For most of my career, it seemed like a given that I’d be working among groups of men. After all, graduating with a computer science degree from Berkeley in the 1980s, and then pursuing a career in business software, pretty much guaranteed this fate. And while I didn’t necessarily prefer working in workplaces with lopsided gender tallies, I was often able to manage the situation to my advantage. As the only “girl” in the room, I could command attention and disarm potentially hostile colleagues simply by opening my mouth and being different.
In the decades after entering the workforce, I was heads down launching and building companies and solving complex technical problems. I came to think of women who stepped out of the workforce to raise children, care for aging parents or simply pursue their personal dreams as choosing their own fate. Admittedly, I didn’t do much to question or change the status quo either.
I came by my attitudes honestly. As the only child of immigrant Jewish parents from Ukraine, I was raised on a gender-neutral diet of hockey games, chess club and math olympiad matches. Athletic and academically capable, I came to think that world was mine to conquer. While I had my brushes with discrimination, my personality led me to shut out naysayers and focus inwardly.
Lately, however, I’ve begun reexamining the facts, and my views. In technical fields in the U.S., where women are vastly underrepresented, there have been some well-documented examples of discrimination and bad behavior. There have been more concerted efforts to get girls and women to pursue math and science – and stick with it – such as those at Harvey Mudd College under President Maria Klawe. There’s also been a lot of research showing that girls are guided to non-technical fields by teachers and parents from early childhood. And there’s been a general acknowledgement that workplace culture needs to be inviting and attractive to women to get more of them to stay. Research shows that having critical mass of women in a field is important to participation.
Even some of the most unlikely of men have begun questioning the workplace cultures that tend to reinforce the male-heavy ranks of senior leadership. I was surprised recently to see Gerald Levin, the former CEO of Time Warner, taking up the cause for more women on corporate leadership teams in an interview with Charlie Rose on Bloomberg. Now a retiree into yoga and meditation, he said he has come to be in touch with his “feminine side.” He argued that men “can’t express their emotions,” and “the nurturing qualities of a woman are extremely beneficial in a corporate environment” (around minute-mark 7:45). Having more women on his leadership team “would have helped me,” he said.
Personally, I’ve begun to reflect on why I’ve been a survivor as a serial entrepreneur who is also a wife, mother and daughter when so many of my female colleagues have “dropped out” or “fell behind.” For one thing, my parents dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to my success by picking up child care responsibilities that I could not handle. In addition, I’m happily married to a man who, while he built a successful career on his own, has also been committed to lightening my domestic load – including shopping, cooking and raising children. I now realize these circumstances and relationships that have helped me achieve professional success are luxuries that not every woman can claim.
What I’ve learned is that succeeding at one thing most likely involves sacrificing something else. Recently, I had the chance to meet up with a group of women leaders from my company, RingCentral, for an informal lunch chat. They asked me about my professional trajectory, and we talked about ways to navigate challenges at work and in life. I shared that my biggest regret as a working mom is not spending enough time with my son when he was growing up. I outsourced a lot of his care to my parents, and then realized when he was in high school that he needed me more. In retrospect, I could have cut down on business dinners and tennis dates to spend more time at home.
Some 25+ years after being launched into a world where working women anthem movies like Nine to Five were popular, we are still grappling with how to welcome and cultivate truly diverse workforces. Meanwhile, women have figured out that some sacrifices are worth making.
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