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Not Another Hallmark Holiday:

She’s ‘Abrasive’; He’s ‘Forceful’ — Confronting Gender Bias and a Challenge to Action on International Women’s Day

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. It is not just another Hallmark card-inspired commemoration honoring our godparents, dogs, cats, cousins and anyone else that would generate business for florists and candy companies. International Women’s Day recognizes and celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is not identified with any particular country or political party, although it is a call to action to accelerate gender equality.

Most non-women or non-activists look at this holiday only in passing. I find it useful to view it in its personal (to me) context. After all, we do create and plan our desired futures against the backdrop of our pasts.

Looking back

When I started college, my family’s greatest hope for me was that I could someday be a secretary for a president of a company. Sure, that was only 45 years ago, but that gives you a perspective of what the landscape was for women entering the workforce.

I did well in college, majored in Economics (one of only a handful of women doing so), and applied for management training jobs with banks in major cities that had night law school and MBA programs. I was hired by the largest bank in Houston as one of three female management trainees out of a class of 50. We were paid less than men and our rotational assignments tended to be more administrative than credit underwriting. When I applied for a position in the bank’s national department I was turned down because the position would involve travel, and how could a woman travel with a man co-loan officer?

Once I was promoted to loan officer (one of the first with the bank) I had men customers who said “I refuse to ask a woman for money.” It seems almost laughable now, doesn’t it?

I was a loan officer by day and a law student at night, and then joined a law firm as the third woman attorney of a then 40-lawyer firm. After four years of practicing law, I entered the executive search realm joining behemoth Korn Ferry. At the time there were 200 male partners and two female partners.

Korn Ferry was no different than any other executive search firm. C-suite executives were men and gave search work to the men they hunted with, the men they’d served with in the military, and the men they knew. Their executive world had few women. I was once turned down for a search because I was not a member of the exclusive, all-male Jonathan Club in Los Angeles while my competitor was. Many times, in the early days, clients instructed us “we only want men for this role. Nothing against women, but they would not feel comfortable here.” Sometimes they were right, but mostly they were not.

And Here We Are Today

A lot has changed in the 40 years since I entered this endlessly challenging and fabulously fun industry, as it has in the business world generally. Women partners are common, though still not in the majority. A number of law firms and professional service firms have women chairs. Two women ran for President of the United States this election season. Thirty-seven of the Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, an increase from 24 in 2018. All of the Fortune 500 companies have at least one woman on their board, which happened for the first time last year.

But Still

As far as women have advanced, the numbers do not lie, and they are a worrying group of numbers. Although the number of woman CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has increased, the percentage of women in these roles still accounts for only 7 percent of the whole. Research has found that resumes from women or minorities do not get as positive a response as men’s resumes. Women in the United States still make only $0.79 for every dollar men make, and that does not include bonus compensation, which widens the gap. Most of the discrimination is subtle.

Women frequently are characterized as abrasive and ball-busters (even though it is sometimes meant as a compliment), but men are labeled as forceful leaders. Looking at our presidential race, Senator Amy Klobuchar was described as abusive to her staff while Joe Biden, who is known to have a temper, was described as a demanding boss. This comparison may not be identical, but the words struck me as gender-loaded.

Although not determinative, it is illustrative: the House of Representatives did not have a women’s restroom until 2011 even though there were 76 female representatives at the time.

On the worldwide stage, the news is even more disheartening, as the latest World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report now estimates it will take a staggering 257 years to close the gap on economic participation for women – compared to 202 years in last year’s report. Only 16 women lead the 243 countries of the world.

Moving to a Future of Gender Equality

There is much to be done, and I sometimes wonder if I am being unfair to the cause by being grateful that so much has changed for me in my lifetime, and for the most part I am not judged by my gender. And indeed, women executives younger than I are much more impatient and frustrated about the lack of gender parity. As one wise, rising young executive said, "You have to look at the issue individually, collectively and globally."

Too often, women executives have been assigned to a group or task force to improve gender equality, only to find it all women. Until men take ownership of the issue as well, we are spinning our wheels, they lament. They are disheartened over handling the majority of the childcare and household responsibilities while climbing the career ladder. Another common complaint is that grey-haired men with wrinkles are lauded as distinguished where women with grey hair and wrinkles feel pressure to look young and attractive.

However we look at the current state of affairs, women who have achieved any measure of gender equality must now help others and the cause. Men, you have a role, too. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Hiring, hiring, hiring. If your company engages a search firm, insist on a diverse candidate slate. Hire diversity search firms or firms with a record of identifying and recruiting diverse candidates. While quotas do not work, be willing to be less rigid about diversity candidates. If candidates apply for positions by resume, consider ways to make all resumes blind resumes.
  2. Mentorship. Evaluate your company’s turnover. Is it disparately women and minorities who are leaving? Why? Create mentorship programs that will provide opportunities for women and minorities to connect and seek advice from senior men and women with experience and knowledge.
  3. Sponsorship. Mentors advise; sponsors advocate—there is a need for both. As a senior leader (male or female) in your organization, identify a female rising star. Campaign for your protégé; use your organizational capital to push for visible, high-stakes assignments; provide support for risk-taking; and push for this person’s promotion.
  4. Maternity Policies. Put policies in place to help families—not just women—deal with childcare. What can be done to assure that you retain women managers without their falling off a career track?
  5. Educate. We all have an obligation to deal with our hidden biases. Yes, the ones where we call women “difficult” but men “forceful.” Women are women, not girls—a lesson many men and some women have yet to learn. It is especially painful to me to hear women refer to themselves in the workplace as girls. This is so disempowering. We all have these biases, and companies that develop ways to acknowledge their existence, and work through them will be leading the way to gender equality.

Everyone benefits from a more gender equal society. Let’s use International Women’s Day to forge new pathways through this challenge.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director