I recently had a first hand experience with sexism that was so blatant and offensive, I didn’t know what to do in the moment. I’ll give the full details in the core of this post but for now I want you to ask yourself, what would you do? Would you stand up and shout? Would you cower and wither and just let the situation proceed? Would you find the courage to speak up? Would you think of all the women out there who face this type of experience every day? Would you want to change the situation and people’s mindset so this never happened to any girl growing up today?
I’ll get right to it. I was interviewing with a company recently who reached out to me based on my experience in the industry. We weren’t really sure what role I would fill, but after a great conversation with the CTO, I agreed to come in for an in person interview with more members of the management team.
I had dedicated the day to come into the office and after being met by the CTO, and given a tour of the office, I sat down with him and the President of the company. The interview involved questions about background and general management philosophies. After about an hour the CTO invited the CEO to join us. Usually a good sign at this point that things are moving along well.
The CEO seemed nice enough when we first shook hands. Pleasantries were exchanged and then right out of the gate it happened. His first question to me:
“Do you wonder why there are no women on the management team at a company who’s product is for women?”
Wait, what? Did he really just ask that question? I started to share it wasn’t the first thing on my mind but he started back up and just kept talking. I had no time to react or chime in because he just kept going. He was almost shouting out me for the next 5-10 minutes as he rambled on and on stating that women were incapable and defending this ridiculous position.
“Women are incapable of making the tough decisions necessary to run a profitable company on low margins.” - CEO of a Women’s Product Retailer
You should know this about me. I don’t do well around alpha males. I personally think saying you are this type of person is an inexcusable justification for being an asshole. I don’t have time for it and don’t want to be associated with people like this. I choose to lead by example and just quietly walk away and ignore these people rather than argue or fight back.
Now you understand while he was ranting I didn’t say anything. I just sat there, first completely stunned, then waiting patiently and politely for him to finish. It was easy to surmise this guy was a complete jerk and I resolved in my mind the interview was over and I would never work for this jerk or this company.
The moment finally came where he shut up and he asked me if I had any questions. Normally I would go into my list but I just politely said I had no questions but indicated I did need to go to the bathroom. He gave me a funny look, and I proceeded to get up and the CTO started giving me directions to the restroom.
“What an ass” I thought as he held out a hand.
He walked around the table and in front of me, put out his hand and shared it was nice to meet me and thanked me for coming in. I didn’t say anything. I just pursed my lips, shook his hand and proceeded to walk out of the room.
What the hell just happened?
As I walked downstairs to the bathroom all I could think was what the hell just happened? I debated what to do next? Do I just call it quits and head home? Do I talk to the rest of the team when there is no point going forward?
I decided to go forward and meet with the VP of Product and the Chief Architect just to connect and see if they were overtly sexist. Unlike the CEO they were really nice people and I enjoyed my conversations with them. It gave me hope that the CEO didn’t share his terrible views with anyone else on the management team.
I left and immediately I started reflecting on the day. How could the President and CTO just sit there, quietly, neither refuting or acknowledging what he said? Did they believe it as well? They seemed like such nice people who were both married and had daughters. How could allow this to happen? Was it the money? How sad!
Was it a test?
I wrote a post on Facebook describing the situation to my friends and asking them what I should do. I clearly made up my mind I wouldn’t be moving forward with the company and had to communicate that. Surprisingly most of my women friends and my wife advised me to just let it go without bringing it up when I rejected them.
A couple of people suggested it was a test. The hypothesis being that the management team wanted to see how I would react and conduct myself around a controversial or difficult situation. How could you possibly use this as some way to test someone’s leadership capabilities? Would they inflict some test scenario on a female candidate that would make her feel equally uncomfortable? What did they hope to accomplish by going down a path that any HR Generalist would tell you to completely avoid?
What to do?
I then turned inward. I thought of the women in my life, my wife of almost 18yrs and my little 4.5 year old daughters. What would they think of their father for not saying anything and letting this jerk spew his sexist beliefs?
“How could I just sit there and not say anything?”
I felt small, really small for not confronting him. That night I couldn’t sleep and felt this heavy burden to do something. But what? What should I do? The moment had passed to confront him personally.
The next morning I told the recruiter the story and they were horrified. The recruiter couldn’t believe that he said it and that the people she knew in the room condoned the behavior. Of course we agreed I should withdraw from consideration. What they didn’t know how to handle was approaching the topic of conversation.
Going back to FB post, the overwhelming majority said I should just let it go and not bring it up or address it any way. This really surprised me especially considering how many women said I should just ignore it. It saddened me to hear that because it just reinforced my fear that women just put up with this all the time. I was feeling their frequent experience for the first time and it made me angry and left me feeling helpless.
The Lack of Acknowledgement
I could not just be quiet about it so I decided to address it when I withdrew from consideration.
There were also statements made yesterday about contributions and capabilities of women that I disagree with. I expected a team and culture that would embrace positive contributions from a broad base of people and perspectives.
I was hoping for a response that would explain the CEO’s actions but instead I got an all the best wish, completely ignoring the sexist statements and their presentation to me. Later when the recruiter discussed the situation with them their response was:
“It was just a misunderstanding”, CTO of said company
I couldn’t believe this! Implying it was my fault somehow? Now I really empathized with all the women who were victims of assault or rape. To me, this was equivalent to videoing an assault or rape, doing nothing to stop it and later claiming you didn’t have a part in it. Yes you did.
I decided to share this story because it is the right thing to do. I haven’t named anyone and I won’t going forward. Hopefully the people involved will read this post and reconsider their positions and how they conduct themselves.
Sadly, sexism is alive and well in my industry. I am sad I had to experience this but in some respect glad I did. It gave me a firsthand experience of what it is like to experience sexism. I want my fellow male counterparts to stop being complicit when this type of behavior or mentality is presented. We have the opportunity to just say no and we should. I’ll never sit quiet again and you shouldn’t either!
What would you do? What should you do?