Career Advice

Why Goldman Sachs’ behavior in Bully Market by Jamie Fiore Higgins is just not that unusual

I have just finished reading Bully Market – the story of how Jamie Fiore Higgins rose to MD at Goldman Sachs while hating the culture but loving the money. It’s a fast fun read, not great literature but a compelling insight into the behaviors women have put up with in the last 30 years that are all too common, and yet still egregious enough to be shocking. She’s brave to write so frankly about what she experienced – hats off to her. You can read the NY Times review here.

The book brought back many so many memories for me. So many shared experiences, so many times I could not quite believe the behavior around me, and yet I never worked at Goldman Sachs. I worked in the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley which also had a male-dominated, good old boys culture generating wealth for the people who were willing to work really hard and put up with toxic cultures. And so many of the things she experienced I and many of my friends also experienced a world away.

When Jamie had her babies at Goldman there was a lactation center where she could, in theory, go to pump breast milk but her boss made it clear he didn’t want her taking the time out to do that so she weaned her twins. When I got pregnant with our first child there was no maternity leave policy at the company I worked at so I turned to working with HR to write one. When I came back to work after 6 weeks I was determined to try to breast feed our daughter but there was nowhere to pump breast milk except the ladies room – with nowhere to sit except on the toilet – and so I would lock my office door so I could pump in private. I would moo loudly if someone knocked on the door. I had to keep a sense of humor but I gave up after a few weeks.

When Jamie had a miscarriage her boss put pressure on her to come back into work before she was well enough. When my son was 4 weeks old my boss asked me to come into the office because there was a major reorganization going down and, as one of the executive team, I needed to be there. I agreed, but my son was not weaned and so I took him in with me, breast fed him in the meetings sitting at the board room table with the other execs while they didn’t know where to look. I then held him on my shoulder while he slept as I stood in front of my department of 150 people telling them about the new organization. Yes, it was insane, but I felt I had no choice. If I didn’t go in I would not be considered serious about my career.

Jamie recounted experiences of piggish behavior in her male colleagues and their attitudes towards women. I saw and heard it too many times. Being told the meeting with the customer would be at a strip bar – so I went to the strip bar with the guys, building up a tolerance for drinking shots. Learning about the golf tournament held for our customers which had topless caddies – and being thankful I was not there, but also very grateful to the customer who made a formal complaint. Walking into a bar in New York with a colleague and finding the Goldman Sachs partner who led our investment banking team in the bar, drunk, with four prostitutes. I confess I was merciless and sat down with him, engaged him in conversation, chatted with the hookers and watched him squirm as I, the client, witnessed his embarrassment.

Male colleagues attitudes to pregnancy were a mine field. As Jamie found, many men relate what you are going through to their wives’ experiences and if it is different then you must be misguided. One day, after struggling with my schedule and being asked to attend an offsite on the weekend I finally realized why my life seemed so much harder to plan than the rest of the executive team – I was the only member of the team whose spouse worked, and the only female. 

The hostile experiences were continuous. The customer who sat in meetings staring at my breasts, the customer who would always put his hand on my knee when he sat next to me, no matter how many times I took it off. The CEO of one of the largest US semiconductor companies who I sat next to at a formal dinner in 1991 when I was 6 months pregnant. He looked at my belly, then into my face, and told me he didn’t believe in promoting women because they just got pregnant and left. My boss, sitting on his other side, gave me a hard look not to say anything. Suck it up and smile. 

And as for the long hours, they could be appalling. I was usually the only woman in whatever group I was in and I would try to get in first and leave last. My hours even made it into the company comedy show one year. I knew it would take working harder and smarter than the men to get ahead. I knew I would be judged if I showed a moment of weakness. Too many men asked me if I’d come back to work after I had our first child. I was never confused about the pressure. Dinners, late nights with customers, travel almost every week in the US, to Europe, to Japan and no internet at home so it was hard to work from home. That meant dinners at the office, or out with customers and  dinner with my kids only at the weekend.

This was not unusual, for anyone. The experiences Jamie shares at Goldman Sachs were horrible but she was being paid in 7 figures. Goldman, and many, many other companies, could behave that way because they were paying so well, whether in cash or stock options. I admire that she put up with it so long, that she was willing to write about the hostility she felt as a woman in their environment and I hope it is slowly changing, but change will be slow until women are in equal power at the top and can create a new set of rules.

