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Me too.

On the eve of the five-year anniversary of my tech company, GreenCup, a trusted male friend said said something to me that caught me by surprise.

It was two weeks ago, and we were talking about our mutual entrepreneurial work.  He’s experiencing some of the systems and processes growth that I have dealt with in my own company.  I love building systems (much to the appreciation of my coaching clients), and I’m always happy to pass on what I’ve learned to a friend.

He said he admired me for my work in my tech company.  I asked why – to me, it’s just something that I started and grew whenever I saw a time to pivot.  He said I was brave for starting a company in an industry that openly hates women.

I was shocked.

And then I thought about it.

He’s right.  Wave after wave of news of gender gaps and chauvinism comes from Silicone Valley.  Whether it be a woman leaking her salary or a memo leak from Google, the struggle is real, and it’s getting louder.

I’m proud of the women who are fighting the fight.  Who risk their careers in order to stand for the greater good.

I never thought of myself that way.  I stumbled into it.  I was hired into an SEO company as an Executive Assistant.  I was promoted to Director because I read book after book about my role within the company, and my boss noticed.  When we were bought out and I was laid off, all I did was use what I knew to start my own company.

I wasn’t prepared for the gender discrimination I would face.  I was surprised when I walked into a meeting as a CEO and walked out being thought of as a Secretary.  I was shocked when several clients made comments on my new Developer’s looks rather than welcome her to the company.

Looking back, I can’t believe I was surprised.

I had a stalker when I was 16.  He was an older man and he would come to my work every day.  I was a Concessionist at a local theater, and there wasn’t anywhere to hide.  I had been nice to him.  Once.  That was all the encouragement it took.

At age 12 I was told I would be gutted like a fish by the best friend of the boy I liked because a girlfriend might disrupt their friendship.

I get cat called and whistled at even when I walk in my own neighborhood dressed androgynously.

And, yes, I’ve felt pressured to ‘perform’ as the sex object women are promoted to be.

Today, I’m not surprised by my Facebook feed.  I am damn proud of everyone who took a stand, told their stories, and refused to be quiet anymore.  Thank you for your visibility.

Male Clients’ Reactions To My New Female Employee

This isn’t my first post about chauvinism or feminism.  But it’s been a while since I’ve experienced overt chauvinism as a female entrepreneur.  I thought I’d somehow lessened the effects of male bias on my work.  Maybe I was choosing better clients.  Circulating in healthier circles.  Got rid of colleagues who were making me uncomfortable.  I was wrong.

A month ago I hired an amazing female website developer.  Hiring the right people for your business is the difference between you pulling your hair out and things going smoothly.  If you haven’t had the pleasure, you’re in for a treat.  (However, hiring the wrong people will make you go bald faster.)

My policy with a new hire is to introduce them to our clients.  They trust us with the online representation of their businesses (website, social media, blog) and making the introduction adds to that trust.  Typically I include a photo, short bio, and fun fact in an eBlast to familiarize them with the new hire.

Unfortunately, the tech industry is seriously male dominated, and female developers are hard to find.  As such, this is the first female hire I’ve made in some time.  I had become unprepared for the response we would receive.

Let me clarify that most of the responses were welcoming and congratulatory.  But two separate male clients went out of their way to say something different.

What’s Wrong With This Picture

Did you feel icky?  I felt icky…

Let’s unpack this for a moment.  One client responded directly to the email using our initials as if we were not in a professional relationship.  The other switched from email to texting, adding effort to the response.

Both gents seem to have forgotten they were responding to my new developer’s boss.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dream of approaching the boss of someone I work with to tell them what I think about their looks.

I’m very protective of my employees.  As a former manager at a company that would drag their employees through the mud, I probably got a strong sense of protectiveness from having to shield those former employees from a lot of bureaucracy.

Since starting my business, only a couple times have I had a client speak down to one of my employees.  Each time, I take action.  I work hard to find the right people for my company culture and needs.  Every company has its own orientation process after making a hire, ranging from a week to months.  Each time, it’s an investment in another human and the company.

