Can Women Be Sexist?
It's been 20 years since Melissa was unceremoniously banned from the
"popular" table at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, but she still worries that
cliques and rumors are hurting her reputation. A stylish blonde vice president
at a New York investment bank, Melissa felt an icy chill from some of her female
colleagues when she was promoted. At first, she thought she was being paranoid,
but that changed after a disappointing encounter in the office bathroom.
"I was putting on some lipstick, and I overheard two of the analysts
gossiping about me from behind the stalls," Melissa recalls. "They said, 'The
only reason Melissa got the job is because she is sleeping with Jim.' They went
on and on about how my skirts are too tight and my heels too high, and they said
that I flirt with my married boss. Obviously, none of this is true -- I worked
very hard to get the promotion and am more than qualified for the job.
"In addition to pissing me off, the comments just make me sad because I
thought Rose and Melinda -- two accomplished colleagues with MBAs -- were beyond
that type of petty gossip. The whole thing reminded me of my days as a high
school cheerleader. At some point in your life, you really hope to get beyond
Although there are plenty of women working in the financial world, the
testosterone-drenched trader culture famously depicted in the book Liar's
Poker remains very real. For every Melissa, Rose, or Melinda competing in
the financial marketplace, there are dozens of guys who still view the trading
floor as a frat house. Given the ethnography of their professional environment,
it's especially surprising (and disappointing) to hear such a typical locker
room remark coming from a female colleague. Has Gordon Gecko submerged
Girl Power among Gen-X/Y women? We wondered, just how hard are women making it
for other women to get ahead at work? Are women guilty of sexism?
We sent out a mass e-mail posing these questions to friends, colleagues, and
all the women we had interviewed during the course of our research. It took us
about 5 minutes to realize that we had hit a nerve. Before long, our in-boxes
were flooded with controversial responses of dueling extremes. For every nasty
war story, we (happily) received an equally passionate response defending the
good name of working women, with examples of female mentors who routinely helped
others move up in the ranks. Once again, it was the intensity of all the
responses -- the complete absence of ambiguity -- that struck us as most
significant. Then we followed up with phone calls and listened to story after
story of both bona fide sabotage and inspiring female solidarity, we couldn't
help but relate to both prosecution and defense.
We also couldn't help but notice a disturbing pattern that emerged during our
conversations with new mothers. More than a dozen described similar scenarios in
which supervisors made subtle comments about "priorities" when their pregnancies
started to show; others detailed a downgrade in work assignments or exclusion
from important meetings after they came back from maternity leave.
Pregnancy discrimination is nothing new -- Lia's mother went through the same
thing 30 years ago while teaching art in a public high school in Mount Pleasant,
Pennsylvania. Back then, working through the late stages of pregnancy was
actually a firing offense, and as her stomach grew bigger, she began to get
concerned. She couldn't afford to lose her job, because Lia's dad was in law
school at the time, and she was supporting their family. So she did some legal
research of her own and discovered a state law on the books that trumped the
local ordinance the school board had been using to keep pregnant women out of
the classrooms. With this knowledge on her side, Lia's mother taught through the
school year before giving birth to Lia at the end of June. Her efforts became
known informally as the "Macko Amendment" and paved the way for other women to
continue working through their third trimesters when it was still far from the
Yet one very important difference exists between what Lia's mom went through
and the scenarios our peers described. The earlier perpetrators of this brand of
discrimination were usually men. This time around, the perpetrators are also
women -- in many cases, those past their baby prime who happen to be single
A colleague responded to our inquiry with a very detailed, upsetting
description of a run-in she had with her boss -- a woman who is a legend in our
business, with an office full of Emmys and other prestigious awards to prove it.
Our friend had just returned from maternity leave to her job as an associate
producer on a highly esteemed network newsmagazine show. Although there were
many women on staff, the department culture was such that this new mom
questioned whether putting a photo of her baby on her desk would make her look
bad. Within her first week back on the job, a story was assigned about dog
safety, focusing on dogs and infants. The reporter was on a tight deadline, and
as luck would have it, our friend had an infant and a golden retriever, so off
the team went to her home to shoot some footage of Fido and the baby. Back at
the office later that day, our friend's boss screened the tapes, took a close
look at the shot of the baby, then turned to her and said "Wow, you have a
gorgeous dog!" No mention of her newborn.
