gender discrimination


Do I need to look nice for you?

 I’ve been conditioned from an early age that what I look like to men matters. My mother was one who would put on lipstick at the time she knew my father was coming home from work and, based on 50+ years of conditioning, I have a part of my brain which worries all the time about what men think of how I look.

I had a chance a few days ago to remind myself of just how ridiculous this brainwashing is. It was Sunday and I had spent the whole day in sweats. I’d been to meet my best friend for coffee (she was also in sweats), I’d been to visit Bret’s mom (her Alzheimer’s is so advanced now she is just pleased to see me and doesn’t comment on my looks any more), I’d decorated the house for Christmas with my family and cooked dinner. A typical busy Sunday.

In the late afternoon my husband Bret had been watching the weather and decided to drive to Tahoe after dinner to snowboard; he coordinated with a friend to meet at the house and drive up together. We had roast chickens in the oven and lots of food and so I invited the friend to dinner.

And this is where my brainwashing kicked in. I found myself standing in the kitchen worrying and wondering if I should go and change. I did look like crap, I confess, but I was reasonably clean. Why did I care? Why such a concern that a man is coming to dinner and I am worried what I look like. If it had been a female friend it would not have even occurred to me. And I know for certain the friend did not care.

This sense of the need for women to please men and to worry about what they think is drilled into my brain and even though I am conscious of it now it frustrates me. The continuous voice in my head is perfectly captured in this powerful short video of the things women hear, over and over, throughout their lives that diminish them. Worth a watch whether you are male or female.

I know most of my male friends simply don’t have the same toxic voices in their head – and many of them, my dear husband included, don’t care what they look like 99% of the time. I’m determined to learn a new way of thinking about myself through my own eyes, not the eyes of the men around me.


5 Keys to Authentic Leadership

From a talk I gave at VMware in Palo Alto earlier this month

Leadership comes in many styles – charismatic, intellectual, bullying – but in all cases leadership is hard to sustain over time unless it is authentic. Real. Genuine. These 5 keys are from a woman’s perspective, but most apply just as much to men.

1. Embrace making decisions. 

Not only embrace them, but have confidence in how you make decisions. I’m a fast, intuitive decision maker. I make a decision on minimal visible information and then use data to check my decision. This means I cannot be afraid to be wrong and change my decision, but I will make it in my head, whether I like it or not.

For a long time, I thought that my method of decision making was in some way bad. Shortcut, or lazy but not a studied, analysis based approach which is what “smart” people do. I doubted myself and did not feel authentic about my own decision making! Until I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

As I read Blink I gradually realized that I was not crazy, but my method of decision making is actually very human. We have evolved to make snap decisions on limited amounts of data – some visible to us, some not – and when you can tap into that skill and embrace it is an advantage! But you do need to keep one ear open and keep listening to additional information as it comes in so you can course correct if you need to.

Embrace your decisions and be real about your decision making process. Don’t pretend otherwise – even if you’ve been taught it’s not ladylike to be assertive. If it’s your decision make it; if it’s someone else’s support them. Be direct.  It takes guts to make big decisions, but it’s what leaders do.

2. Don’t ask “whether”, ask “when”

This is an area where men typically differ from women. There are many studies now that show that men will ask for promotion before they are ready, whereas women will wait until they are over qualified to put themselves forward for promotion. I believe, if you have a goal, it’s really important that you communicate that goal out to your leadership confidently. Don’t think about whether you’ll get a promotion or a big opportunity, think about when you’ll get it. Talk with your management about what you want, and ask for their help to get you there.

American Express used this understanding of how women wait to change the demographics at the top of their company. They won the ABI Top Company for Technical Women in 2012 and when Yvonne Schneider accepted the award she spoke of how AmEx proactively trained their male managers to reach down into the organization and ask women to apply for promotions, often before they would have done it naturally themselves. As a result, women moved up into management alongside of men, and the top of AmEx was changed. AmEx didn’t ask whether, they asked when and reached down.

I knew I wanted to be a CEO after I had been working a few years. And being verbal, I talked about it with my network. With the coaches and VCs whom I was getting to know. And as a result I got told all the reasons I was not ready and the education and experience I needed to get to be ready. It was invaluable, and included my company Synopsys sending me to the Stanford Executive MBA to learn about finance and management (since all my formal training was in mathematics). Had I not spoken out about “when I’m a CEO” I would never have got the smack down and been told to learn about running a P&L first, which was the best advice I could have received at the time!

