There are so many long-overdue important conversations taking place across corporate America right now around discrimination, harassment, bias, and prejudice. As a woman who deeply values self-expression, meritocracy, and the power of diverse voices, I want to add a seldom discussed but nonetheless crucial topic to the conversation: women of power who repress and discriminate against other women.
We spend a lot of time speaking about women empowering other women, but you know what? That’s not always been my experience.
The hypocrisy is epic.
Since the start of my career, I have encountered women who were in senior positions above me who actively sought to repress my self-expression, discriminate against me based on my appearance, or who intentionally tried to crush my voice and contributions.
We spend a lot of time discussing harassment by men—and that absolutely and unequivocally exists—but the way women of power abuse their seniority to repress female subordinates while simultaneously publicly supporting “women’s empowerment” must be exposed and rooted out of the boardroom. And it starts by sharing our collective experiences and demanding better treatment.
I am tired of hollow lip service. As a younger woman, I wish I had reported more of these experiences to corporate HR, and I’m grateful to my male sponsors who were warriors and defenders in the face of blatant female-to-female harassment and discrimination.
I am tired of hollow lip service.
It started in my first job out of college, where I reported to a woman who thought my style was too feminine. To be powerful and useful, I needed to wear pants, play sports, and drink beer. All of these were suggestions that I endured directly at work. She created a clique of women who all complied to curry favor with her based on these masculine ideals. I refused to compromise my personal identity, and I had to switch departments in order to preserve my career.
This trend continued through well-known tech companies, where I was told by female superiors that I shouldn’t wear dresses to work. It was “too distracting.” I was told that I should cut my hair, so I would be “taken seriously.” I was even instructed to preview my ideas with them prior to meetings so that they could help me “look smarter” in the boardroom—while stealing my content.
I was even denied a promotion as a young woman because I hadn’t “paid my dues” to the other women in the business unit—even though I led the most successful revenue-producing program in the company.
Discrimination didn’t end with corporate seniority; recently, I was denied a corporate board seat because I was “too pretty to be smart.” The female retained recruiter told me “this feedback can never come back to me.” She knew it was wrong, but as women, we are all complicit when we look the other way. In another recent example, I had a very powerful woman tell me that I should rethink my corporate headshot because of what I was “selling.” In each case, my distrust of women in the boardroom grew.
This trend continued through well-known tech companies, where I was told by female superiors that I shouldn’t wear dresses to work. It was “too distracting.”
The hypocrisy is epic. All of these women were (or are) C-level executives or VPs in big established companies who were figureheads for women’s empowerment—awarded for their “sponsorship” while behind the scenes they were blatantly repressing and discriminating against other women. These actions are rooted in their own insecurities and their own misguided concepts about how women “should be” at work. But I can say from experience, there is no one way to “be,” ladies.
These women had their own “tribes” of other women who loyally preserved their positions of power by always toeing the line in accordance with their leader’s narrow views. No one dared to challenge them out of fear. In my 20 year career, I can only reference two senior female leaders who proactively and selflessly advocated for me with full unbiased support.
Through each of these negative interactions, my conviction and commitment to supporting diverse women grew, and as I gained more influence and more power, I knew that my commitment to supporting other women would be real in practice unlike that of so many others. I desperately wanted to be that champion that I had long sought after throughout my entire career.
As a leader, I want everyone in my charge to thrive equally. I don’t care what you look like, what your personal preferences may be. I care about the content of your character, your work ethic and your contributions.
In my career, I have made it a common practice to mentor, promote, and develop women. I have put my career on the line to hire women that were deemed “too junior” or “unsophisticated” by others where I saw women who could thrive if given an opportunity. I have consistently realigned my schedule, even on an 18-hour day, to provide real-time coaching when a strong scenario appears. I take the time to develop holistic performance reviews with frameworks that focus on helping other women get what they want from their careers. We might talk for two or three hours if that’s what we need to do together!
I have never asked a woman to dumb herself down, change her appearance, or make accommodations that demoralize her sense of self. If you are another female leader in corporate America, I challenge you to do the same. Create an environment where no one on your team is unfairly judged by your insecurities, discriminated against based on mere appearances, be asked to change how they authentically present themselves in the name of “success,” or receive any kind of message that they are “less than.”
Until we all show up as fair, balanced, and true promoters and champions of each other, we cannot call ourselves supporters of other women. Think hard, ladies—what kind of leader are you?