I’ve put up with difficult clients when it was my choice alone, when I thought there was still something to be gained.  But my employees don’t have that choice, since I’m the boss.  And a difficult client is the fastest way to burn out a good employee.

How I Handled It

As you can see in the case of the texter, I responded directly.  Up to that message, he and I had a good rapport and I felt that I could say something to check his comment.  The emailer, however, has not heard from me since.  In both cases, I will gently detach us from their work.

Unfortunately, doing more than parting ways is risky.  WIRED Magazine stated in an article about the tech industry’s gender gap, “For women who have experienced this bias—and there are many—the simple act of talking about it is taboo.”  Calling men out on this issue is still a quick path to making enemies.  Though I’m not too worried about my individual consequences, I do have to consider the reputation of my business for the sake of my other clients and my employees.  Just as when I was asked to be a Secretary for a day, I will let sleeping lions lie (as they say).

Have you had to deal with chauvinism in your work?  What did you do?  Share by replying below to support other female entrepreneurs!

The Day a Client Asked Me to Sit In as Secretary

It is one of the most frustrating things a woman entrepreneur will deal with.  If you’ve been in business for even six months, you’ve probably experienced chauvinism in some form.  Being talked down to, talked over, passed over, even being called emotional, are all things that you may someday experience.

A year ago, I had a fabulous first meeting with the Founder and Manager of a boutique engineering firm.  They wanted SEO work on their website but, after the first five minutes, I could tell they weren’t even sure what to ask for.  I explained what Search Engine Optimization entailed and what my team would do, made some solid recommendations, and by the end of the meeting they were asking for a contract.  I love it when meetings slam dunk like that.

The 180

The next morning, before I even had the chance to send over the draft of our contract, I received an email from the Manager stating they had a big client coming in that day, and would I be willing to act as their secretary during their four hour visit.  I was appalled and disappointed.

First off, we live in the 21st century.  I would have been sure that I had misread the email if I hadn’t experienced similarly odd interactions with male clients.  This, however, was by far the most blatant act of chauvinism I have, to date, experienced.

Mostly, I was disappointed.  Disappointed in their behavior, and disappointed that I would have to pass up this business opportunity.  This is not the way to start a business relationship, and continuing with them after this request would have left me on less than equal footing.  Unfortunately, I had to think about my business’ reputation, and felt I couldn’t call them out on their actions.

How I Handled Chauvinism

The first thing I did was forward the email to an unemployed friend.  They had offered a small cash stipend for the four hours, and my friend would have appreciated it.  I then responded to their email that I was unable to do so and that I had passed on the opportunity to an unemployed friend.  I chose not to tell them how wrong they were because I didn’t want to risk the reputation of my company – a rock and a hard place – but I was sure the word ‘unemployed’ preempted referencing my friend so they had a better feel that their request was out of place.  Whether or not it got through I can’t say.

Secondly, I contacted a male colleague in the SEO / Website industry and asked if he had room for a new project.  With him willing to take on the client, I then emailed the client in a separate thread and explained that I did not have room in my portfolio to take them on, and referred them to my colleague.  Again, I refrained from pointing out their strange request in the interest of my company and also the likelihood that they would not be receptive to a ‘schooling’ anyway.

The odd part is, the Founder responded wondering why I wouldn’t work with them and requesting I reconsider.  This gave me the impression that the Manager had not communicated with the Founder about our communique.  I thought it not my place to cause a rift, and maintained my story that I simply couldn’t take them on at that time.

Two Years Later

This week I received a cold call email from this client, offering their engineering services for local inventors.  I don’t know how I got on the list, as the consultation we did with them was for website development, but it was a lengthy sales email.

At first I had to laugh.  What was this email doing in my inbox?  Then I thought — do I want to respond?  I almost didn’t hesitate.  I sent three sentences, and feel like it was the right thing to do.

“Hi ____.  We did a consultation for your website and SEO a couple years ago. Glad to see you doing well. Happy New Year.”

It was a strange way to start the new year, but it’s a good reminder that you never know what is coming around the corner.

Have you experienced chauvinism in your work?  Please share your story.