3. Learn to Act As If

You might think that learning to act is in contradiction to being authentic, but I find it’s a part of the process. There are so many situations where I have had to learn to act as if I belong, even though I am the odd man out (so to speak). For many years I went to Japan every 4-6 weeks for business meetings with my customers. In 6 years I was never, ever in a meeting in Japan with another woman. The only women I met were tea ladies. And through that experience I learned to act like a man. I was treated as an honorary male. I learned to drink whiskey late at night in small Osaka bars, and eat food that was still moving, and most of all, never show traditional female traits. That made me effective, and over time my behavior became natural and authentic to me.

And just a few weeks ago I went to a dinner in Palo Alto for 100 CEOs and I was the only woman in the room. By now I’ve learned to “act as if”. As if it’s not odd being alone in a crowded room and relax. That allows me to be authentic in the moment.

4. Balance is a myth

I’ve written and spoken about this many times here and here. I spoke about it again at VMware. We’re in a competitive industry. We’re competing on a global scale. It’s important to decide what matters to you at any point in time, and focus on that. Balance doesn’t win intense market share fights or create dramatic innovation. 

And sometimes you just have to let go and be human. Like the time my son broke his arm on the last day of the quarter. This story always gets a laugh… because it’s true!

5. Laughter is the best weapon

Gender discrimination is all around us, all the time. Some days I think it’s getting better, some days when I see the games being played in the San Francisco tech startup world I think nothing’s changed, but my approach remains the same: when it happens to you keep a sense of humor. It’s hard for men to discriminate if you are humorous in your response, and it help you keep your head on straight and not get mad.

One day, when I was a CEO, I was at the beginning of a meeting with a group of investment bankers who did not yet know my company. We had not yet introduced ourselves and one of the group knocked over a diet Coke. Without missing a beat the banker turned to me and said “sweetie can you clean that up?” I smiled, went to kitchen for paper towel, came back, cleaned up, went and washed my hands, came back, reached out my hand to the banker and with a big smile said “Hello, my name is Penny, I am the CEO”.

One evening, I was at a dinner with people I did not know, at a table of men. During dinner I felt a hand on my knee, creeping under my napkin suggestively. I leaned towards the man whose hand it was, gave him a big smile, lifted his hand up and put it back on his lap and said “no thankyou”.

I have a thousand stories like that, and I have found humor defuses almost any situation. Especially if you are a leader in the group. If someone discriminates against you it is rare that it is overtly intentional. And if you can, try to work with men who have wives who work or daughters. Your humor will make them catch themselves and think about what they are doing.

In the end effective, authentic leadership is all about results. Being authentic means you are focused on the real, the now and reaching the end in mind. You don’t get caught up in what people think about you – instead you try to be your most complete self in the moment – and so be effective.


The dark side of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is on a roll right now. The relatively low levels of capital needed to start a software company has meant that start up incubators and small software companies wanting to be the “next big thing” are popping up all over. Bars are crowded, San Francisco is hip and traffic is worse than L.A. All signs of a booming economy and tech infrastructure that has spawned new wealth-generators like Facebook, Zynga, Instagram and now Yammer.

And yet, this is just the face we like to present to the world. Underneath, as in any competitive society, there is a dark side.


Ben Horowitz captured the psychological pain of the struggle of being a company founder and leader in his blog post The Struggle last week. He captures perfectly the isolation, the pain, the cold sweat of building a company which, in 99.99% of cases, does not goes smoothly. Being on the emotional roller coaster of building a new company can lead to depression. It can be hard to setp up every day and face your demons and the risk of failure while all around you seem to be succeeding (because no one talks about the failures). We saw this tragically recently in the case of the suicide of Diaspora founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy.

I try to remember that it’s “not checkers; this is mutherfuckin’ chess” (to quote Ben) and manage my stress with swimming. But even for me, who’s lived the entrepreneur’s life for 15 years, there are days…


It’s illegal to discriminate on age – employees over 40 are a protected class. But the new generation of companies doesn’t seem to know or care. The median age of Google is 31, the median age of Facebook is 26. They are hiring a generation of new employees who know Java but not C++, who can sell ads over the phone, and who cost a great deal less than experienced employees. Contrast that with computer and communications companies like HP and JDSU who need experienced hardware engineers and have median ages of 44 and 47. At FirstRain, we need both experienced and less-experienced employees to build our solution so we have a healthy mix, but even so I am the oldest employee. Yikes.

