Woman != Man

Sometimes we take feminism too far, and to our own detriment.

A recent article in Scientific American has been flooding my newsfeeds this weekend. The article discusses benevolent sexism, which refers to nice things men say to women that are still sexist (e.g.,“Women have a way of caring that men are not capable of in the same way.”)

It’s a well-written piece on an important issue.

But, something about the author’s tone rubbed me the wrong way. This paragraph in particular:

Why is benevolent sexism a problem?…Well, for one thing, benevolently sexist statements aren’t all sunshine and butterflies. They often end up implying that women are weak, sensitive creatures that need to be “protected.” While this may seem positive to some, for others – especially women in male-dominated fields – it creates a damaging stereotype.

I felt weirdly offended by this.

I guess because it reminded me of a very different type of sexism I’ve faced in Silicon Valley - the kind that tells us that women are welcome, with open arms, to join the ranks of tech executives, so long as we are willing to act like men. It’s most definitely not okay for women to be “sensitive creatures” that like being protected by their husbands. A woman like that could never be a CEO!

I am a female tech entrepreneur. I have a handful of standard CEO-like characteristics (risk-seeking, ambitious, optimistic, decisive, egomaniacal ;) etc), which I believe have helped me mostly overcome the fact that I’m not at all like a man. The thing is, I’m really feminine. It’s not necessarily the heels and make-up. Those are par for the course these days. It’s finally becoming acceptable for women in positions of power to not have to look like men, at least, which is a huge win. That’s a sea change in less than a decade.

Even so, there remains a deep-seated skepticism about a feminine woman’s ability to lead. The reason is that femininity has historically implied, among other things, subordination. Women aiming for the top thus have a tendency to suppress their femininity. It’s relatively easy for an individual woman with lofty ambitions to change her own nature, or for only those with the right sort of nature to make it to positions of power to begin with. It’s much harder for us to get all men in positions of power to change their perception of femininity. And so, we continue to act like, and hope to be treated as, men.

I have trouble with this. I definitely tone down certain aspects of my femininity at work, but that falls in the realm of general workplace professionalism and comes naturally. There is, however, a really core aspect of myself that I can’t hide at work, which is my relationship to my husband. That’s because we work together.

We have a very unusual relationship (which is probably true of any couple that starts companies together). We spend almost all our time together. Rock-solid, never fight, we’re still madly in love after 8 years, blah, blah. The thing that throws people off, though, particularly with respect to their perception of me, is that there are ways in which we fall into very traditional gender roles. For example, I do most of the cooking, and the dishes. He always drives, and takes out the trash. I let him order for me at restaurants. I like for him to walk in front of me. He often interrupts me when I’m talking, and I let him (by now most women reading this are probably barfing. It makes me seem subordinate, right?)

But I’m not! Really, I’m not. We have a very egalitarian relationship (if not ever-so-slightly skewed towards me having more power ;)) I’m the CEO after all! I let him order for me at restaurants because he already knows what I’ll want, and I don’t want to deal with the decision-making. So it’s more like delegation really. Same with walking in front. I don’t want to have to think about directions (as you can see, delegation is clearly another one of my ninja CEO skills). He does plenty of housewife activities too, like sweeping the floors and folding the laundry. And I do our finances. We’re anything but normal.

But there are certain areas in which we let ourselves play traditional male and female roles, because we want to. There is a lot of beauty in that dynamic between a man and a woman, if both people do indeed have equal power in the relationship. I have the freedom to choose the ways in which I want to be like a traditional woman, and the ways in which I don’t. I see nothing wrong with that. Moreover, how does this aspect of my personal relationship affect my competence as a tech executive? It doesn’t.

So why judge me? Invariably, people who get a glimpse of us acting in this way, and see me in what they perceive to be a subordinate role, start to question my ability to lead. It all goes back to discomfort with femininity and power.

I’ve had investors approach me after observing such an interaction with my husband and ask me, in no uncertain terms, who wears the pants in our relationship. My answer? I do, when I feel like it. But I just as often wear a skirt.

I refuse to run away from my feminine inclinations. Women are just as capable as men, but we are not the same as men. We should not have to pretend that we are.

I don’t consider it a “win” for women to gain equal stature by way of being treated like men. We’ll win when we are treated as equals regardless of our gender, not despite it.

 
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