The bottom line is we live in a highly competitive world. Yes, you should not have to put up with blatantly sexist behavior at work or be excluded from client access because you are not a good old boy who likes strip clubs, but in the end we are all competing and you have to have your eyes wide open and be willing to tolerate the tough times to get ahead. We are competing with each other, we are competing with our competitors, we are competing with countries who want to take our market share and our industries. 

We get paid the big bucks to produce results, results that take hard work and long hours, and you must expect to work hard and suck it up plenty if you want to win in a competitive field. Balance is a myth at the top of the earning bracket.

Photo: Puglian medieval fresco © 2022 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Visiting the Luiss Business School in Rome

I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the Luiss Business School in October – in Rome no less! The discussion centered on tech, subjects like AI, China, Semiconductors and then the role and importance of diversity. And all within a gorgeous 16th century papal palace.

Professor Pierluigi Matera graciously interviewed me in two settings: One on one and then with a group of students. Here are the two videos. My comments on diversity start at ~35:00 in the first one, and thread through the second one.

Career Advice

The choice we make to be loyal, or not

Is loyalty a good thing – or is it a dirty word? Depends on the context – politics, business, your family? But when talking about professional loyalty it can be a double-edged sword.

Fundamentally to be loyal to another person is a choice you make. You may have several different reasons to choose to be loyal. You may admire the person – their intellect, their effectiveness, their values. You may be grateful to them for helping you through a tough situation. Maybe they made you money, or promoted you and taught you what they know, or maybe you believe demonstrating loyalty to them will give you a payback. Or in the simple case you just really like them and want to support or protect them.

Similarly, the people you work with will choose whether to be loyal to you or not, primarily based on your behavior. They will each make a decision as to whether you are worth their loyalty or not.

Loyalty is different from friendship – you may not mingle your families or hang out after work – but it outlasts any one job. It may well outlast your career.  I was recently contacted by a former colleague who asked me for help with an ugly situation. Even though we have not worked together for 20 years, or spoken for 10 years, I did not hesitate because I still feel loyal to him.

It can backfire when it is too strong though – when it blinds you to an employee’s performance issues or slows down a difficult decision. For example, the case when a CEO won’t move on an executive that is the wrong person for the job because she is too loyal to her team members. CEOs are usually too slow to fire people; by the time they make the decision it is often at least 6 months too late. I have watched a board unable to remove a failing CEO because they had worked with him for so long; I have seen a CEO removed from his job for not being willing to act on an executive he was too loyal to that was pulling the company down.

Loyalty can put you in a no-win situation. Do you betray a loyal colleague when they lie? When someone you are loyal to is bending the truth to get to an end result, and you know it, and you are asked for the whole truth? Do you reveal the whole truth and expose the colleague you are loyal to? Do you keep quiet, or find a way to avoid the confrontation? I was young when I was put in this situation and I still feel internal conflict when I think about the choice I made to back my boss and help him make the sale on the terms he wanted rather than expose his manipulation of the facts.

But on the flip side, loyalty is powerful and important in tough business situations. When you are growing a business and there is a crisis (we see something every few years… 9/11, 2008, Covid-19) you can take more risk and face down more dragons if you are confident that the people you are working will stick with you, and your plans, through the crisis. When you are personally under attack from a competitor, or a co-founder, or a colleague knowing who you can count on to support you and follow through on their responsibilities no matter what makes all the difference in the world and can allow you to stay focused on the challenge right in front of you.

Loyalty is tested in difficult situations and it is tested over time. It still surprises me to learn who of my former employees and colleagues are still loyal to me today. Surprises and humbles me. And I am hurt by those who I thought were loyal and then showed over time they were not.

But it is a choice. You can decide who you will be loyal to. Are you conscious of who your choices are?

Photo: A loyal Italian soccer fan in Florence © 2021 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

The unexpected lessons I learned from my cardiac arrest

In the early morning of Nov 7, 2020, walking alone on a beach in Maui, my heart stopped. It didn’t beat for about 4 minutes before I had the incredible luck of being found by a doctor who did CPR and saved my life. Obviously, a lot more drama happened after that, including being put into a therapeutic hypothermia coma for a couple of days and a long stay in hospital with a beautiful view of the West Maui mountains but the definitive moment of luck/grace/lightning was being found by someone who knew CPR. And because he knew CPR I not only live, I live without brain damage.

