In the last year, I’ve thought more about sexism than I have in most of my life. I think there are three main reasons why.
The first is I’m nearing 40. When you are young, you feel invincible. Each slight or setback only makes you stronger, giving you something more to prove to the world in general, or to some sexist asshole in particular. But when you get older– or at least, as I’ve gotten older– you get tired and weary of dealing with the same old bullshit over and over. As more women are starting, or leading, tech companies, the “same old bullshit” problem seems to be getting worse not better. I can only imagine how sick of it all Marissa Mayer is. I’m surprised she opens her mouth to give an interview anymore.
The second reason is more personal: I’ve experienced some particularly outrageous examples of blatant sexism in the last year that have just left me stunned. I’m not just talking about the feeling of getting hazed in the press or the constant barrage of sexual comments (and threats) on social media or being underestimated by men in the industry or any of the usual implicit bias women live with everyday. I mean, actual real world sexism that I thought had died out with the Mad Men era: Being told “you better watch yourself” during a business meeting, or reminded aggressively that men don’t like women with a “mouth” on them.
I don’t openly talk about these things, because I don’t think we have a good way to do so as a culture. Some people are so quick to cry “sexism” (sometimes seemingly for no reason other than page views) that we’ve become jaded and even legitimate beefs get eyerolls. “Oh, she played the woman card…” It’s often easier to roll with the punches if you want to build a career as anything other than “the woman in the room.”
The third reason is because my daughter recently turned one year old, and I’m thinking a lot about how I can best prepare her for this world.
My older child is a rambunctious boy and I was hoping my daughter, Evie, would love to sit and color and give this tired working mom a break. Not a chance. Evie is more exhausting in many ways. If she wants her chair to be in the middle of the room, she’ll move it there no matter how many times you move it back. She won’t scream until you do it for her; she’ll do it herself. Over and over again. We were out at dinner the other night and a drunk guy knocked her highchair and didn’t apologize. Evie continued eating her box of raisins but glared at the guy as she did — literally not breaking her gaze for almost two minutes. She may only be twelve months old, but she knows when she’s owed an apology. As Paul Carr put it, imagining her internal monologue: “I came here to kick ass and eat raisins. And I’m all out of raisins.”
It’s not that Evie is bratty. It’s certainly not that she’s bossy. It’s that she’s determined. She is laser focused. She seizes on something and won’t relent until she has it. It exhausts my husband. “Ehhhhhh- viiiee!” He exclaims throwing his head back in exasperation when she lasers in on something.
My reaction is somewhat different: I fucking love it. “Good for you, baby,” I say. “You are going to need every ounce of that attitude as a woman in this world.” Is it a double standard from parenting my son, who I encourage to let go of things he’s fixated on? Yep. It is. But this isn’t an equal world they live in.
It was in this frame of mind that I read the excellent Politico profile on Jill Abramson, the former New York Times editor who insists on calling her departure what it was: Fired. Fired for a double standard.
A few passages deeply resonated with me, not because they were earth-shattering, but because they just summed up the everyday of being a woman in a male dominated industry:
As for getting fired from a newspaper that has tolerated men with far more prickly demeanors, “It’s a double standard,” she says unflinchingly. But Abramson is not feeling sorry for herself. If anything, she’s reveling in the chance to inspire other women to take on their own battles.
And this reminds me of pretty much every successful woman I’ve ever known in the tech world:
With all the attention on how “tough” she is, what’s lost in the reporting is how often Abramson has been under attack. If she’s abrasive, maybe it’s because she’s had to be.
I went through this one early in my career, particularly growing up as a “polite” Southern girl:
“It seemed daring to me to go up to people I didn’t know and get in their face and start asking questions,” she remembers. “I’d have to talk myself into doing it. But once you do, it quickly becomes second nature.”
And perhaps most of all this one as I think about my daughter…
Was her daring nature inborn or cultivated? As a child, Jill was not a natural athlete. She was a brainy kid who attended the Ethical Culture and Fieldston School, an elite set of private academies in the Upper West Side and the Bronx, and read the New York Times each day before class. Her father liked nothing better, on summer evenings after work, than to take his little daughter to Central Park with a bat and a softball.
“Keep your eye on the ball!” he’d say. “And hit hard.” These were the most useful life lessons a future editor could have had.
And this one we can pretty much all learn from…
“If you are fired—and lots of people are being fired these days—show what you are made of.”
What I love about Abramson’s handling of this whole affair is that she’s controlled the media cycle, she’s named it, she’s owned it, but she doesn’t make herself a victim. She knows she lives in a sexist world and that makes her victories– and even her defeats– that much sweeter. This is how we should talk about women in the world world. Not stupid debates about having it all. Taking the world as it exists, naming it, shrugging, and continuing to fight.
The great thing about building your own company is that only a board can fire you. I’ve long argued that entrepreneurship should be inherently less sexist than other industries, because it’s not something someone hands you, it’s something you take. Whether you are female, an immigrant, uneducated or you are the richest, most privileged while male, building a company is a brutal fight every day. Those of us who are born fighting are only that much more prepared.
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