While that comes nowhere close to meeting the legal definition of
discrimination, the obvious omission marked an icy welcome back to work and a
changed dynamic between employer and employee.
We wanted to believe that the stories we kept hearing were isolated
incidents, but in good conscience, we consulted several well-respected
employment lawyers and asked for their opinions. They told us our informal
survey had tapped into an emerging phenomenon, one in which a significant and
growing number of young women are reporting acts of discrimination by female
bosses during pregnancy and/or after maternity leave. One attorney described the
perpetrators as women who felt they had been forced to make an either/or choice
about career and family. And now -- often unconsciously -- they assume that by
getting pregnant, their direct reports have made their choice and are no longer
committed to their careers.
Our peers are far more likely to understand their legal rights than most
women were 30 years ago, which in part helps to explain why Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission data indicates a dramatic increase in pregnancy
discrimination lawsuits filed over the past decade. It's also important to
recognize that the number of complaints filed against female bosses has
increased, at least in part, simply because this is the first time that two (and
sometimes even three) generations of professional women find themselves working
together in the first place. Yet, one would think that an increased awareness
about what constitutes pregnancy discrimination, combined with an increased
number of women working together, would lead to a decrease -- not an
increase -- in cases filed. However, recent studies from American University's
Center for Gender, Work, and Family argue that frank and open statements by
employers reflecting the view that "new mothers don't belong in the workplace"
are driving a new wave of gender discrimination -- from women as well as men.
Terri, an attorney in Oregon, encountered a fierce and unexpected bout of
"baby envy" after the birth of her first child and her shift to part-time status
at her job. This composed redhead wasn't about to let herself get bitch-slapped,
however. She fought back.
Terri, 33 Years Old
As a child advocacy lawyer for an agency designed to help women and
children, I never expected to encounter any bias at work after Sydney was born.
However, my supervisor -- a 50-year-old woman who routinely works a 6- to 7-day
week -- informed me in my one-year review that as long as I continued with my
new 3½-day schedule, my career would suffer.
This was true, she argued, despite the fact that I still had just as many
clients as most of my full-time colleagues and am one of the most experienced
and respected attorneys on staff.
After I returned from maternity leave, my boss routinely excluded me from
high-level meetings and often made remarks about my decision to have a baby. In
one memorable conversation, when we were discussing the evolving nature of
alimony and child support laws that are routinely part of general consulting
work we do, she helpfully informed me that if my husband and I should ever
divorce, she would testify for me regarding the "harm" inflicted on my career by
my choice to have a baby. The awfulness of that comment -- on so many levels --
affected me profoundly. After that conversation and in review, I realized that
things were not going to improve, and I had a choice to make: I could let this
woman make me feel guilty about wanting a family and real professional
aspirations, or I could refuse to accept it and find a better part-time
I chose the latter. It would have been easy to stay, suck it up, and just
write her off as crazy. The pay was good, the benefits were better, and the
hours allowed me the quality time with my little girl that was the point in the
first place. But I thought I deserved better, so I braced myself for the energy,
dedication, and risk required for a covert job search in a small, specialized
legal market -- in the middle of a recession.
Terri acted wisely and aggressively, with precision and without emotion. She
consulted an employment attorney so she knew how to protect herself if the
workplace aggression escalated or if her job search was discovered and she
encountered any retaliation. Then she conducted a quiet and strategic job hunt
by first approaching former colleagues for "advice" -- colleagues who happened
to love her work and value her as an employee. One of them offered to hire her,
but instead of committing immediately, Terri countered with a proposal that
provided a flexible workweek and responsibility for the budget and management of
a special projects division. Now Terri is writing groundbreaking reports with
her own byline, and the projects she oversees are generating meaningful dialogue
among leaders in her area in her state. And she's only been at the job for four
I was grateful for an opportunity to escape, but I didn't want to make a
parallel move. I learned the hard way that at a certain point in your career,
working part-time can make you vulnerable, irrespective of how hard you are
working or how well liked you are, unless you are directly accountable for your
own projects. Sure, I still have some trouble juggling responsibilities, and the
new job requires more travel and a longer commute, but I am extremely grateful I
was able to create this type of opportunity for myself -- finding a job like
this is almost as impossible as finding a needle in a haystack. And not to sound
like a jerk, but part of me revels in taking my skills to a competitor. I hope
it makes my former supervisor reconsider her actions the next time she's
managing the career of a promising lawyer -- and mother.
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