Last week, I watched the first fifteen minutes of the Republican presidential “debate.” That’s all I could stand, those ten men up there delivering their carefully rehearsed sound bites. And the rich white guy with the comb-over playing to the cheering, jeering crowd with his outrageous pronouncements. The next morning, I attended a business breakfast in a place called Martin’s Valley Mansion. As I drove through the fully paved, suburban streetscape to a strip shopping center, I didn’t see a valley or a mansion.
In the vast windowless ballroom (walls faux-painted in Second Empire French drapery and fluted columns), about two hundred women drank coffee and networked. This yearly celebration of women in business sponsored by the local business newspaper is always well attended. This year’s panelists were leaders in the tech industry, giving intelligent advice about how to get ahead and thrive in a world dominated by men. They spoke frankly in answer to such questions as, How do we make this issue of more women in tech into more than a “women’s issue”? No one remarked on the irony of that question in a gathering of over 200 women and about 10 of their male colleagues.
This is the world we inhabit, we modern women. We drive alone to ersatz mansions to attend breakfast meetings to take stock of the inroads we are making into the rules, environments, economics and businesses of men, who are not in attendance. Their rules have been designed out of a story of their superiority to everything outside of themselves: the “raw materials” of nature, the less educated, and women. Women have been using that same story to measure our own progress since the days of “women’s lib,” trying various tactics out of the playbook, and sometimes venturing away into different territory. Always, the male center of gravity draws us back, like a giant magnet.
At this particular breakfast, I saw women dressed up, many in very high heels and flattering dresses, short enough to show off well-exercised legs. We do care about how we appear in public, we women. We put on our makeup and jewelry, our perfume and designer handbags. We know how to play the game. And we know that we will be judged first by our appearance, so better to get that over with by playing to the norms.
We sat for a catered breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns and the tiniest paper cup of “fresh” fruit, baked goods in baskets on every 10-seater round table. The panelists responded to well-crafted questions from the business journal’s reporter and editor, taking turns to answer from their obvious wealth of experience. These were successful, dedicated, smart women who work in intellectual property, technology transfer, entrepreneurial start-ups, I.T. consulting for huge federal agencies, and emerging markets like 3-D printing.
I was impressed with everything they said, even when it sounded straight from a business self-help book, because they spoke from the solid ground of experience and sincerity. There was the advice to do whatever it takes to be the best prepared one in the room—both as a strategy to manage the anxiety of being outnumbered and as a way to add real value to a meeting. On the subject of confidence, they all agreed that women should stop saying “I’m sorry” (we do it far more than men in business settings) and drop the word “just” from our vocabulary (which waters down and demotes whatever we say next).
The feistier panelist straight up cited the insidious cultural norms that work against women to maintain homogeneity, especially in the tech industry. Women and girls are told that we can be anyone, do anything we want, but when we get out in the work world to try, the barriers come up. She related the story of a recent tech conference she’d attended, where a group of young men pitched a project that was very demeaning to women, and it was greeted enthusiastically and given funding. We have such a long way to go still, all of us stuck in these old stories, women and men alike.
Even executive women juggle so many roles. Two of the panelists have young children; one remarked that her husband isn’t going to plan their 10-year-old’s birthday party. And everyone laughed at her joke that, when she worked on Wall Street, she and her husband really needed a wife to run their household. Another’s advice to develop networks and ask for help when you need it came from hard experience. I can relate; I had a partner and employees when my son was a toddler. It can be exhausting trying to keep so many dinner plates spinning. All it takes is one fever or one pissed-off client to bring on the sounds of breaking china. And that’s in a modern marriage with a fully-involved partner.
Women in business are masters at developing relationships with co-workers, mentors and bosses, prospects and customers. We don’t hesitate to get personal, to ask for three-minute life stories and to remember kids’ names the next time we see someone. At the end of the day, we understand that it’s all about these connections and networks. The panelists spoke of a real sense of continuity, too, between their mentors and the young women coming after them. One spoke of her responsibility to “represent,” to break ground and, if necessary, break rules.
This conversation was the polar opposite to the circus of the previous evening’s Republican debate. These women spoke honestly out of their experiences, from a sincere intent to help the next generation, and a real sense of connection to the people they work with day to day. They recognize our differences from men as strengths, even when sourced in vulnerability. I am more emotional than the men I employ. That’s who I am and I don’t apologize for it. We have different psyches than men. Women are awesome!
Overall, it was a rousing conversation that left most of the reporter’s well-crafted questions unanswered. It was a good reminder that this threshold time between cultural stories produces more questions than answers. The very question, How do we make this issue of more women in tech into more than a “women’s issue”? spawns another question: Why is a gathering of women in business attended only by women? Where were the men?