Of the people who have a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital only 1 in 10 live. That’s a 90% chance of dying. And then, if you live, a serious chance of cognitive impairment. This is such a shocking statistic it took me some time to absorb it and gave me a great deal to think about.

Because of the nature of my cardiac arrest I remember nothing. Nothing from the event itself, nothing from a week before (I don’t even remember flying to Maui) and certainly little for the week after I woke up. I can’t report on a near-death experience. I didn’t see a light, feel my soul above my body, or any of the other mystical experiences people report. A shame because that would certainly have been interesting.

No, all I can report is the huge shock I felt when I realized I had died without a plan!

I had lots of time in hospital to think about this—there wasn’t much else to do. I didn’t have the energy to watch TV or read and because of Covid couldn’t have any visitors. I was stuck in bed because I was weak from the cardiac arrest and beaten up (CPR does a number on your ribs). As I tried to make sense of what happened I realized that I try to plan everything, but I cannot plan for what I cannot predict. I didn’t predict strokes in my 40s and so did not learn how to manage stress until it was too late. I’d thought about a global pandemic only because of the books my husband loves to read but certainly never predicted it would shut down all my travel. And I didn’t predict my heart would stop without warning.

So my first tough lesson: I can’t assume I can plan what happens around me when I die. This never occurred to me! I had always assumed I would die from cancer like my Mum, or flu, or at least something where I would have a few days or months to get my business in order and give direction. I used to think about “what if” and “would I have time to visit Rome one last time once I know I am dying?” kind of thoughts, not how to take care of the family if I drop dead.

I had written a letter to my family 6 months before my heart failure because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I figured at 60 I had some chance of dying if I got it so I wrote a letter thanking them for their wonderful love and giving direction on the party to throw should I die (the important things like which champagne and red wine to serve and to play U2 all night). But in that letter I didn’t give them my passwords, how to get into our budgets and bank accounts and which professional calls need to be made in the event – which was exactly what my husband Bret actually had to deal with.

However, I did get to observe how hyper-organized my family is in a crisis and how they care for one another. Bret was with me in Maui and my 89 year old father was living in a community in Cupertino when I had my adventure on the beach. The police found Bret from a note in my pocket with our condo address on it (my Covid test form for the state of Hawaii) and the news went out across the phone lines. Within 24 hours the family had reconfigured. My sister flew from the UK to be with my father (in case the worst happened), our son flew to Maui to support his father, our daughter moved into our home to help her cousin with the dog and cat sitting since our stay would be extended. Rapid reconfiguration to make sure everyone, two-footed and four-footed, had support. I was impressed.

A clear difference from what happens on the professional front where I learned (for a second time) that I am not indispensable in any professional capacity. Yes, I knew this, but ego leads us to believe we’re valuable and would be missed. It’s very clear to me now that the people I work with who like and respect me would miss me (the person) but my wisdom/advice/experience is replaceable. My husband sent the professionally required emails since I would miss a number of board meetings; I watched the reactions colleagues had and value those which were about our relationship. But most wouldn’t miss me at all after the initial shock.

My father taught me that lesson. A colleague of his died unexpectedly one day (I must have been about 13) and my father went to the funeral. When he came home he was depressed and as he talked about the funeral the aspect that had upset him the most was not the sadness of the family, or the grief for a friend, but that as soon as the service was over his peers talked about who would replace the teammate who had died. Their focus was on themselves, and who would benefit from the change. Unless you are Steve Jobs or Elon Musk we are all professionally immediately replaceable. Makes me wonder why we work so hard.

When Bret called family and close friends to tell them what had happened (and many of these calls were before he knew what the final outcome would be) there were three types of reaction. One group’s immediate concern was for me— what did he know of my status, what was the treatment, what was the prognosis etc.? One group was concerned for him and our (adult) children—what could s/he do to help Bret, what did he need? And the third group was concern for themselves—what did it mean for them? All are very fair reactions. I do not judge that one is better than another but it is a humbling lesson to see and process why people react differently. 