It’s illegal to discriminate on race too – and yet, as Vivek Wadhwa discovered when he reported the dearth of black and latino employees in Silicon Valley, it’s a contentious issue and he found himself being dismissed by Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington for highlighting the issue. As Vivek says “an elite group of power brokers, exemplified by Arrington, is totally ignorant of the hurdles faced by minority groups”. But like the shortage of women, this issue starts in middle school and perpetuates into college with the shortage of graduating engineers. We are so short of good engineers in the Valley now that I don’t see race or gender discrimination at the engineer level — I see a dire shortage of qualified candidates.

Feeding the cash monster:

Companies take cash. They consume cash. Salaries, rent, insurance, computers, bandwidth, data center fees… it’s never ending. And once you raise money you are a slave to the cash monster because you have investors who want growth. They want success. And that takes more cash. I watch some of the new young companies raise (too much?) cash, and then spend it on flash offices and parties (see below) and fear for them. Do they know what a down round feels like?

In the social media world, like the dot.com era, the focus is on users and eyeballs, not on profitability, which will work for the very few who ramp fast, get bought and exit. But it takes cash to do that. Consider Yammer which raised $140M to build a Facebook-like service for the enterprise and has purchased by Microsoft for $1.2B. But that’s the exception. Most new companies cannot get access to that level of capital and they underestimate the cost of user-acquisition. Unless you are in the in-crowd with a runaway success you’ll be feeding the cash monster with VC rounds and sleepless nights until you get profitable.


But on the flip side of the cash monster… The dot.com boom brought with it a period of excess that hyped, and ultimately hurt the Valley. Companies celebrated raising money and launching products with wild parties – never mind that they had no idea how to make money. Then for a while the Valley sobered up. Companies got back to work, profitability became fashionable, companies talked about helping non-profits and excess was considered bad taste. Especially as the great recession hit and companies worked hard to preserve their cash.

But now, even though the rest of the world is still struggling, the Euro-zone is in crisis and 8.1% of the US workforce is without work, the excess is back in Silicon Valley. Once again companies are celebrating launches, and recruiting and, as Business Insider reports, there sure are a lot of parties going on.  Are we tone deaf to what’s happening to the rest of the world? Is this, again, the result of too much money flowing in?

As Rob Cox wrote in Newsweek, in his analysis of Silicon Valley’s undeserved moral exceptionalism – we are not as altruistic as we’d like the world to believe. He makes the case that “though Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires may anoint themselves the
saints of American capitalism, they’re beginning to resemble something
else entirely: robber barons.”
  For example, the flagrant disregard for privacy prevalent in the new, free apps is stunning. When I gave my TEDx talk at Gunn High School a few weeks ago I surprised many of the students as I explained how they are now the product – their every move and action is being recorded and sold in a way most of them simply do not understand.

But, in the end, these facets of Silicon Valley are capitalism at work. A lot of people work very hard, a few get very rich. Many make healthy salaries working on fun products and in exciting companies. Most will not get rich, but most will have a fun experience. But as the leaders in Silicon Valley, we need to pay attention to the dark side and not perpetuate it. We need to be aware of the stress the long hours and intense deadlines can create. We need to be circumspect about our good fortune. We need to hire the best and the brightest, no matter their age, gender or race.

And on the good days, like today, bring in ice cream for everyone!


Why are Women Funded Less than Men? – a new conversation

If you are thinking of starting a company, or raising venture capital, and happen to be female then Pemo Theodore’s new ebook is for you.

Why are Women Funded Less than Men? a crowdsourced conversation presents a thoughtful collection of advice on how to do it and the challenges you face, drawn from a fascinating set of video interviews. Pemo interviewed VCs, entrepreneurs and advisors, asking them all to speak about the issues and challenges facing women trying to raise venture capital.

In a world more than 95% run by men, and 95% invested in by men, advice for the female entrepreneur is invaluable, and by presenting the advice in short video form, Pemo makes it very easy to absorb and enjoy.

Raising venture capital has never been a problem for me, and as I watched the videos I found myself thinking was I lucky, good, or just really ignorant of the challenge? I very much resonate with the advice to not be aware of your gender as you pitch, to be aggressive and to ignore that you know most VCs are not women friendly – your idea is still great.

I also resonate with the advice from Janice Roberts at Mayfield Fund that you can empower yourself by choosing the right VC. Finding the right investing partner is critical – my advice on how to pick a VC is in this post.

Many of the contributors speak about how important confidence is. So many women let themselves down by expressing self doubt. DON’T. VCs are already taking enough risk – they won’t invest in someone that reveals their fears – and men don’t let on no matter how scared they might be. Be confident, project confidence, and your investors will follow you.

