Oh, The Things I See…

In a Q&A session after a keynote presentation earlier this month, I was asked about my personal discoveries related to gender inequity.  Off the top of my head, I could not formulate a list.  It did not take long to do so afterwards.  In no particular order, here are 12 of my discoveries:

  1. In a business meeting, the best ideas are not necessarily chosen. The most powerful person’s ideas are chosen.

When you are in a business meeting, a female quickly realizes the best ideas are not necessarily chosen.  The most powerful person’s ideas are chosen.  When you are the most powerful person in the room, it is easy to assume your ideas are the best ideas.  Most people are not inclined to challenge you, and your ideas prevail.  If you are an older woman, your ideas will rarely be seen as the best ideas.

  1. I am judged on my most recent performance, not on the aggregate of my past performances. I am always proving myself anew.

I have over 40 years of non-profit experience.  I have been a chief development officer, a president, a CEO/Chairman and a non-executive chairman.  Nowadays, most of that knowledge is not acknowledged, nor is it sought after. I understand this may be more complicated than gender inequity.  It may be because my body of work as a male is generally unknown. Nevertheless, even when only taking into account my work as a female, I find I am judged on my most recent performance, not on the aggregate of my past performances.  I am always proving myself.

  1. My age used to give me an edge. My age now costs me my edge.

When I was an older white male with salt and pepper hair, my presence in a room gave me a gravitas I did not fully recognize.  People assumed I knew what I was talking about.  Now, as an older woman, my age puts me at a deficit, time and again.  It is important to note, however, that I do not experience that in primarily female environments.

  1. In settings dominated by males, I am discouraged from thinking out loud. Speaking up is affirmed only if my thoughts are withheld until I can speak them clearly and concisely. 

As a male of some standing, a room tended to become quiet when I began to speak, and remained quiet until I was done speaking, even if it took me a while to find the right words.  As a woman, I am expected to speak only when my thoughts are well formed and concise. I also am interrupted and talked over twice as often as I was as a male.

  1. I am judged on my looks, and more so by women than by men.

I rarely thought about what I was going to wear when I was a male.  Now it is always on my mind.  Back when I was still looking at comments about my TEDxMileHigh talk, I noticed that about 15 percent of the comments were about my looks. When I compared that with two men and another woman who spoke at the same event, there were absolutely no comments about the men’s looks, and 15 percent of the comments about the other female speaker were about her looks.

  1. As a female, women see me as a threat more often than I ever experienced from other males when I was a male.

This is a puzzle to me.  It may be because most corporate systems are patriarchal.  They do not include many women at the top leadership levels.  (Only 22 percent of Fortune 500 vice-presidents are women, and only 4.8 percent of CEOs are women.) Therefore when women do find a place at the leadership table, they are less inclined to empower other women who come along behind them.

  1. A lot of my time is spent listening to men explain things that I know far better than the man doing the explaining.

Men assume I am less knowledgeable than they are on virtually every subject.  However, if I point that out, I am seen as too aggressive.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a mechanic at a bike shop, or a gate agent at an airport, or the CEO of a non-profit half the size of the one I used to direct.  I am constantly talked over and talked down to.  Mansplaining is a real thing.

  1. I receive fewer work-related compliments than I received when I was a male.

I imagine this has as much to do with positional power as it does with my gender.  But I always received a steady stream of verbal compliments about my work as a male.  As a female I am complimented about 60 or 70 percent as often.  Interestingly, I notice that to be true with my preaching more than in any other setting.  I find that fascinating, since I am pretty sure my preaching as a female is stronger than it ever was as a male.

  1. Regardless of the social setting, I am apparently invisible.

I cannot count the number of times a female flight attendant in first class has leaned over me to refill the glass of the male sitting in the window seat, while ignoring my empty glass.  This does not happen with male flight attendants. Thank God free upgrades are based on miles flown, not gender.  If gender was a factor, I’d never be in first class.  ( I know.  First world problems.)

  1. If I am seen as too feminine, I am ignored. If I am seen as too masculine, I am too aggressive, or I am seen as a transgender woman who “is really a man.”

Until I suggested they stop, some friends would ask, “Was that Paula who showed up at that meeting or Paul?”  I told them that being forceful did not mean I was reverting to my life as a male.  It meant I felt passionately about the subject.

  1. Women with whom I work who do not lead in a typically male manner are ignored in meetings dominated by men.

Brilliant ideas that have been collaboratively created by women working together are not considered unless I use my alpha leadership abilities to champion the cause of the women who are the geniuses behind the ideas.  Otherwise, the ideas of those women never find a hearing.  It makes me wonder how often that happened in my past life, when I did not have eyes to see the non-alpha women in the room.

  1. Sometimes I don’t get the contract, not because I am a female, but because I am transgender.

The most surprising aspect of this observation is the places in which it happens.  I know radical feminists are sometimes resentful of transgender women.  They feel we are just one more example of males usurping power.  But I did not expect to find it in other typically liberal settings. Liberals want everyone to know they are supportive of transgender people, but I believe there is an implicit bias that causes them to see us as less qualified than others.  If I listed these 12 items based on how often they are experienced, I am afraid this would be listed first.

It only took me a couple hours to come up with these 12 observations.  I stopped at 12, but I could have kept going…