And so to Freddie Mercury’s lesson: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters – nothing really matters to me.” 

Everything I think, or say, or do is unimportant and trivial in the grand scheme of the cosmos. The philosopher Epicurus had it right in ~300BC. Life is to be enjoyed with our friends, death is not to be feared and the Gods have no interest in humans at all. We are simply made up of atoms and once we die we are gone so what matters is how we live. 

I am a deist and don’t believe in life after death and so all I have, anything of importance is right now with the people whom I love and who love me, in the places I love and continuing to do what I can to improve the lives of the people around me. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy my work. I thrive on the intellectual challenge and want to serve my community; I want to continue to support my family. But work has to be seen in context, as a necessary part of life to make a living; I am finally learning my job is not my purpose.

But maybe the biggest surprise for me is that I have discovered I can be happy simply being quiet. I have spent my whole life on the move. Working, traveling, parenting, gardening, housekeeping but now that I need to stay still for a few months I am learning a new way of being. My heart has an electrical problem not a plumbing problem so the cure is rest and a defibrillator in my chest. I now relish the pleasure of dogs sitting at my feet in front of the fire who are happy to have me home all day, walking them a little further every day. Reading, and reading some more. Cooking. Becoming at peace with the silence, although I do miss being with my friends. The pandemic makes it easier to accept because there is nothing else I can do but instead of stressing against it I am learning how to relax into it for the very first time.

Not that I am not longing to travel and be on the go again. I am. I am desperately longing to get back on a plane, put on my Birkenstocks and walked the ancient streets. I will see Rome again before I die.

Photo: Orvieto cathedral © 2019 Penny Herscher


The critical difference between Governance and Management when you are on a board

This question comes up a lot when teaching wannabe directors. And it comes up with employees who are under the mistaken belief that their board actually manages the company. So let me demystify it now. We don’t manage. At all.

The critical difference is that the board is in place to provide oversight, not to make decisions. Oversight to ensure shareholders are well served. Oversight to ensure the law is followed. That, over time, the decisions the leadership team makes are good ones. Oversight to ensure the company is not damaged by a series of bad decisions. But none of these are the same thing as making decisions.

The CEO and his/her team’s responsibility is to make decisions that move the company forward. And they are the only people that can. They are the people closest to reality with real data about what’s happening on the ground. The board is simply not close enough to the day-to-day to make operating decisions.

Now it’s not so black and white that the board makes no decisions at all. But there are very few such as:

  • hiring (or firing) the CEO – this is always a hard one and usually takes boards too long to realize they have the wrong CEO and yet it is the most important decision a board ever makes.
  • the makeup of the board itself, and the committee structure – yet another decision that in the past boards did not spend enough time on and cronyism prevailed but now, with the emphasis on diversity at the board level, is finally getting enough attention.
  • CEO and pay structure – how much is cash, time based or performance based and is it passing the say-on-pay tests with ISS?
  • major financing or M&A events – clearly big decisions that the board must weigh in on, although in the end it is the conviction of the CEO that must carry the day.
  • response to activists – and this is one place where the board must actively engage, understand the activists position and determine how and whether to respond.

But even all these types, and similar, decisions are made through a process of discussion, consensus and then a vote rather than one person making a decision.

Otherwise, the boards job is to provide oversight and the most effective way to do that is to learn the art of questioning. This can be hard if you have been a CEO or an executive and you are used to making decisions and leading. It can take time to learn how to sit quietly listening, and then think about what question can you ask that will either improve your understanding or help the CEO make a better decision. You’re not paid to talk on a board. You’re paid to be thinking, deliberating and advising. Often less is more.

I heard a great question last week from a panelist on just this issue of how to learn how to question. We were discussing how to help a leadership team review their strategy which can sometimes be contentious because teams do get wedded to their strategies. And yet, you want to help them think through where they may be missing something, or making a mistake. The question this panelist suggested was “What would have to be true for you to be wrong?”. A great question which requires serious thinking about what assumptions the CEO may have that may not be true in the future, but without challenging that the strategy itself is wrong. And the oversight comes as you watch the leadership team respond to the questions, and make their final decisions. You judge on the quality of the decisions over time.