As I said in my forward for the book:

While the facts are that only 3-5% of venture capital goes to female entrepreneurs there is simply no good reason for this to be the case. Women are as strong and smart as men, and often have the advantages of better management skills and stronger team building ability. But today’s venture world is dominated by men looking for the classical male style of leadership and until that changes women need to adapt to the current rules of the game, get funded and win so they can change the game.

It take confidence, courage and authenticity and a healthy dose of advice and encouragement. This wonderful collection of advice, shared experience and often humorous stories will be an inspiration to any female entrepreneur. Pemo interviews across the spectrum: VCs, entrepreneurs, those who have succeeded, some that have failed, all that have learned and share their experience with you. It’s a terrific resource if you are raising money from venture capital, plan to do so for your next brilliant idea or are a VC yourself wanting to unlock higher quality deals by tapping into the female advantage.

The complete videos of Pemo interviewing me on raising money are here and here too.


Another ugly stereotype of women in the workplace

Sometimes I read articles about women in tech that make me angry, sometime they make me laugh. They rarely make me sad but this one did.

Penelope Trunk wrote a piece for BNET titled: Are Startups Better as Single-Gender Affairs? Based on the author’s experience in three startups it reinforces the stereotypes that women and men can’t work together because they are too different and just can’t get along.

This is just simply not true, but feeds the confidence of the men who don’t want to bring women into the workplace, or who want to pigeon hole them into safe roles. Why do women do this to themselves? Why do they reinforce stereotypes that hold women back?

Penelope cites that while she cried, the guys threw a fit, and this was too much drama for a small company. Ugh. Women cry, and trust me men cry too. Women use anger, and so do men. Everyone is emotional under pressure, male and female, and they show it in different ways. Some are overly timid, others are assholes. The tension certainly shows up but it’s not gender related.

Maybe I should not give her opinion credence by reacting to it, but BNET published it so it’s out there. Maybe I should ignore BNET from now on?

Diverse teams are simply more effective in small and large companies. They produce better results most of the time. But like any creative force they take management and leadership. Without that any team, all men or all women, will not succeed. And as female leaders we need to be very skilled because there are still too many people who are biased or ignorant of the benefits of women in leadership positions alongside of men.

And instead of hurting women’s chances in new ventures, women need to help other women until we have a decent balance in tech.

Career Advice, Equality

Go ahead and ask the “girl questions”

So often women long to ask the “girl questions” – the ones tied to their roles as mothers and household managers – and yet fear asking them in a male dominated workplace.

Every time I talk with groups of women about anything I am swamped with questions about child care, sharing house work and what my husband and/or kids think about me working and being a CEO. It’s as if there is a pent up demand for answers or guideposts along the road and yet, in reality, there are none.

Yesterday’s excellent New Yorker piece on Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg gives an example of how tough the question of whether to even ask the questions is – even women judge other women for asking:

“Earlier, Sandberg had described a talk that she gave at the Harvard Business School, after which all the women asked personal questions, such as how to find a mentor, and the men asked business questions, like how Facebook would deal with Google’s growing share of the cell-phone market. Telling this story, Sandberg was critical of what she considered to be “girl questions.” Now Priti Youssef Choksi, Facebook’s director of business development, asked whether it was “a girl question” to pose concerns about, say, maternity leave.

Sandberg and the female executives in the room said that they thought it risked being a “girl question” if it was asked in a “whiny” way. Choksi pressed the point, describing a female employee who had recently talked to her about taking a short maternity leave because she feared that she would lose her job if she stayed out longer. When Sandberg came to the company, she changed the policies to allow men and women four months, but this employee wanted to take only one. “As much a girl question as that might be,” Choksi said, “the logistics of being away for X amount of time is something women are afraid of, and I’d rather tackle it head on.

“I agree,” Sandberg said, retreating from the much sterner position she had taken moments ago.”

For many executives, male and female, if you ask too many “girl questions” you risk them labeling you as too concerned about “women’s issues”, but as an employee if you don’t ask you risk missing understanding and context for your choices at the company you work for which can be an important part of determining what strategy to take so go ahead and ask. The important thing is to be matter-of-fact about it – never whiny, never paranoid – just pragmatic. My choice on child #2 was to take him into the office at 4 weeks old for a week because the company needed me in – and after the first shock no one minded (you can read some of my funny experiences along the way here).

