We’d arranged to meet in a dark bar in the middle of London to say our final goodbyes. I hadn’t seen him for weeks, maybe months. He looked great – younger, more vital, refreshed. I was a wreck. I still had no idea how I was going to live alone in a foreign country, carry on with my life and move forward, meet new people, make ends meet with no support from anyone. My friends and family were literally half a world away. After some heavy, painful silences and long stares out the window, I tried to find something prosaic, something normal to say, something that would move me beyond my devastation. I asked him what he was going to do for work when he settled back home (with his beautiful new lover). His answer was simple but changed my life. He said, without hesitation, “I don’t know – I don’t really care. You’re the one who’s so ambitious”.
Fact is, I’d never described myself that way, or really even knew what it meant. I worked hard at my job as a teacher, and talked about it way too much, but “ambitious” just seemed like such a foreign concept. Me? Ambitious? All I ever wanted was to change the lives of all my students by evangelizing the dark brilliance of Samuel Beckett. When I reflected on what he’d said, though, it absolutely changed my perspective on my own career. If I’m the one who’s so ambitious, I thought, then maybe I’d better hurry up and get successful. I quit my job as a teacher and started working at an investment bank (it was 1999 – they were hiring anyone with a pulse and no criminal record…it wasn’t hard to get hired).
Over the next 12 years, I threw myself in to my work as if it was my own new beautiful lover. The company wanted me to go to India for 3 months at a time and work (literally) out of tin shed? No problem. Wanted me to take phone calls at 3am, then put on 2 layers of eye shadow and a well-pressed suit and show up to the office 3 hours later? Of course! Work 14 hours, come home and then take more conference calls? You got it. I learned to love how to navigate the ins and outs of a big, complex, mutli-faceted, pressure-filled, high-performing, extremely demanding company. I have worked so many weekends it’s become ritual. I have lost friends due to all the cancelled dinners, lack of replies to emails, inability to be responsive to their calls for friendship. I confused being busy with being wanted. I derived all my meaning from my work.
But at some point in time, being a 24-hour-a-day-machine wasn’t enough – either for me, or for my employer. All of a sudden, I had to learn how to lobby, how to convince people of things I myself didn’t believe in. It wasn’t just about doing a lot of work anymore, it was about whom I worked with (and for), whom I schmoozed with, which cocktail events and dinners I went to, and how I interacted with all the big swinging dicks (not my term, read Liar’s Poker) on Wall Street. And that’s when I realized: I’m up against something far bigger than me, something no amount of homework could make me avoid: Gender Bias. Great. I never thought “it would happen to me”, but sooner or later we all get whacked on the head by it. It’s just not the same for an ambitious woman.
Gender bias is a big problem, especially in my industry. Big Fucking Banks (henceforth to be referred to as BFB’s, and yes that’s my own term) throw millions of dollars every year towards creating “programs for women leaders”, that basically, well, make sure women don’t throw up their hands after a few short years and say, “nope, just not worth it”. So now I’m part of developing a program just like this at my own BFB. Do I believe it’s going to “work”? Nope. You can’t change generational bias. But you sure can try.
So, as part of the new “Women’s Leadership Forum” that my BSB has created, we arranged a meeting where a small group of the top women leaders of the firm could get together and talk. We talked because apparently that’s what you need to do to change things. You need to talk. Nothing like having a 2 hour meeting with a bunch of women, sitting around a table, eating lunch and drinking iced tea, to reinforce stereotypes… you should have seen the glances we got from the men as they walked past the glass conference room walls.
But we did do our homework before this meeting, and planned to structure the conversation around this topic: “What are the barriers you face as you navigate the path to the C-Suite?” We looked at some compelling (but dated) research that told us that women are every bit as ambitious as men to get to the top (duh), but that we have a set of very unique circumstances that prevent us from getting there without a whole lotta struggle. And that’s where I was completely wrong about the usefulness of the discussion. That’s when the stories started to come out. It was riveting.
