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Chapter 10 Let’s Start Talking About It
  SOMETIMES I WONDER what it would be like to go through life without being labeled by my gender. I don’twake up thinking, What am I going to do today as Facebook’s female COO?, but that’s often how I’mreferred to by others. When people talk about a female pilot, a female engineer, or a female race cardriver, the word “female” implies a bit of surprise. Men in the professional world are rarely seenthrough this same gender lens. A Google search for “Facebook’s male CEO” returns this message:

“No results found.”

As Gloria Steinem observed, “Whoever has power takes over the noun—and the norm—while theless powerful get an adjective.”

Since no one wants to be perceived as less powerful, a lot of womenreject the gender identification and insist, “I don’t see myself as a woman; I see myself as a novelist/athlete/professional/fill-in-the-blank.” They are right to do so. No one wants her achievementsmodified. We all just want to be the noun. Yet the world has a way of reminding women that they arewomen, and girls that they are girls.

In between my junior and senior years of high school, I worked as a page in Washington, D.C., formy hometown congressman, William Lehman. The Speaker of the House at the time was thelegendary Massachusetts representative Tip O’Neill, and Congressman Lehman promised to introduceme to him before the summer ended. But as the days ticked by, it didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen.

Then, on the very last day of the session, he made good on his promise. In the hall outside the Housefloor, he pulled me over to meet Speaker O’Neill. I was nervous, but Congressman Lehman put me atease by introducing me in the nicest way possible, telling the Speaker that I had worked hard allsummer. The Speaker looked at me, then reached over and patted my head. He turned to thecongressman and remarked, “She’s pretty.” Then he turned his attention back to me and asked just onequestion: “Are you a pom-pom girl?”

I was crushed. Looking back, I know his words were intended to flatter me, but in the moment, Ifelt belittled. I wanted to be recognized for the work I had done. I reacted defensively. “No,” I replied.

“I study too much for that.” Then a wave of terror struck me for speaking up to the man who was thirdin line for the presidency. But no one seemed to register my curt and not-at-all clever response. TheSpeaker just patted me on the head—again!—and moved along. My congressman beamed.

Even to my teenage self, this sexism seemed retro. The Speaker was born in 1912, eight yearsbefore women were given the right to vote, but by the time I met him in the halls of Congress, societyhad (mostly) evolved. It was obvious that a woman could do anything a man could do. My childhoodwas filled with firsts—Golda Meir in Israel, Geraldine Ferraro on the Mondale ticket, Sandra DayO’Connor on the Supreme Court, Sally Ride in space.

Given all these strides, I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventieshad done the hard work of achieving equality for my generation. And yet, if anyone had called me afeminist, I would have quickly corrected that notion. This reaction is prevalent even today accordingto sociologist Marianne Cooper (who also contributed her extraordinary research assistance to thisbook). In her 2011 article, “The New F-Word,” Marianne wrote about college English professorMichele Elam, who observed something strange in her Introduction to Feminist Studies course. Eventhough her students were interested enough in gender equality to take an entire class on the subject,very few “felt comfortable using the word ‘feminism.’ ” And even “fewer identified themselves asfeminists.” As Professor Elam noted, it was as if “being called a feminist was to suspect that some foulepithet had been hurled your way.”

It sounds like a joke: Did you hear the one about the woman taking a feminist studies class who gotangry when someone called her a feminist? But when I was in college, I embraced the samecontradiction. On one hand, I started a group to encourage more women to major in economics andgovernment. On the other hand, I would have denied being in any way, shape, or form a feminist.

None of my college friends thought of themselves as feminists either. It saddens me to admit that wedid not see the backlash against women around us.

We accepted the negative caricature of a bra-burning, humorless, man-hating feminist. She was not someone we wanted to emulate, in part becauseit seemed like she couldn’t get a date. Horrible, I know—the sad irony of rejecting feminism to getmale attention and approval. In our defense, my friends and I truly, if na.vely, believed that the worlddid not need feminists anymore. We mistakenly thought that there was nothing left to fight for.

I carried this attitude with me when I entered the workforce. I figured if sexism still existed, I wouldjust prove it wrong. I would do my job and do it well. What I didn’t know at the time was thatignoring the issue is a classic survival technique. Within traditional institutions, success has often beencontingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in, or more colloquially, being “one of theguys.” The first women to enter corporate America dressed in manly suits with button-down shirts.

One veteran banking executive told me that she wore her hair in a bun for ten years because she didnot want anyone to notice she was a woman. While styles have relaxed, women still worry aboutsticking out too much. I know an engineer at a tech start-up who removes her earrings before going towork so coworkers won’t be reminded that she is—shhh!—not a man.

