Reality Check

A few days ago I was at a networking event and was in conversation with two women entrepreneurs. My role at these affairs is twofold: keep my ear to the ground to hear about client needs and ensure that people know what services we offer. My conversation with the entrepreneurs naturally turned to the nature of their businesses and their issues and challenges.

Since we were sitting together at lunch, we had the opportunity to talk in depth about some of their experiences. One theme to emerge was that both women had encountered incidents of covert sexism in their recent business lives. In one case, the owner of a clothing store whose husband had opted for parental leave, told of the ridicule that he experienced from his male colleagues because of his decision to be at home. This had a very deleterious effect on his morale and left him questioning his decision, even though his wife was running a successful business and the result would leave them in a better financial position. The business woman said bitterly that such treatment would not have been meted out to a woman making the same decision. She noted that there is much in the way of lip service that is paid to Western society finally approaching a degree of equality between the sexes in the workplace but, in reality, the underlying assumptions are still that man’s work trumps women’s work.

My second lunch companion’s story was equally disturbing. A very successful business woman with three children, she recounted several instances in which her female friends trivialized her accomplishments and expressed sympathy that she had to work outside the home. “I am proud of what I have built and I have managed to develop my business and maintain a happy family at the same time. I certainly don’t want sympathy or the assumption that a woman wouldn’t want to create an asset and a legacy for her family in the same way that men do.”

Like many entrepreneurial and professional women, my experiences at work, on boards and in conversation with male colleagues, has often revealed this underpinning of attitudes about women’s roles and abilities. There is no blame here, and certainly no male bashing. I believe that many men and women still work from an internal belief system that results in attitudes and actions that belie the assumption of equality for all, that doubt women’s abilities and accomplishments, their ideas and intentions. It’s very rarely overt, but, as in the examples of my two lunch companions, no less disconcerting and disheartening when encountered.

I’d be curious to hear from readers about your own experiences. Has this been something you’ve had to deal with and, if so, how do you respond? If you don’t agree, I’m happy to hear from you as well, and would be happy to know that these are isolated instances and that, 100 years after some of us getting the vote, we haven’t made that much progress after all.

– Sandra Altner