Leaning In in the Real World: Women Leaders in Male Industries

This post continues our series on women in the workplace, following up on recent posts about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:

Many professions are male-dominated. This is one of the biggest obstacles to women becoming leaders in their fields; what’s worse, though, is that there is often little awareness that change is even necessary. This blog post about a sexism controversy at a recent tech conference put it this way, describing:

the simple truth that the technology industry, and the culture around it, has a serious, persistent problem with women. As Amanda Blum, a Portland-based technology consultant, put it in her post about the situation, “[Sexism] runs so deep and so organic to the industry that even men who would see it in other places don’t recognize it in our insulated world.”

Sandberg approaches entrenched sexism in two ways: by decrying biased people and institutions, and by pointing out that women can advocate for themselves more actively. On the latter side of the coin, game developer and blogger Courtney Stanton wrote a post in 2012 called “How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference.” Hitting the mark in the post’s title is sadly rare. Stanton says that finding female talent was easy, but convincing them to participate was more difficult:

When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything[.]”

That deference is one of Sandberg’s biggest targets.

A Tuesday post on DealBook examined Sandberg’s approach in relation to female finance executives; the women interviewed all succeeded by being bold and un-deferential, but today they wish they had done more to make other women feel comfortable. The female executives had much to overcome on their own, however; one describes being the first woman with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange—before the exchange had female bathrooms.

The fact is, gender discrimination is still pervasive—in obvious forms, like the pay gap, and in a host of more subtle barriers, like social and cultural forces encouraging women to be passive.

The DealBook article contains a very telling quote from Irene Dorner, the CEO of HSBC USA: “Women do funny things. They do things like work very hard and expect to be noticed for it — and they’re not, because it doesn’t work like that.”

What is called the American meritocracy is not meritocratic. To get ahead, certain behavior is expedient—like calling attention to one’s own success. Socially, women who act that way are punished. In this way, the deck is stacked against ambitious female professionals in ways that are difficult to detect, legally.

The Harman Firm welcomes questions about gender discrimination and employment law generally. Contact us today.