Two weeks ago I was interviewing a young female candidate – mid thirties with 4 year old twins. After an hour of highly professional discussion she then asked me about our health insurance… and before I could even answer her question she was apologizing for asking, repeatedly! She was hyper sensitive about being perceived as weaker than a male candidate or needy. She even told me she does not think her managers know she has children and she wanted it that way.

This level of concern and awareness of being a woman in a male workplace backfires. I don’t believe you want the issue to be a lightening rod, instead make is a simple part of who you are as an employee. “I have a family – tell me about your health benefits”. Note – the only case at FirstRain so far where we have had an employee out for an undue period of time because of a birth was a young dad out because his baby was an extreme preemie. You can bet he was as focused on his family as any new mother would be!

My advice to women coming up and dealing with the challenges of raising a family at the same time as building a career is to be open and authentic about it. Never whine, never see yourself as a victim. See yourself instead as a valuable, skilled employee that your company needs and wants and then other people will see you as you see yourself. And if your company penalizes you find a better company to work for. Seriously.

And in the right setting, with other women facing the same issues you are, share the ideas that can help you navigate the very real challenges of a having little children and a strong career at the same time.


I get called a “naughty girl”

Sadly there is no titillation with this story – just the usual gender patronage.

I was on the phone with a sixty-ish business man a few days ago and I was selling. Not selling hard but describing my business and answering his many questions as he queried me to get a good sense of where we are, what our strategy is and the source of our momentum.

After an hour of high quality conversation I went for the close and asked for his conclusion. His response “You are a naughty girl for asking me so directly”.

I was gobsmacked. Can you imagine a man saying “you are a naughty boy” to another man? In any business setting?

So, gentle-reader, how, pray, did I respond? Jane Austen would have been proud of me. I stayed with my immaculate good manners, apologized for being so direct, and reminded him that he would think less of me if I did not try to close him, all with a sense of humor.

In the end it’s just funny. I know this gentleman greatly respects me. He’s just not aware of what his words communicate and he’d be mortified if he was so I am not going to tell him, I’m just going to succeed in his world.


Gender bias is alive and well in Silicon Valley

I was very amused by a recent post on TechCrunch by Vivek Wadhwa:

Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem.

It’s a good read – and a less politically correct article than the one Vivek wrote in Business Week. Here are some stats from it:

An analysis of Dunn and Bradstreet data shows that of the 237,843 firms founded in 2004, only 19% had women as primary owners. And only 3% of tech firms and 1% of high-tech firms (as in Silicon Valley) were founded by women. Look at the executive teams of any of the Valley’s tech firms – minus a couple of exceptions like Padmasree Warrior of Cisco, you won’t find any women CTOs. Look at the management teams of companies like Apple – not even one woman. It’s the same with the VC firms – male dominated. You’ll find some CFOs and HR heads, but women VCs are a rare commodity in venture capital. And with the recent venture bloodbath, the proportion of women in the VC numbers is declining further. It’s no coincidence that only one of the 84 VCs on the 2009 TheFunded list of top VCs was a woman.

Since I’ve lived this for more than 20 years now I am a mine of funny stories about gender bias, and it’s not a myth – it’s real – but you have to stay amused or it would just be depressing.

For a while I thought the issue was over, or at least getting better, but a posting by Megan Berry on HuffPo – The Gender Battle’s Not Over – confirms that even though she is only 22 she finds the dearth of women as prevalent as ever.

With the VC community it’s all about natural bias and exposure. Silicon Valley is the land of the tech frat boys. Lots of nerdy men – some young – some not so young – fascinated with technology and admiring or dissing each other as they work on it. Because the majority of VCs are male they hang out with men all day. Women are an oddity. Many women of my generation have become tougher and more male in order to fit in – you only have to hear Carol Bartz drop an F-bomb on her earnings call to know that she learned to be tough and one of the guys very early on at Sun Microsystems.

My approach was just to work harder, be smarter, and be more ruthless than the guys around me. But even now when I have been successful as a female entrepreneur, backed by some of the best VCs in the valley, even I get stopped in my tracks sometimes.

Just one little example to wet your appetite: the VC who told me “we don’t hire female CEOs because when we have to fire them they always sue for sexual harassment”. It’s true CEO turnover is high in small companies and as a CEO you have to be ready to be fired if you don’t perform, but for a VC to not want to hire a female because he thinks he’d be sued if he fired her – yikes!

My response to that comment…..”That’s not my style. If I was the type to sue for sexual harassment I’d have done it a long time ago given what I’ve experienced”.