Leadership

Female tech CEO on sexist Google memo: It's time to push back and say 'no'

Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software
Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software

Once again I find myself shaking my head, amazed that in 2017 we still have to explain to men that women can actually be great engineers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, presidents, CEOs, and the list goes on.

Once again someone — in this particular case a young man, former Google engineer James Damore — felt like he could classify all women into a series of feminine traits that proved that they could not possibly be as good as men at developing products for Google.

Before I go much further, let's just state for the record the "personality differences" he claims make women not as good or as valuable to Google in engineering positions:

  • "Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas."
  • "Women also generally have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing)."
  • "Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness."
  • "Also higher agreeableness," resulting in "women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up and leading."
  • "Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs."
Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
Photo by Bloomberg
Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

I have heard this argument countless times. Ladies, "it's nature, not nurture." You can't do certain jobs because your femininity won't let you.

Kids start hearing it in the classroom in elementary school, and it never stops: "Joey didn't mean to hurt you, he was just being a boy." "Suzy, I know you would rather chit chat with your friends, but we need to focus on math right now, even if it is hard for you."

I don't doubt that Damore truly believes he supports diversity, and that he was only stating "the truth" that other people don't want to talk about. Researchers call this bias. In an article on PBS, Susan Fiske, a leading researcher on prejudice and stereotypes who teaches at Princeton University, spoke about the role bias played against Hillary Clinton, saying:

"Bias in general, whether it's directed at gender, race, or anything else, is more automatic than people think. And it's also more ambivalent than we realize. So that makes it harder to detect in ourselves."

Former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Getty Images
Former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Likely, Damore really truly thought his manifesto was a service to Google and to all employees. He probably really thinks that women are not (as an average) suited for many of the positions that Google is trying to hire them for.

He is not unique in this thought process. There are countless examples of high-profile people (mostly men) who genuinely think the same thing. Think about Michael Moritz from Sequoia Capital saying that he would hire more women, but he doesn't want to lower his standards.

We have even heard some of these ideas come from top women leaders, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Her book, "Lean In," advises women on how to be successful. "Lean in," she says. Just work harder, and remember to work within the corporate norms that exist today.

The advice she has for a woman negotiating salary? Embrace the feminine stereotype (regardless of whether it is your style or personality). In "Lean In," Sandberg references research by Hannah Riley Bowles, a public-policy lecturer who studies gender and negotiation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In order to be successful in negotiations, Bowles advises women to "come across as being nice, concerned about others and 'appropriately' female."

What's a girl to do? Even Sandberg wants us to suck it up and play the game. Her theory is that once we get enough women into leadership, then we can change the game. But I believe that all of us will be waiting for generations to come for equal pay and equal treatment in the workplace if we take this approach.

Because in playing the game, we let Damore, and people like him, be right. He sees women acting as if they have the personality traits he actually thinks we all have. And once a woman doesn't conform, well then she must be an outlier.

Think about all the criticism Hillary Clinton received because of personality "traits" that people couldn't wrap their heads around (i.e. they were not feminine enough). If she got mad and raised her voice, she was "shrill." If she played hardball, she was "mean" and "cold."

Research has shown that women who don't adhere to gender stereotypes, and don't behave the way the "average woman" is expected to behave, often face blowback. "People don't like to have their expectations violated," said Judi McLean Parks, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

"If you (as a woman) behave in a masculine manner, then in some way or another, I'm going to think less of you, find you less likable, and be less likely to hire you — all because you have violated the expectations of what a woman is supposed to be like."

Sheryl Sandberg speaks about overcoming grief and resilience at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.
Sheryl Sandberg speaks about overcoming grief and resilience at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.

So here we are in 2017. Still debating whether women have the "ability" due to their X chromosome to perform and bring the same value to a job like software developer or company leader.

Clearly we have a very big problem in America where the idea persists that women aren't built to succeed at certain jobs (and coincidentally most of those jobs pay more and have more power).

We still see girls shying away from math and science in middle school and high school. We still see company after company in Silicon Valley submit women to terribly hostile environments. We still see women "sucking it up," thinking they have to put up with this and just need to put their heads down and deal with it.

But I say no.

It's time for every single woman to denounce this line of thought. Push back. Be loud. Take our fair share now. Shout from the mountain tops to all the little girls. Rise up and support one another and make it known that we will not be marginalized because people think we can't be "masculine" enough.

We need more women to be whistleblowers like Susan Fowler. As she tweets, "The truth will always win."

We need to get to a place where EVERY SINGLE WOMAN who's being mistreated says no. Where every single woman at Google lets Damore know just how much he has misjudged the opposite sex.

We cannot let this bias, and the culture that we have lived with for hundreds of years, remain so pervasive. We must act and speak up. We must teach men (and women too) that women can do just as much — just in different ways.

We don't have to be men to succeed, nor do we have to bow out because we are women.

Sabrina Parsons is the CEO of Palo Alto Software.

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