Where did all the cowgirls go?

I recently read a blog post by Clay Shirky about the difference between how women talk about their own abilities versus men. He wishes that more women would stand up and exert their influence because women are just as talented, smart and capable as their more effusive male colleagues. I wish for this, too.

In fact, many other women wish for this as well. COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has given many a talk aimed at women. She says that women should take a seat at the table and not count themselves out by default because they want to have a family. Sheryl is living proof that it is possible to maintain a family and still be successful; and she acknowledges the challenges that come with that.

However, she also touches upon the big elephant in the room that many who talk about the disparities between men and women fail to acknowledge. A man who goes for the gold is assertive. A woman who does the same is off-putting at best, and at worst simply labeled a “bitch.” Often when I say this, people roll their eyes; Sheryl present a famous Harvard Business school study that proves this is not simply “women getting easily offended” or “being emotional” (which, by the way, is another topic for another day).

It’s an issue that permeates regardless of industry. In politics, Hilary Clinton was often given that label. Her wardrobe of pants suits and “attack dog” stance during her campaign gave her a harsh exterior in the public eye to both women and men. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live commented on the whole thing and turned it into a positive with the saying “Bitches get shit done.”

I love that sketch because I sympathize. I am good at my job. I get things done. If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t now be earning nearly triple what I was offered upon graduation in 2006 (in a “bad economy”, to boot!). However, as a result of my focus on process, keeping on schedule, and GSD (getting shit done), I am sure that there are many colleagues, past and present, who think I’m a bitch. In fact, I can name them (and there are, unfortunately, women among them).

And the truth of the matter is, I’m not a difficult person to work with. Despite going to school for Computer Science, I’m self-taught at a lot of things, lousy at some others and definitely still have quite a bit to learn. This invigorates me to learn more but also terrifies me at the same time; being in technology, I sometimes feel the need to know everything and be on the cutting edge. This isn’t necessarily true, but motivates me to keep on my toes and at the very least stay relevant in a few things (and, given current trends, looks like my decision not to dive head first into Flash development wasn’t so bad after all).

But the point of writing this wasn’t to brag about myself. The point is that yes, women need to step up to the plate more to brag and take credit — myself included. Often times, we shy away or defer to others when we know what the right answer is. This is a problem of self-doubt and wavering self-esteem that perhaps everyone has at times but tends to be more evident among women. However, the flip side of that is let’s call a spade a spade. When a woman steps up, do we encourage it? Or do we add to this doubt — do we doubt her abilities because of predisposed notions?

A lot of people don’t like to hear the “as a woman, it’s hard out there…” speech, but it is. I can only speak from personal experience here so I will tell a short story that I think illustrates the point. I remember looking for internships while I was in college. I didn’t have a ton of relevant experience but I had done freelance web design/development for some local bands while in high school and could show some of that work if necessary. In addition, my part-time work study job was helping out at a public school in Brooklyn where I become the defacto computer expert as I refurbished and networked together old Macs and Windows PCs that were previously merely taking up space in the back of the fourth grade classroom. So, while I didn’t have a lot of experience on paper, I felt pretty confident I could land a crappy internship at a record label for $8 per hour (and most likely consist of lame administrative work).

I went to the interview in midtown Manhattan. The office building was not glamorous (this was a small, indie label that worked on re-releases of older records) and the office itself was pretty rundown. I was introduced to several men in the office. They were all men. I made a note of the fact that I did not see a single woman in their office. I spoke with the man who interviewed me and explained my skills and background. He nodded and didn’t seem impressed; I was unable to really tell if he was unimpressed or if it was just a really good poker face. After I finished my talk, he asked me if I would be willing to take a typing test.

“A typing test?” I responded.

He said, “Yeah, we hired a girl before that couldn’t type so we just want to make sure whoever we hire can type.”

I made a mental note of the fact that he said they hired a “girl” before. I put two and two together but typed out a stupid sentence from the cover of an LP anyway. When I left the interview, I knew, without a doubt, that I would not be offered the position because I was a woman.

Since then, I’ve seen the “boys clubs” at certain offices. I’ve seen the quizzical looks or passive aggressive emails when I’ve (correctly, I might add) critiqued a colleague’s work. Today, in fact, I received an email that did just that. I don’t think the email would have been as questioning if I were a male colleague. Perhaps I’m thinking into this too much, but perhaps I’m not.

Before I am crucified, I have to say that the majority of the men I have worked with have not been like this. The majority have been great and accepting of a lady on their team. To my credit, I like sports which greatly improves my ability to relate. My personal theory (because I took Psychology 101 does not mean this is truth so please take it with a grain of salt) is that the gender roles we grow up with have a great bearing on how we interact with folks of the opposite sex. As soon as you take a car out of a girl’s hand and put it in a boy’s hand, you’ve implicitly created an impact on the capabilities of each.

While that may be hard to break, it certainly is not impossible to educate better on the implicit sexism that comes across more often than we care to admit in our interactions at work. However, this means that leveling the playing field is not so simple. Per Clay Shirky’s post, this is also a rant with no immediate answer. My hope is I’ve illuminated some issues that can start discussions in favor of a positive, more inclusive future.