After the discussion, we had to find a way to conveniently narrow it down to three bullet points. So drumroll please, here are the three biggest barriers that women encounter in their climb to the top that men just don’t have to deal with. At least as described by me and some of my colleagues. What do you think?
1. Lack of access to networks. Sure, the old boys club a la “Mad Men” in the 50’s may be a thing of the past, but subtle things show up every day. I remember a senior managing director (a man) once said to me that he just “doesn’t feel comfortable asking a woman out to a business dinner”, and to a certain extent, he has a point. It’s just easier to grab dinner with Mike or James or Jonathan than have to deal with any weirdness of the “optics” of sitting across the table at a dimly lit restaurant from Jane or Mary or Wendy. And then there’s the issue of how the husbands of career women deal with this stuff. One time I’d arranged to have dinner with an older man, a professor of leadership at MIT, whose insights and professional connection would have greatly helped my “brand”. My husband had warned me that this man must’ve “had other intentions”, though. Given that a) my husband had never met the guy, b) my husband is, after all, a loving and protective husband; and c) in my belligerently idealistic mind this should absolutely not be “allowed” to be the case, I shrugged off his advice and went along for dinner. Sure enough, Dr MIT drank way too much and made an embarrassment of himself. I never talked to him again. As a result, I tend to be skeptical when a male colleague suggests dinner over lunch, or coffee, or just a plan old meeting. Sometimes I’m completely wrong, but I don’t like to tempt fate. Still, it does limit the number of dinners I get invited to. And that’s where the important conversations tend to happen.
2. Gender-based stereotypes. My first female boss told me once, “You have to decide which you want to be: The Mommy, The Bitch, or The Flirt.. because that’s how you’ll be labeled and it’s better to know it and have control over it before it controls you”. In my career I’ve been labeled 2 out of the 3, mostly behind my back but sometimes to my face. Being called a bitch is something that becomes oddly prosaic when you’ve lived in New York City for ten years. I got called it this morning at the post office, for example, when a young woman thought I’d cut in front of her in the line. Being called a flirt, though (or worse, a slut), is just plain hurtful. I have spent many, many years trying to navigate my way through the mislabeling that comes with being intellectually curious, open, friendly, and genuinely interested in others, but also being a woman. Strangely, many times it’s been another woman doing the labeling, which is even more hurtful. Why do we do this to each other?
3. Lack of female role models. And here’s where it gets interesting. Yeah, yeah, it’s a cliché and has been heard many times before: it’s lonely at the top. Especially for women. Especially in my industry. And the lonelier it gets, the lonelier it gets. So whom do we look up to, to help us define how we should behave? Hilary Clinton? She’s the one that comes to mind immediately for me (she’s resilient yet human; has dealt with a philandering husband and carried on to create her own brand and success; she travels all over the world, navigating sensitive political situations with grace and sensitivity even though she must be eternally exhausted from jetlag; and doesn’t get one iota of the attention and fanfare that her husband does. (side story: my dentist, who “does Chelsea’s teeth”, told me he ran in to them last summer at the Hamptons. He waxed lyrical about how great Bill looked, so young and energetic since losing all that weight, and then promptly added that his wife hadn’t fared so well, the ole lady, as he called her. I wanted to bite his hand.)) Or there’s Oprah. Christine Lagard. Indra Niri. Carly Fiorina (wash your mouth out!). The prime minister of Australia (whose name I can’t even remember). Our mothers and grandmothers. Not a huge bank to chose from. And I don’t know about you, but my grandmother’s best leadership ability was managing to convince everyone to eat meatloaf once a week. Hardly a commercial animal.
So all of this reflection on role models and stereotypes got me thinking… maybe I’m short-changing my compatriots. We here at Mother Sugar are a global and varied community, with exposure to political figures, cultural icons and other VIPs that may not have appeared on the front pages of each other’s papers. So, when you think about a “woman role model”, someone who defines leadership and being a woman, who comes to mind?