I consider myself very lucky that I grew up in one of the most liberal parts of the US: California. It wasn't really until I went to Columbia University that I encountered "sexism" for the very first time in my life. I recall one of my tenured professors, saying in the first week of courses that "women were bad writers" and that "men always wrote better essays". Of course, we were all collectively shocked to hear such politically incorrect words uttered, but all the women in the my class kept silent, and a few nervously giggled. We were a bunch of teenagers who needed this tenured Professor's approval. He had all the power, he was going to grade us- give us the final judgement on whether our writing was good or bad.
Suffice to say, I spent the rest of the semester disagreeing with everything he would say in class out of youthful rebellion. When he put forth a statement, I would be the first to raise my hand. Yes, I was one of "those" students, and in a class where everyone got B's, I was the only one who received a C. For those of you who aren't aware, no one gets "C"s at an ivy league university. It is practically unheard of. "C"s are reserved for students who never attend class, or those bad seeds who disrupt the class with "controversial" opinions (I.E., disagree with the Professor's opinions). However, I had so many other great Professors at Columbia that I can't say that this one particular one had any effect on my educational experience. For every as*hole out there, there are even better people who will support you and I had plenty of encouraging, engaging Professors who probably influenced me to be better thinker and person.
However, my experience at UCL was the first time I had experienced complete freedom of expression and ways of developing critical thinking processes. The UK is inherently suspicious of consensus and sycophancy; just my kind of nation. A critical discourse is necessary to keep one in check of his/her own beliefs. We can all fall blind to consensus and it would be the blind leading the blind. If the global world at large converted to England's system of education, it would be all for the better.
The other memorable time I encountered sexism was a funny incident in South Korea, when I, along with two of my colleagues, were chosen to represent our company at a much publicised KOCCA/ KOEIC investment event. When we arrived to present our proposal, I walked into a crowded room full of men. I was the only woman there presenting.
The only other woman sat around a table full of investors, all men in suits who looked as if they hadn't slept for several weeks. Curiously, there had only been two chairs for the presenting team, and I prompty told the male co-ordinator that we needed another chair for my team. He pointed me to the back of the room and told me to sit there. I was a little taken aback, who does he think I am? The assistant? I thought of telling him off, but then I remembered Sheryl Sandberg's TedTalk, and that "Women have to sit at the table." And I did what probably no other woman or man had done at that institution; I went to the back of the room, picked up the empty chair, and proceeded to move to the front of the table, and sat there, presenting with my group. No one noticed that I had to get my own chair or perhaps they chose not to notice. There were hundreds of groups presenting, and the investors around the table didn't even look up. We were probably the 50th group they saw that day, and they were mainly busy typing into their laptops without blinking an eye.
Sexism occurs everywhere, just as racism, elitism, et al. I think that is why it is important to surround oneself with positive, supportive people. We are the average of the ten people with whom we spend the most time with, and when people find the right people to work with, it becomes an enjoyable, learning environment.
Here are my simple rules for avoiding sexual harassment in the workplace:
1. Don't work for as*holes, work with people whom you respect and can learn from
2. Don't get into any romantic relationships with people you work with
3. Get to know your Co-Workers as people, not just Co-Workers
4. Don't try to act like a "man"; be comfortable being a woman
5. If someone gives you a compliment, accept it graciously
6. Learn what motivates people, find out what their "one thing" is
7. Have a clear, direct communication style, don't shy away from confrontation
8. Don't be afraid to occasionally poke fun at your colleagues
9. Have your office doors open most of the time. This might seem trivial, but a lot of studies corroborate that people become paranoid when they are separated from the rest of their colleagues
10. Don't be afraid to voice your opinions and offer solutions; most people know how to complain, very few people offer solutions to the problem
I remember the first time I worked at an equity firm. After my successful interview, the manager pulled me aside and was concerned that I wouldn't fit into the office culture filled with all males. He said they often told sexist jokes, and that I might be offended. I told him that I had no problem working with all men- rather I think it's more important not to work for an as*hole. My manager was a kind soul, who was generous with his time and supportive of the entire staff, and I went into the job with enthusiasm. Despite the office being all men, and there had been a rather salacious calendar hanging up one of the walls, we would all refer to each other by our surnames and call out witty insults to each other during the day. Here, my blunt sense of humour didn't offend anyone and poking fun at co-workers wasn't interpreted to have any malicious intent. We would often spend a lot of our time socialising as well- going to happy hour, and generally chatting about various things. On Fridays, we would all bring our own alcohol, and make drinks for people after the working day was over. Our freezer was permanently stacked with vodka and gin. Suffice to say, it was one of the most fun working environments I had been in, simply because we all got to know each other as people, not just Co-Workers. My being hired lead to more women being hired, and soon I wasn't the only woman there anymore. However, those halcyon days ended abruptly when the Founder of the company (whom I saw only once) suddenly departed and he was wanted by the FBI for tax evasion. Although the firm dismantled rather quickly, and all my Co-Workers collectively went into shock, we kept each other updated with our activities, and more than half found positions at other financial institutions.
These kinds of experiences keep us humble. It's been said that the average Millenial will change jobs 20 times in his or her life and live in more than 20 cities. In a similar vein, startups have a short life expectancy. More than 90% fail, and it really isn't for people with thin skins. There will be a lot of setbacks and disappointments, just as in life, so it is important to surround yourself with a support group.
Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins lawsuit. In summary, it read like a sordid novel: Female lead had an affair with another Junior Associate, she ended the affair, and he started to leave her off important emails and meetings. Certainly there should be something reprehensible about that sort of closed-off communication style. However, there were some other questionable allegations as well: a Senior Partner gave her "a book with sexual drawings". I looked up this book- The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen, and it seemed to me a book about Zen Buddhism, hardly indicative of sexual harassment. Ellen Pao also alleges that the same Senior Partner asked her out to dinner. Well, lots of co-workers often go to dinner, male or female, it's not an unusual occurrence; people socialise outside the workplace. Also, if she didn't want to go, she could've just said, "No, thanks." Instead, she took it a step further and complained to management that she was asked to go out to dinner and was given a book as a gift. In my opinion, being asked out to dinner and being given a book doesn't imply sexual harassment.
I recall another instance (not related) in which I was following an online thread of a woman who found it "creepy" that some guy at her company sent her flowers. Then she proceeded to vilify him and avoided communication with him at every opportunity. Look, if a man you're not interested in sends you flowers, and you also happen to work with him, then the most rational thing to do is to have a talk with the guy and let him know his kind gestures were appreciated but that you're not interested in him romantically. Isn't that what sane people do? Instead this woman was going around internet forums screaming sexual harassment, and more scary still, other people were agreeing with her and saying his behaviour was "creepy."
I think sexual harassment is not something to be taken lightly, but I wonder if women are quick to call anything sexual harassment because they see themselves as victims to some imagined situation, rather than take charge of their actions and have a clear communication style? That is not to say I don't think Ellen Pao's sexual harrassment case is important, but perhaps she is better off starting her own Digital Tech Fund instead of prolonging this era of unending litigation? If anything, her portraying herself as a victim will further perpetuate the belief that women are "victims" in the workplace, when perhaps certain injustices can be amended with clear, human communication.
Perhaps Silicon Valley's real discrimination is towards people with liberal arts degrees rather than women, in general. After all, when you have a room full of introverted nerds and lawyers, there are bound to be miscommunications on every level.
By Sierra Choi, Director of Marketing