Emmy Inspired Thoughts on Sexual Discrimination

Reading and watching clips of the Emmys this year, reminded me of two conversations I had over the weekend. One was about discrimination. The other was on domestic violence.

It was while watching Elizabeth Moss, (who had just won the Outstanding Lead Actress award for her role in The Handmaid’s Tale), being interviewed backstage. Elizabeth described how, in relation to women in show business, “we have made incredible progress, obviously, but there is still a lot of work to be done“.

Indeed, in many ways, Hollywood does discriminate against women. Women are often paid less than men, and their earnings tend to drop off considerably as they age. Men on the other hand, continue to make money.


The clip reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend who owns his own business. Let’s call him Don. His practice, until lately, was made up mostly of women. That was before Don got upset about how bitchy the office had become.  (Apparently there were tears, fights, and arguments at the last Christmas party…).

Don’s other main concern is employing women who may end up taking maternity leave soon after joining. Recruitment is difficult, expensive and time consuming. Recruiting a good quality replacement on a temporary basis and keeping the role open is laborious. And then there’s the risk that the woman (now turned mother), wouldn’t come back at all. Or she may want to work part time, or need flexible hours. All things that cause Don headaches.

While recruiting, It got to the stage, where Don refused to look at, (let alone consider), a CV if it had a woman’s name on it. For any woman who made the cut, Don and his business partner would scour social media. Gathering information, looking for clues. If a woman eventually made it to interview,  a chunk of time would be spent desperately trying to figure out her age. Did she have children already? Did she want children? Was she in a committed relationship, or getting married? Was she basically showing any sign of potentially having children in the future….

Score positively on any of those counts, and if the woman was up against a man with similar credentials, the role would automatically go to him. The same questions were never asked of men. Being or wanting to be a father, (even with shared maternity leave now possible), doesn’t carry the same baggage.

Of course, how you ascertain whether a women is going to have a child in the next 5+ years is beyond me. Conceiving a child for many people is tough. People change their minds, and the process can take years. Not every woman wants children either.

I appreciated Don’s honesty, although since he also has a daughter, he should really know better.

Alas, I suspect that lots of employers struggle with the same issues and are no doubt omitting amazing female candidates as a result.

My Experience

At the beginning of my own career, I remember being interviewed by a lot of men, (small media/corporate private practice firms), and being asked about my relationship and plans for the future. I was asked whether I had a boyfriend, how long had we been together? Was marriage on the cards? Where we renting or planning on buying a family home etc.

If those questions came up now, I’d quite happily call them out on it. Back then, I was naive and lacked interview practice. I’m ashamed to say that I answered all those question as honestly as I could….

I also found it harder to network as a woman. I have countless stories from friends who have been propositioned over business dinners and drinks. It seems that many men are quick to interpret any friendly conversation as a come on. Whether either of them are married, or in a serious relationship, doesn’t make a difference, (not that being single makes it okay).

I remember as a newly qualified, being under a lot of pressure to bring in clients. It’s hard to find a CEO who wants to trust you with their IPO when you’re 24 with only a few months experience. I wasn’t very successful. Unless you already have an array of business owning friends or family contacts when you qualify – independent biz dev with no support from your firm’s partners is a struggle at that level.

So, while the male partners and associates entertained their clients at strip joints, I pushed myself to attend a host of networking events. I met some nice people, and also one random man, who for the next few months, incessantly tried to persuade me to join him for dinner.

I’d spoken to the guy for 20 minutes at a networking event. I had no interest in him romantically, and emphasised how I was in a serious relationship with Andrew. I’d met him at a networking event and talked about business, just like I had with everyone that night. The dude was relentless.  He started calling my phone continuously, and hanging outside my office late at night wanting to drive me home… I felt like I was being stalked. Needless to say – it put me off networking for a while!

More barriers for women

This is another thing that drives me crazy. Linda Babcock’s study found that only 7% of women negotiate their salary, whereas 57% of men do. Very few female friends of mine negotiate their salaries or challenge their bonuses, pay rises, (or lack of any). My male friends on the other hand, have no qualms about being assertive in getting what they want.

What women need to remember is that the remuneration package they negotiate at the beginning of a role, will have a bearing on every future pay rise they get.  It will affect their pension contributions, bonus, and benefits. It will affect the package they are likely to get if they move elsewhere. It will affect the amount of life insurance that would be paid out to their family if something happens to them. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table for the sake of a couple of uncomfortable conversations.

The problem is, as Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In explains, women who negotiate are often labelled as overly combative, greedy, and bossy. Consequently, women tend to be less successful in securing what they want. Men on the other hand, are far more likely to be seen as confident and ambitious for exhibiting the same traits. Men are applauded for it. Women are often penalised.

There are now articles with tips especially for women who want to negotiate their salaries. Men don’t have to worry about these nuances.

Talking to Don, my business owning friend, highlighted the additional difficulties that my nieces and friends’ daughters will face when looking for work. Discrimination like Don’s shrinks the number of opportunities available to them. My female friends already deal with it, when applying for new roles, or trying to get promoted.  Even when they secure a role, women are paid less for comparable roles.

And even when you’re in the job, promotions and pay rises are harder to come by. A human resources expert in a large global company recently told me, that although women make up the majority of the company. Senior levels are heavily made up of men.

Fortunately, large companies have resources to try and counter discrimination of all kinds. They can afford the time and effort to implement initiatives to support women in the workplace, and software that identifies unconscious discrimination. Many smaller companies don’t.

Sadly, as long as sexual discrimination like that demonstrated by Don continues, the women and girls I know will have a far more onerous time getting the roles they want. These are talented women who can offer massive amounts of value, on par, if not better than any man. Passing on them purely because of their sex and an assumption that all women want to, and will have children, is a huge loss, for company and applicant alike.

Unconscious Biases and Gender Stereotypes

Even female entrepreneurs can’t escape discrimination.  It’s been shown that women who own their own businesses have a steeper uphill climb when trying to raise venture capital. Women have a  harder time raising VC funding and often come away with less than men.

An interesting two year Swedish study analysed how men and women VCs, (five men and two women), talked about the applicants who pitched to them.The VCs prided themselves on being fair and objective and were pretty shocked at the results.

The study highlighted the unconscious biases people use when appraising men and women. The same qualities identified in applicants of both sexes were interpreted differently by the VCs. The qualities exhibited by women garnered derogatory remarks, the same qualities in men were considered to be assets. For example, “Men were referred to as young and promising; women as young but inexperienced“, (click on the link for more info and phrases).

These unconscious biases and gender stereotypes are difficult to detect or forget. Even I have them.

I’ve found myself being harder on female interns compared to their male counterparts. I’ve also noticed how many female interns behaved like I did when I first started work – lacking confidence, desperate to make a positive impression. I don’t notice the same traits in most of the men I work with – unconscious bias?

With female medical professionals too, I have an expectation that they will be more sensitive than male ones. Of course, there are uncaring and kind doctors of both sexes, and I’ve met many on both sides. Still, I find that I’m less affected by un-compassionate male doctors, than I am with insensitive female physicians.

Men get away with it. Women less so.