By Lisa Suennen
First Posted at Venture Valkyrie on 8/18/2013
Note: this post was written in support of XX in Health Week
Most of the time I don’t even notice it, the dearth of female engagement in the work place. Most weeks it’s the usual ratio of 80-85% men to 15-20% women and, like the white noise of working near a busy road, you just get used to it. You forget to notice that you have to turn the volume up to hear and make grander gestures to be heard over the noise. You just get used to it. You might even smirk to yourself when there is no line for the women’s restroom and think to yourself, “well, at least this is a plus” as you stand at the sink alone or next to the other lone female at a meeting.
But sometimes that white noise is not so easy to ignore. In fact, for me, a few weeks ago it was deafening.
Composition of typical board meeting
I happened to have an unusual week where I had not one, not two, but three separate company board meetings to attend in one week. Spanning the country from San Diego to Fremont to Boston, I attended three such meetings as the only female representative on each of these boards. I have been on each of these boards a long time, but never attended all three in one week, and the abundance of blue shirts and khakis was notable because of the concentration bias. I mean, I see these guys all the time and usually I don’t notice that I’m the only one putting on lipstick (at least in public); but seeing them all in a row together was a little like accidentally finding yourself at Bohemian Grove without the right equipment.
Shake shake shake
But what made the white noise particularly deafening last week was the part where it turned kind of black. In one of the board meetings we were interviewing financial advisers. Four different sets of would-be advisers trooped through, sporting teams of 3-5 each, every single one of them men. As each of the foot soldiers marched in, there was the usual round robin of handshaking all around, everyone reaching for everyone’s hand like when everyone is stretching to clink everyone else’s glass after a Thanskgiving Dinner toast. There were finance guys everywhere hurling arms across tables with hands outstretched as if it would be bad luck to miss an opportunity to connect.
During the ritual handshaking do-si-do, one of the guys invited to present his firm was seeking to make eye contact with each of the board members one-by-one in order to shake their hands. It was a crowded room and he had to separate the male board members from the male management team members in the room and he was doing just fine. And then he got to me. He looked right at me then right past me in one motion, dragging his shaking hand behind him and mentally assuming, I can only imagine, that as the only female in the room I was there to refill the men’s coffee. There it was: the sound of one hand not shaken.And then it happened.
The dude realized his serious party foul the minute I sat down at the grown-up table. You could see in his now greenish face that he was thinking, “Doh! Should have shaken the girl hand–oh crap!” I’m pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, and it was, “Don’t bother giving your presentation because I wouldn’t want you representing this company in public.”
It is moments like these that I realize that women still have a long way to go to be treated as equals in the workplace. Not everywhere, mind you; there is progress here and there and it was recently pointed out to me by a male colleague that there are now three female members of the Supreme Court. But that’s politics and the voters are 50% women, so it is easy to be somewhat cynical about that example.
In business it is not a voting democracy and thus few females make it all the way to the top. In this day and age why are we so thrilled that 46 of Fortune 1000 CEOs are women when it should be closer to 500 just based on the relative representation of gender in the population? In healthcare powerhouse companies the female CEOs are few and far between. In venture-backed start-ups it is equally bad.
With respect to boards of directors, the lack of women is so notable that the European Union is in the process of passing laws requiring that women hold 40% of non-management board seats at large companies by the year 2020. Laws. Because left to their own devices companies just don’t make it happen. And that is pretty darn lame since there has been a wealth of research showing that. a) companies with women board members financially outperform those that don’t; b) women control most purchasing decisions in a home and thus generally represent a disproportionate share of most companies’ customer base; and, c) men can’t even get born without women being involved. So enough already.
Of course, in the US we aren’t passing or even considering any such laws. As such, a recent Ernst and Young report tells us:
- In 2006, only 14% of the more than 5,000 corporate board seats for S&P 500 companies were occupied by women. Six years later, the number has moved marginally to 17%.
- The percentage of S&P 500 companies with at least one female director is just over 90%, yet 10% of these companies still do not have women directors and 28% have just one.
- Women hold only 14% to 16% of the seats on audit, compensation and nominating committees. Even fewer women chair the board or audit committee, serve as financial experts, and only 12% of compensation committees have a female chair.
A typical Fortune 1000 board, in this case Valero
You know what particularly bugs me about this report. The headline of it is “Women are joining corporate boards at an increasing rate.” It should be called, “What the hell is wrong with you people? Get on with it already!” It should start by saying that women are vastly underrepresented on boards and make up more than 50% of the US adult population, but hey, who’s counting? It is nice to applaud how most big company boards have one female, but since most of these boards have 7-9 people on them, that is not so hot. The rounding error would take you to zero, not 50%.
So back to Mr. Handshake. How, in this day and age, do we end up with these outcomes again and again? I have frequently heard my male colleagues say women have it much better than they used to, as if that’s good enough, and that, in healthcare in particular, the numbers get skewed because women don’t pursue math and science careers. Um, no. I don’t accept this. Maybe they just don’t know those women, so maybe Mitt Romney can loan them a few of his unused binders. Or I will open up my Outlook account and share the bounty of amazing science- and tech-savvy women I know if the NSA hasn’t already done it for me. One thing I can tell you is that there are plenty of seriously accomplished well-educated and experienced women to go around and who would be happy to fill the roles in question.
Unfortunately our business society just hasn’t quite gotten the message in full yet, although some are earnestly trying. Yet as women we still see little signs all around us of the subtle differences in how women are viewed, and particularly so in the worlds of science, math and medicine. We start programming our boys and girls early to take their rightful places, as evidenced by the recent egregious faux pas by The Children’s Place, a massive retailer of children’s clothes that tried to sell little girls this lovely shirt:
The Children’s Place, unless you are a female child
A few months ago I wrote about a recently released video game called City Girl, published by Disney (where freaking Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame is on the damn board, no less), which is every business or science-minded girl’s nightmare, dooming them to a life of make-up, fashion and “light meals.” Not that there is anything wrong with those things, but most women don’t want to be defined by them. Many of us would like to be defined by our meaningful contributions to science, healthcare, business, etc, even if we are wearing nice shoes while doing so. I can tell you one thing: we sure as hell won’t be wearing one of those shirts if you reach out to shake our hands.