The past few months have been a whirlwind to say the least. Recently I merged my business with another, added a cofounder to my previously solo venture, and in the process learned how differently I’m treated because I’m a woman.
My cofounder Adam has turned out to be the best partner I could have hoped for. We have synergistic skills, different perspectives, and a solid basis of mutual respect and friendship. It’s other people who are the challenge. Quite often, men relate to us differently, and I can only assume it’s because of my gender.
My startup, Posse, is a technology platform, and I spend most of my days as the only woman in the room during meetings with engineers, investors, and corporate partners. Now that I’ve experienced this world both by myself and with a male business partner, I’ve learned that the way some men communicate with each other excludes women.
Here are some of my observations:
No matter what the context, we present our business together as partners. But for some reason I don’t understand, at meetings, some men only talk directly to Adam. I may receive an occasional glance as if to check that I’m still in the room, but any serious communication gets directed straight to him. They must assume he’s in charge.
This is a tough one to complain about. I can’t pipe up and ask, “Why aren’t you looking at me?” They’d think I was crazy.
At first I thought I must be imagining things, but Adam confirmed he also found it strange and on more than one occasion remarked, “I don’t know why he always looks at me.” I also checked in with other senior women who confirmed I wasn’t boxing at shadows. They’d experienced the same thing.
I’ve noticed that some men like to start every meeting with a discussion about where they went to school, other blokes they know, and who played sports with whom.
As a non-member of the brotherhood I can only suppose they’re trying to establish whether the other male belongs to the same tribe. I’ve never been included in this ritual before, but then I never attended a private boys’ school. I’m on the outside, so I am left out of the conversation. This makes the beginning of every meeting tough–I’m always starting from behind.
After directing all the serious questions to Adam, these same men frequently turn to me and ask me to organize the follow-up: “Rebekah, will you put that proposal together and send it over?”
If you know me personally, you can probably imagine the internal detonation that accompanies this comment. Of course I can organize the minutiae of meetings, but so can anyone else.
You may be thinking, “That’s not me, I can’t believe you imagine other men do that.” Well, that’s fine. But next time you are in a meeting with a man and a woman, quietly consider: “Do I have a subconscious bias, or am I treating both people in this meeting equally?”
We all have subconscious biases, and they are often hard to recognize and break.
But if you care about women and men getting an equal go, then it’s time we start talking about prejudice in business. Less that 3% of technology entrepreneurs and 2% of investors are women. Something’s going on here, and that something holds women back. Ignoring it is part of the problem.
If you’ve noticed similar things, I’d love to hear about your experience and how you overcame these challenges in the comments.
—Rebekah Campbell is founder and CEO of Posse.com, a social search engine that helps people find and recommend their favorite places and interact with storeowners. Rebekah is passionate about entrepreneurship and community building and is an advocate for the equal participation of women in the workplace. She has written for The New York Times and her personal blog at www.rebekahcampbell.com.Follow Rebekah on Twitter @rebekahposse.