Sexism exists – let’s stop being surprised but keep talking



Via social media this week, I came across a Tumblr blog, “Sh-t People Say to Women Directors”. It makes for compelling reading if only for the openness and honesty of the storytellers. I’d read one story then find myself having to read another. Then another.

And of course there is a sister blog for the tech industry.

Sexism is alive and well. No surprise based on my own experience.

Huffington Post article lists several examples of sexism in Silicon Valley. These include praise on social media for the booth girls’ butts at an industry fair or the ad for a startup depicting a woman dancing around in her underwear.

And still we remain surprised.

I have a few war stories of my own. The tech sector has always been overwhelmingly male. I was one of only five women in my Computer Science graduation class of eighty. I’m used to being one of the only women in the room as I’ve spent my entire career in a male dominated industry of technology and financial services.

In the early 90s in my first job, I was sexually harassed by my boss. I went to HR who said they would do nothing unless I found other women who had similar experiences. I found a few others who had such experiences but they were too afraid to speak out. In the end, nothing was done and I was left with the distinct feeling of speaking out came at great cost.

Some years back, I co-presented with a senior insurance executive at a Financial Innovation conference. He changed the shared deck at the last minute without me knowing. He added a slide of a model in a swimsuit. When this slide came up, he introduced it by saying “no presentation is complete without a woman in swimsuit”. The 90% male audience laughed in appreciation.

When I was promoted to a senior position, another senior executive said to me that he supposed I would now insist on having a male PA to go with the position, and I’d want this PA to be sexy. It’s one of the few times in my life where I had no response.

These are just a few examples from my career. Sexism shows up in actions, choices, and phrases. I get particularly frustrated in how it sneaks into day-to-day language.

An excellent (ad) campaign showed just how insidious the phrase ‘like a girl’ has become. Men and women laugh when they say it and the message of what it is to be a girl is clear. It’s clear from the video that these girls have take on board the message too.

I was probably five years old when my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said ‘Nurse!’. When he asked me why not a doctor, I apparently looked at him with shock and said “only boys get to be doctors silly!”. Even at that young age, I had heard and learnt the limited role that women could play. (My father went on to become a significant feminist figure in my life and the reason I went into STEM field).

I don’t know the solution. But I know talking helps. Back in the 90s, there was no way of sharing and knowing what others were going through. These blogs would have made the difference for me then.

Sexism is alive and well. But let’s keep talking about it – together – it’s the only way to find a solution.

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