So next time you look at a board and think they are powerful think again. They are, but in a very narrow and yet important way for the health of the company and its shareholders.

Photo: Arches National Park © 2020 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Men to avoid: the ones who tell you to slow down

There is nothing more demotivating than someone above you in your chain of command telling you to slow down, to be less ambitious. Especially if you are a woman and the teller is a man.

This behavior is, of course, not new. So many of our mansplaining experiences are captured in the new book Men to Avoid in Art and Life by Nicole Tersigni – I’m using one of her captioned paintings here to illustrate my message. A laugh-out-loud joy of a book and Twitter meme.

I was coaching a young woman recently and she was extremely frustrated that her boss has told her to “slow down” and be “less ambitious”, in a way she knew was coming from her age and gender. This young woman is mid twenties, smart, high energy, driven and very ambitious. She is an immigrant and has worked hard to get a college degree and now her US citizenship. She has big plans for herself and her career and having spent several sessions with her now I can see she is an employee you would want in your company. I’d want to tap into the precocious, precious combination of intellect and willingness to work really hard.

But that was not the case this time.

I can relate because the same happened to me early on in my career. If you are a young female in tech, more driven than the men around and above you then you are threatening to them. It is easier to put you down, tell you to “be patient” than it is to tap into your energy and drive because you just might overtake them as a result!

Good managers understand this. They see the potential and feed it. Stretch you, give you tough projects that challenge you. I was happy to work really hard and lose sleep if it meant I got a bigger opportunity both to win for the company and grow my skills. It’s your right as a talented employee to be stretched if you want to be stretched.

So if you find yourself being held back, being told to slow down, to be a little more humble, it is time for you to move on. Find yourself a new manager within your company if the problem is a local one with your manager, or if it is a result of the company culture find a new company to work for. And don’t be afraid to be visible so your new manager, or a recruiter, can find you.

Photo © Chronicle Books

My Personal Journey

The velvet-lined rut

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am a privileged Silicon Valley executive with no grounded reason to complain. I have my home, my family (our adult kids came home) and a living that creates a comfortable lifestyle. So don’t feel sorry for me.

But here I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, back in lockdown in a state where the infection numbers are going in the wrong direction, turning sixty today. Wow – that’s a big number. I’m not afraid of it, but as I look back on the lives I have led, and look forward to the lives I still plan to lead, I cannot believe I find myself living a life which, while comfortable, is a velvet lined rut where I can’t see over the edges to the track and the fields and the horizon beyond. And which is not the life I chose.

I have always traveled since becoming a working adult. I’ve been all over the world, as have most tech execs, meeting people, learning, stretching my mind on technology and culture. I’ve always traveled for fun too. Back to Europe at least once a year, even when the kids were little. Dragging the family to Asia, to Europe, to Central America, to the Middle East, to Italy and France over and over, reveling in the art, food, history and excitement of the new experience.

Travel is a choice. Some people never have the choice because of their work but many office professionals do. There comes a point in a career where you choose whether to concentrate your career near home, or not. Some people don’t want to be on a plane every week. They prefer the stability and security of being home every night and choose a career path accordingly. But I never chose to be domesticated the way I have to be now.

I thrived on the variety and stimulus that comes with a mobile lifestyle. Visiting customers, factories, conferences and international colleagues. For some, like me, the movement became the purpose. The lack of repetition, the continuous joy of moving from place to place and experience to experience. The visual stimulus of art; the palate stimulus of food; the ability to wander free, accountable to no-one in the moment. Human beings are, at their core, nomadic and with me that desire is right at the surface.

So lockdown is a challenge. A maturing opportunity – at sixty – to grow up maybe? To stop searching and stay in once place? At fifty I wrote that I recognized the loss and challenges of aging, “Clearly only a healthy dose of humor and self-depreciation is going to get me through this.” At fifty five I retired to sit on boards and travel. At sixty aging has now taken over my body so I can’t worry about that any more – so I serve on a number of boards, 100% on zoom, but no travel! Unthinkable. Especially when I now know we (office workers) can work from anywhere. The lockdown proved that if nothing else. I could do my job from Italy as easily as my living room, if they’d only let me in.

