susan Colantuono is the CEO and she and her co-workers help individuals and companies to “strengthen the leadership skills of women at various stages of their careers.”

Being a leader has nothing to do with gender. The definition of a leader is “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.” There is nothing about a man or a woman. Yet, in the back of many people’s heads, any unisex name of a profession is almost always attributed to a male figure.

For example, in Foundations of Psychology, Eakins and Eakins in 1978 conducted an experiment where research participants were given the following story: A man and his young son were apprehended in a robbery. The father was shot during the struggle and the son, in handcuffs was rushed to the police station. As the police pulled the struggling boy into the station, the mayor, who had been called to the scene, looked up and said “My God, it’s my son!

They were then asked, “What relation was the mayor to the boy?” and this was the result: “…their research participants often made ‘wild and ridiculous’ guesses as to the answer, but very few of them thought of the right solution: that the mayor might be the boy’s mother. Their sexist assumptions about who a mayor was likely to be had affected their ability to reason logically. It has been argued that mayor is a sex-specific term, since there is also the word ‘mayoress’ in the language, and so the example is misleading. This argument, however, shows how deeply rooted these sexist assumptions are, since the term ‘mayoress’ is not a female equivalent of ‘mayor’, but refers to a different social role.”

The deep rooted mindset both conscious and unconscious that people have is the very barrier that prevents women from taking the next step.


The Ideal Leader

“Leadership is more complex than just trying to identify the characteristics of a leader. Individual characteristics aren’t as important as knowing how to use your personal strength,” says Colantuono.

There are three parts to a good leader, according to Colantuono. First, one needs to know how to leverage one’s strength. He or she also has the ability to relentlessly focus on the health, vitality, and future viability of their businesses. It is also important that he or she has the ability to engage other people.

Infinera building at Sunnyvale, California

Tom Fallon, CEO of Infinera, says, “A good leader creates a vision that people believe in [because] people want to be inspired.”

“We look for people who put their groups first before them,” Stacey Salazar, the VP of Human Resources at Infinera, says.


The Veil is Lifted

Companies around the world are doing their best to achieve gender diversity. Fallon says, “If there were two equally qualified candidates, and one is like the rest of the board, and one is different, I will hire the one that is different from the board so I can create more diversity.”

Salazar adds, “The first thing we decide is if the person is best suitable for that position, then other factors will weigh in.”

However, even though the unanimously agreed goal is to achieve gender diversity in the workplace, it just isn’t happening, or it is but not fast enough.

In Colantuono’s TED Talk, The career advice you probably didn’t get, she explains that the reason that women are not getting the roles they want is because they “get no formal messaging about the importance of business, strategic, and financial acumen”, which is the missing 33% that is limiting women from having the same opportunities as men.

“When organizations direct women toward resources that focus on the conventional advice that we’ve been hearing for over 40 years, there’s a notable absence of advice that relates to business, strategic and financial acumen. Much of the advice is emphasizing personal actions that we need to take, like become more assertive, become more confident, develop your personal brand…and virtually nothing said about the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen,” Colantuono said in her talk. “This doesn’t mean that this advice is unimportant. What it means is that this is advice that’s absolutely essential for breaking through from career start to middle management, but it’s not the advice that gets women to break through from the middle, where we’re 50 percent, to senior and executive positions.”

For men, executives assume that they already have the business, strategic, and financial acumen. So for them, the way to differentiate themselves is to “become more assertive, become more confident, develop your personal brand.” However, women never really got that memo, so to speak. So again, women are a step behind the men.

“Managers, both women and men, make assumptions about women that creates barriers for [them],” says Colantuono.

Women are bound by stereotypical “feminine” jobs and only a few enter the male dominant industries. And those who do, are immediately labeled as “different” or “brave”. Fallon expresses his concern that there are too few women leaders because leaders tend to choose people who are in similar industries as them. Since the technological world is predominantly male, females have a hard time breaking into the circle.

But it’s not all the men’s fault. Women are not aggressive enough to fight for those top positions. They constantly doubt themselves, and usually are content with the current middle management job that they have. They do not ask for more.

“Men are more likely to ask for opportunities than women are,” says Colantuono. “Women are more likely to wait for opportunities to come to them.”


Looking Toward the Future

Knowing and doing are two very different things. People know about prejudice. People know about gender inequality. But in order to make a difference, people need to do something.

“I would start with encouraging more young women to go into stem in college,” Fallon says. “Our [current] system does a very poor job in participating young women in engineering or the sciences.”

“Start engaging men and support each other,” Colantuono says. “[Women] need to be good at showcasing that [they] have business, strategic, and financial acumen.”

Because as time goes by, the prejudiced snowball will only grow bigger and faster, and at some point, it will crush us beneath it, preventing any chance of escape.


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