That line was uttered by the14-year old genius Caroline in the 1977 Columbo episode Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder. Lt. Columbo had just told Caroline that she was not only the smartest young girl he had ever met, but she was pretty too. Caroline was the youngest member of the Sigma Society, a club for geniuses and she helped solve the murder. Of course, 1977 was the early days of “our” wave of feminism and those of us who were just barely adults then laughed at the irony of that line. We were two years past the International Women’s Year (1975) and we knew there was much work to be done but we were confident in our success.
Fast-forward forty years. Women serve as CEOs of some of the Fortune 500 companies. We’re doctors and lawyers and dock workers. We start law school and medical school in greater numbers than men and, in some industries, even pay parity is close to being achieved. What is left to complain about? Among some women even “feminism” is a dirty word, equivalent to man hating.
I didn’t start out writing this blog about women’s issues. In fact, in an early brainstorming session a male friend of mine gently suggested that by using “Crone” in the title I might limit my audience but I argued back vehemently, claiming that my female perspective was valuable for young, wannabe managers of both genders.
But as I started writing about management issues gender issues became more center stage. While we may have become doctors and lawyers and CEOs, we achieve those successes while getting more negative feedback during performance reviews or facing greater expectations about our appearance or staring down sexual harassment or innuendo in the workplace or myriad other daily indignities to which we’ve become inured.
Even the language we use about women is subtly demeaning and patronizing and it’s under the radar for most of us. Or, if it’s not under the radar, it’s explained away, as “That’s just the way guys are” or “Do you want to do away with all the wonderful differences between men and women?”
I don’t want to do away with the differences between men and woman. I want to examine how our unconscious, unexamined assumptions affect us as individuals and as managers.
On Saturday, June 10, 2017, The New York Times, my beloved former employer, profiled NBC News correspondent Katy Tur and the original headline read, “Katy Tur is Tougher Than She Looks.” Ugh! No one internal to the NYT caught how awful and sexist that was until there was an outcry on Twitter and then the headline was changed to” “Katy Tur’s Swift and Surprising Rise.” Twitter followers again complained that there was nothing surprising about her rise and finally the headline was changed to, “You Can’t Rattle Her: Katy Tur on the Rise.” No male journalist would be described in those original terms.
The New York Times has faced this type of criticism before, for example in the obituary of Yvonne Brill in 2013:
She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
Nothing short of outrageous!
But it happens every day. Today, as I write this essay David Bonderman, partner at the private equity firm TPG, resigned from the board of Uber, after he made a disparaging remark about women at a company meeting yesterday, June 13, 2017. The company meeting was called to discuss some of the problems identified with the company’s culture, including sexual harassment claims. The actual remark followed another Uber board member, Arianna Huffington citing studies that demonstrate having one woman on a board often leads to more women joining a board.
Bonderman replied, “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”
Clearly this man has never heard of “mansplaining.” All kidding aside, multiple studies demonstrate that men talk much more than women in meetings and men interrupt more. We don’t get his joke.
It happens again and again. We do it to ourselves too! It happens when we focus so much on how little girls look rather than how they think. It happens when we sit down with our girl friends and talk about needing to lose weight instead of our joys and dreams and accomplishments.
Societal expectations and subtle prejudices do not determine our direction or our success. But our companies need all hands on deck. We need to bring out the best in all of our people and our best doesn’t necessarily depend on a pretty face or a mean beef stroganoff.