Early in my career, my gender was rarely noted (except for the occasional client who wanted to fixme up with his son). Manly suits were no longer in fashion, and I neither hid nor emphasizedfemininity. I have never reported directly to a woman—not once in my entire career. There werehigher-level women at the places I worked, but I wasn’t close enough to see how they dealt with thisissue on a daily basis. I was never invited to attend a single meeting that discussed gender, and therewere no special programs for women that I can recall. That all seemed fine. We were fitting in, andthere was no reason to call attention to ourselves.

But while gender was not openly acknowledged, it was still lurking below the surface. I started tosee differences in attitudes toward women. I started noticing how often employees were judged not bytheir objective performance, but by the subjective standard of how well they fit in. Given that thesummer outing at McKinsey was a deep-sea fishing trip and most company dinners ended withwhiskey sipping and cigar smoking, I sometimes struggled to pass the “fitting in” test. One night,encouraged by the male partners, I puffed away on a cigar—just one of the guys. Except that thesmoking nauseated me and I reeked of cigar smoke for days. If that was fitting in, I stuck out.

Others also seemed aware that I was not one of the guys. When I was named the TreasuryDepartment’s chief of staff in 1999, several people remarked to me, “It must have helped that youwere a woman.” It was infuriating. Their intent may not have been malicious, but the implication wasclear: I had not gotten the job on merit. I also figured that for every person pointing out my“advantage” to my face, there were probably a dozen others saying it less politely behind my back. Iconsidered my possible responses. I could explain that the last time I checked there was no affirmativeaction for women at Treasury. I could mention that my credentials lined up with those of the men whohad previously held this position. If there was enough time, I could recount centuries of discriminationagainst women. Or I could just slap the person across the face. I tried all these options at least once.

Okay, not the slap. But of the responses I did try, none of them worked.

It was a no-win situation. I couldn’t deny being a woman; even if I tried, people would still figure itout. And defending myself just made me seem … defensive. My gut and the signals I received fromothers cautioned me that arguing the issue would make me sound like a strident feminist. And I stilldid not want that. I also worried that pointing out the disadvantages women face in the workforcemight be misinterpreted as whining or asking for special treatment. So I ignored the comments. I putmy head down and worked hard.

Then, as the years ticked by, I started seeing female friends and colleagues drop out of theworkforce. Some left by choice. Others left out of frustration, pushed out the door by companies thatdid not allow flexibility and welcomed home by partners who weren’t doing their share of thehousework and child rearing. Others remained but scaled back their ambitions to meet outsizeddemands. I watched as the promise my generation had for female leadership dwindled. By the time Ihad been at Google for a few years, I realized that the problem wasn’t going away. So even though thethought still scared me, I decided it was time to stop putting my head down and to start speaking out.

Fortunately, I had company. In 2005, my colleagues Susan Wojcicki and Marissa Mayer and I allnoticed that the speakers who visited the Google campus were fascinating, notable, and almost alwaysmale. In response, we founded Women@Google and kicked off the new series with luminaries GloriaSteinem and Jane Fonda, who were launching the Women’s Media Center. As a former aerobicsinstructor, I was excited to meet Jane Fonda—and sucked in my stomach the whole time. From what Iknew about the women’s rights movement, I expected Gloria Steinem to be formidable and brilliant,which she was. But she was also charming and funny and warm—the absolute opposite of my childishimage of the humorless feminist.

After the Women@Google event, Gloria invited me to speak at the Women’s Media Center in NewYork. I said yes without hesitating. The day before the talk, I headed to the airport with Kim MaloneScott, who ran the Google publishing teams. Kim is an experienced writer, so I figured she would helpme craft a speech during the long flight. By the time I got through all of my backlogged e-mails, it wasalmost midnight. I turned to Kim for help and saw that she had fallen asleep. Long before Facebookmade it popular, I thought about giving her a poke. But I couldn’t bear to wake her up. Staring at theblank computer screen, I was at a complete loss. I had never spoken about being a woman in publicbefore. Not once. I had no talking points or notes to turn to. Then I realized how striking thiswas … and that I actually had quite a lot to say.

I began my talk the next day by explaining that in business we are taught to fit in, but that I wasstarting to think this might not be the right approach. I said out loud that there are differences betweenmen and women both in their behavior and in the way their behavior is perceived by others. I admittedthat I could see these dynamics playing out in the workforce, and that, in order to fix the problems, weneeded to be able to talk about gender without people thinking we were crying for help, asking forspecial treatment, or about to sue. A lot poured out of me that day. Then I returned to NorthernCalifornia and put the conversation on hold.

In the following four years, I gave two talks on women in the workplace, both behind closed doorsto professional women’s groups at nearby Stanford. Then one day, Pat Mitchell called to tell me thatshe was launching TEDWomen and invited me to speak on social media. I told her I had anothersubject in mind and started pulling together a talk on how women can succeed in the workforce (a talkthat TED later named “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”). Very quickly, I became excited.

And just as quickly, I learned that no one else shared my excitement. Friends and colleagues—bothmale and female—warned me that making this speech would harm my career by instantly typecastingme as a female COO and not a real business executive. In other words, I wouldn’t be blending in.

I worried they might be right. Speaking at TED would be different from my previous keynotes.

Although I would be addressing a sympathetic room, the talk would be posted on the web, whereanyone could watch, and judge, and criticize.

Inside Facebook, few people noticed my TEDTalk, and those who did responded positively. Butoutside of Facebook, the criticism started to roll in. One of my colleagues from Treasury called to saythat “others”—not him, of course—were wondering why I gave more speeches on women’s issuesthan on Facebook. I had been at the company for two and a half years and given countless speeches onrebuilding marketing around the social graph and exactly one speech on gender. Someone else askedme, “So is this your thing now?”

At the time, I didn’t know how to respond. Now I would say yes. I made this my “thing” becausewe need to disrupt the status quo. Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations ofwomen who entered corporate America could do; in some cases, it might still be the safest path. Butthis strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead, we need to speak out, identify thebarriers that are holding women back, and find solutions.

The response to my TEDTalk showed me that addressing these issues openly can make a difference.

Women forwarded the video to their friends, colleagues, daughters, and sisters. I began receiving e-mails and letters from women all over the world who wanted to share their stories of how they gainedthe courage to reach for more opportunities, sit at more tables, and believe more in themselves.

One of my favorite letters came from Sabeen Virani, a consultant in Dubai and the only woman inan office of more than three hundred employees. She responded to my story about the executive whocould not point me to the women’s bathroom because, as she explained, in her workplace, thewomen’s bathroom did not even exist. Sabeen described how during her first week on the project, theclient took her team out to dinner, but she couldn’t join because the restaurant didn’t allow women.

Talk about not sitting at the table—she couldn’t even get into the restaurant! Some of the men wereopenly hostile to Sabeen. Others just ignored her. But rather than give up and transfer to a friendlieroffice, she decided that she could demonstrate to everyone that women are competent professionals. Inthe end, she won her coworkers over and the client converted a bathroom into a women’s bathroomjust for her. She sent me a photo of her standing in front of a door with a printed sign that read simplyand powerfully “Toilets for women only.”

It was also enormously gratifying that men reacted positively to the talk too. Dr. John Probasco ofthe Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told me that my story about women being morereluctant than men to raise their hands rang true for him so he decided to do away with the old hand-raising system during rounds. Instead, he started calling on male and female students evenly. Hequickly realized that the women knew the answers just as well—or even better—than the men. In oneday he increased female participation. By making one small change to his behavior, he changed amuch larger dynamic.

Major changes can result from these kinds of “nudge techniques,” small interventions thatencourage people to behave in slightly different ways at critical moments.

The simple act of talkingopenly about behavioral patterns makes the subconscious conscious. For example, Google has anunusual system where engineers nominate themselves for promotions, and the company found thatmen nominated themselves more quickly than women. The Google management team shared this dataopenly with the female employees, and women’s self-nomination rates rose significantly, reachingroughly the same rates as men’s.

All the feedback from TED convinced me that I should keep speaking up and encouraging others todo the same. It is essential to breaking the logjam. Talking can transform minds, which can transformbehaviors, which can transform institutions.

I know it isn’t easy. Anyone who brings up gender in the workplace is wading into deep and muddywaters. The subject itself presents a paradox, forcing us to acknowledge differences while trying toachieve the goal of being treated the same. Women, especially those at junior levels, worry that raisinggender issues makes them appear unprofessional or as if they are blaming others. I have listened towomen vent frustration over being undervalued and even demeaned on a daily basis at work. When Iask if they have aired any of these complaints to their superiors, they’ve responded, “Oh no! Icouldn’t.” There is so much fear that speaking up will make the situation worse or even result in beingpenalized or fired. It seems safer to bear the injustice.

For men, raising this subject can be even harder. A male friend who runs a large organization onceconfided in me, “It’s easier to talk about your sex life in public than to talk about gender.” The factthat he wouldn’t go on record with this quote shows he meant it. Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone,told me that he showed my TEDTalk to his senior management team because he shares my belief thatwomen sometimes hold themselves back. He also believed this message was easier to hear from awoman than a man. His point is valid. If a man had delivered the same message or even gently pointedout that women might be taking actions that limited their options, he would have been pilloried.

Shutting down discussion is self-defeating and impedes progress. We need to talk and listen anddebate and refute and instruct and learn and evolve. And since the majority of managers are men, weneed them to feel comfortable addressing these issues directly with female employees. When a womansits on the side of a room, a man needs to be able to wave her over to the table and explain why so shewill know to sit at the table the next time.

Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, is a leader on this front. Ken openly ack............
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