This pandemic is a dramatic loss of freedom for everyone. But life is now distilled down to its essence – the pure spirit. There is no room for frivolity, no room for superficiality in the face of so much tragedy and restriction of movement. My only choice is to learn to appreciate the velvet in my rut and cherish the time – not knowing how long it will be.

Photo: Pompeii © 2011 Penny Herscher


Stop focusing on your startup valuation!

It never ceases to amaze me how hung up entrepreneurs get on the valuation of their startup as they raise money. It came up in a coaching session again yesterday.

In the abstract yes, valuation matters. It tells you how much of your company you are going to sell in order to raise money. It sets a baseline for you which you will (hopefully) exceed on your next raise. It’s a validation that your work has value.

But it is NOT a measure of pride, or ego, or size.

Your valuation, like a stock price, is a reflection of the perceived value of your company at the moment in time when you are raising money. There will be times when the startup market is hot and you can command more, there will be times when it has cooled because of an economic downturn, or a global pandemic, and your valuation will be lower. Or the market your idea is in is hot, or not.

What matters more than valuation is: Are you getting the right amount of money to give your idea life? Think about the next one, or two, major milestones you need to achieve to prove your idea will work and is scalable. Then figure out how much money you need to raise to get 90-120 days past the critical proof point. Add to that number to allow for the unexpected and that is how much you must raise. Once you have that you are looking for an investing partner who shares you vision and will be with you on the journey.

The other consideration is what value opportunity are you creating for your employees? The higher the valuation on funding the higher their option strike price and so the less money they will make when you finally reach liquidity. Now, if your company is a rocket ship, the difference between an option price of 50 cents or a dollar doesn’t matter, but at a later stage the difference can matter and when there is a preference stack on your company getting greedy can wipe out your employees’ opportunity. We’ve seen this happen with unicorns who achieved huge valuations only to have them come down dramatically on sale or IPO. So don’t lose sight of the need to make your employees money as well as yourself.

I have written before that all venture capital firms are not equal. Some are good, some are awful. The same applies to angels btw. I have seen short-sighted angels do more damage to young companies and entrepreneurs than I would have thought possible by focusing on their cut and not the long term health of the company.

It is more important to a) raise the money you need and b) find a long term investing partner than finding the best possible valuation. If you own 40% of your company but it is worth $20M at the end you have short changed yourself and the impact your idea can have if, instead, you own 15% and it is worth $1B.

Photo: Stone canon balls Jordan © 2017 Penny Herscher


How boards must change

“The full weight of responsibility for change rests with those who control the institutions” – White Fragility:Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Our institutions in the US are led predominantly by men. Women would simply not have the rights we cherish today, such as the right to vote, if the majority of men in power had not supported them. 

Companies have been paying attention to gender diversity among employees for some years now. It’s been talked about at length but it was not until California mandated that boards include women, and major investors like Blackrock began to use their weight to require female directors, that many companies have moved quickly to bring one, or more than one, woman onto the board. Finally, when faced with a potential fine or a “no” vote from a major shareholder, boards listen. European boards would not be 40% female unless it was the law. Setting, and meeting, serious targets works to bring about change.

But our institutions are also led by people who are predominantly White, or if you are in technology, White or Asian. Which means we, the leaders, carry the responsibility to create the change needed to make our workforces, our leadership teams and our boards racially diverse. It’s both the right thing to do, and we now know diversity creates better decisions and better results so there is no business reason to object.

As Omar Johnson says in his compelling Open Letter to White corporate America “Inside your company walls, you need to hire more Black people. Period.” 

I am horrified by the recent murders in the Black community. The human and social cost of systemic racism in the US is sickening. I am humbled by my ignorance and committed to getting better educated and taking action. I must do better. Our companies must do better.  

The way I, and my fellow directors, can effect change is to be committed, supported by action, to helping our companies become truly diverse at all levels. Racially diverse and gender diverse. It will take time but boards and governance committees are responsible for reviewing our ESG programs–Environment, Social and Governance–and to show progress. This was a growing area of focus which is now in the bright spotlight of current news. Several large institutional investors had started to demand diversity at the board and executive levels, which will add fuel to drive change.

As directors we must ask the questions and require the metrics which will drive meaningful, ongoing improvement to racial diversity in our companies. It’s past time.

Photo: The Alhambra Spain © 2018 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher