women in industry

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


Golf is an old man’s game (in Silicon Valley at least)

It’s different here. Yes it’s not perfect, but it is so different. We don’t care if Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie, men don’t wear ties here and the last point in Julie Steinberg’s recent WSJ article on the Nine Rules Women Must Follow To Get Ahead  — that as a woman you need to “Dress well and play golf” is just out of touch.

Successful young people (men and women) in Silicon Valley certainly don’t need to play golf here to get ahead.

In 25 years of being a high tech exec I have played golf only once – and then it was only because the sales team begged me to – and they hired a pro to play with me so all I did was putt (I think they didn’t want me to slow them down!). I have never, ever felt I needed to play golf to get ahead. Even with the older golf playing execs I worked for I found they still liked to go out for a drink or a great meal to bond.

In today’s Silicon Valley the bonding hobbies are younger men’s hobbies. You are more likely to be bonding over the benefits of a titanium racing bike frame than over titanium clubs. You may well want to be able to discuss fine red wine. You will definitely need to be able to bond over tech gadgets and geek out on how many LEDs are in the new iPad.

And what I find so exciting about the under 35 generation here is that you are also very likely to bond over family. What little Katie is doing in school, where little Tommie likes to go camping. I see a generation of young nerds coming up who, while they still outnumber the girls 4 to 1, are very much more engaged in their homes, their families and their outdoor hobbies than the prior generation of executives where the old boys club and golf are much more prevalent.

So don’t pay attention to old school advice about having to play golf. Instead make sure you work hard, impact the business and either be the executive, or understand the next generation of execs coming up because they are the future.

But note: I have a few girlfriends who love golf – now that’s a good reason to play!


Is it ever acceptable to use the term “Rape” in a business context?

Are you made uncomfortable by the repeated use of the word “rape” in a work setting? To my surprise I was.

First let me preface this by saying I am no shrinking violet. I’m a CEO who grew up in the semiconductor business where blue language and sexual harassment is/was common. I’m tough to shock and I will drop an F-bomb myself to make a point (although I am trying to stop this!).

But I found myself in the middle of a conversation about how a class of vendors would “rape” the company being discussed. There were 10 men in the room and me, and the word kept getting repeated, with intensity, from person to person as the discussion grew. It’s not the first time I have heard the word rape be used for a company being “skewered”, “screwed”, “taken advantage of” etc. in a pricing and supply discussion. However, I was surprised to find myself reacting to the repeated, high energy use of the word. I had an internal stress reaction – I was distressed and very uncomfortable. Of course I schooled my body and face to make sure no reaction showed, and watched my own reaction flow through me until the conversation switched to another topic.

It made me consider whether it is ever OK to use such a violent word in a business setting?

Rape is a violent act, in 90% of cases against women. One in six women in the US has experienced rape or attempted rape – and it is one of the most under-reported crimes. Rape is featured widely in classical art by artists like Titian, Rubens and Poussin. It is shown both as a violent act and as in-the-end-she-liked-it in films. In no case are women, or most men, numb or indifferent to the physical and emotional violence of visual portrayal of the act, or the description of the act.

We use other violent words in business. We talk about “attacking a market”, we talk about “killing an issue”, sometimes we tastelessly use war terminology when describing a market strategy, talking about defeating the enemy. Business is not for the faint of heart.

But I find men talking about “being raped” by business terms a bridge too far. It’s insensitive to the violence of the real act and it’s terrible after effect on the victims. To me, it’s in the class of talking about women’s bodies in a business setting – carrying the objectification of women in the media into the workplace. It’s in bad taste and insensitive. But to bring the issue up at the time would be professional suicide (notice the use of the word for another violent act in a phrase which is in common use). So I just “suck it up”. Would you?


Girls and 1000 tech jobs in Nashville

We have a real problem with jobs in tech. We have more jobs than qualified people.

This is not in the news today because for much of the US population there are not enough jobs. Not enough jobs that people are trained for. And yet in Silicon Valley we have 1 tech position open for every 2 that are filled. Hiring great technical staff is tough and increasingly expensive.

But this is not just a California problem. At the Nashville Technology Council’s annual meeting last week the theme was Diversity – and all the discussion was around education and attracting IT workers to Nashville. They have 1,000 open positions and not having enough IT workers is a real, commercial problem for them.

Commissioner Hagerty, in his warm up speech, talked about the need for technical education in their schools and local colleges. Followed by Mayor Dean who covered many of the same themes and a sense of urgency about education investment. The Nashville Technology Council has a mission to “help Middle Tennessee become known worldwide as a leading technology community, the Nashville Technology Council is devoted to helping the tech community succeed.” – and their main focus this year is Technology Workforce Development.

It was really fun for me to speak to this group and their membership. 500 people, all of whom care about technology jobs in Nashville.

Here’s my talk. I cover the urgency of the need to get more women into technology and the changes we can make to help women stay in technology. Today, even if they start out in the technical field, half of our tech women leave tech in the first 10 years – they either leave in college or they leave early in their careers. It’s just too hard and too isolated.

But it does not have to be this way – and that’s what I talked about. We have to solve this problem as a country. By 2016 we will only be producing 50% of the tech staff we need as a country. Today less than 50% of our workforce (women) hold less than 5% of the leadership of the technology industry.

This is such a waste of talent. It’s a competitive, bottom line issue for any company that needs tech workers – whether they are in health care, energy or computing.

We’ve solved it at FirstRain. We have women in leadership positions in engineering – and we have a very flexible work environment. We can solve it everywhere, and as a country, if we want to.


5 leadership keys for women

Do women lead differently than men? Yes, usually. Do women face more barriers than men? Frequently. But do women often hold themselves back ? Yes.

I gave a leadership talk and Q&A, at a tech company in Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago where I was meeting with female leaders in a hardcore semiconductor company. Because it’s hardcore it was a small group, and because I grew up (professionally) in a hardcore technical environment like that I spoke to the things I have seen women do that hold them back as leaders – and how to flip these challenges around and turn them into advantages.

Here are the 5 keys to leadership as a woman (although not exclusively…) and each one is the flip side of a common weakness:

1. Embrace making decisions – they are fun

Companies need people who are decisive and courageous. A common issue with new entrepreneurs and young managers is that they hesitate to make decisions. It’s tough when you don’t know what to do, but it’s better to make a decision quickly and decisively, and be ready to change it if you are wrong, than to hesitate, hash it over many times, or wait for someone else (your board, your team, your boss) – or even worse time and delay – to make it for you.

Making decisions gets easier when you learn to trust yourself and your judgement – you can feel in your gut and in the tips of your fingers what to decide. Never underestimate your own intuition – it’s not a myth, it’s real.

I simply did not understand or trust this until I read Blink (the voice is my head is uber-critical) but now I love the feeling. I am not always right, and I definitely need and value advice, but I learned to trust, move forward fast, knowing that if I am wrong I’ll also figure that out quickly, or someone I trust will slap me.

2. Never ask whether, ask when

This is a mindset that many men are good at. They come out of of the womb asking when they’ll get that raise, when they’ll be promoted, when they’ll go kill that bear, not whether. Women so often talk about whether. Should I push for that promotion, should I ask for more money, will I get funded, will they promote a woman, will they like me?

Working with mostly men, and a few women, I see a pattern in the successful women. They don’t ask whether they have a right to what they want, they assume they’ll get it. They don’t particularly care what other people think of them, they care about getting the job done. They act like they are competent, it’s in their future, they are going to get it, and there is not any question of whether, just when.

3. Hire your betters

The fastest way to build a great team is to hire people who are smarter and more experienced than you in their field, and if you are technical these are probably mostly men today.

It can be intimidating to interview people who are senior to you – I know. It can be downright frustrating when you talk to men who, when they meet you, talk down to you because you are blond and forget that you are interviewing them (can you tell I’ve been through this?). Remember, you don’t need to be “the man” – you need to get the job done better than anyone else.

Stay focused on your vision for your team. A group of people who work for and with you, all of whom are smarter than you in some dimension but who want to climb the hill with you. Plan to grow into being their leader and if they are good people they will give you space to do it. Give in to fear of being usurped and you’ll fail because you don’t hire a strong enough team.

I confess I used to always try to hire my “elders and betters”. As time goes by the first becomes more difficult, but thankfully the second is still easy!

4. Speak up and be sure you are heard

I have often heard the complaint that a woman will say something in a meeting, not have her idea acknowledged and then a man will say the same thing and everyone will jump on a agree. There are even TV ads that make fun of this reality.

Given that this does happen, develop some tactics that help you be heard, and help you confirm that you have been heard. State your input and then ask a question that causes your co-workers to engage in your idea. Repeat yourself in different words. Go to the white board to sketch your concept – whether it is a process or a product idea – it’s really hard to ignore the person at the white board. If you are in an online meeting call on a co-worker by name to get their direct input on your idea. What does not work is speaking your piece and then waiting – that is the easiest way for you to be dismissed.

5. Put the company first and get results

And finally – the playing field is not level. Fact. Deal with it. To lead men and get ahead in a man’s world you need to work harder, be smarter and be more ambitious than the men around you.

The CEO lives in the place where the company and it’s results are all that matter to her. So practice that. In everything you do put the company first, ahead of your needs. Ahead of office politics (I wish I had known this from day one – I had to learn this one). Drive to results, be sure you get recognition for your results, and you will get ahead and become a leader.

Male dominance of tech is not going to change quickly so don’t complain, or hesitate, just get on with it. And if you are a leader – men, and women, will follow you. When you look over your shoulder you will know.

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.


Women want to make money too – and this is news?

In a world where women still make less money than men for the same job, iVillage and Today.com have released a survey that shows – shock horror – that salary is the most important criteria for a woman choosing a job.

“97% of working moms surveyed saying that salary is most important to them, followed by a family-friendly work environment (91%), job enjoyment (91%), flexible hours (86%), a short commute (83%) and health insurance for the family (81%)”.

Why is this news?

The report attributes this to “today’s fragile economy” and this infuriates me. Women are equal in the workplace and, like men, are ambitious, want to make money and want to grow their careers. The desire to make money has nothing to do with the “fragile economy” and everything to do with professional women finally coming of age.

Why do women continue to perpetuate the worldview that women are not as mercenary and tough as men? Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media wrote a hilarious “Letter to Women in Tech, I Let You Down” where she writes that she never got the memo to be meek and weak. The perpetuation of the concept that we are in any way less able or less ambitious is women hurting women for no good reason at all.

I certainly never thought for a moment that I would not succeed, make equal money, run the meeting, set the strategy, lead the company – why wouldn’t I? Because I don’t have a Y-chromosome? Seriously?

It is true women have to work hard. In our society they still do the majority of the household chores. As the iVillage survey reports “All moms, whether they are working or not, continue to be responsible for the majority of the household chores. In two-thirds of dual working families, moms are responsible for 75% or more of all the household chores, with 97% of those surveyed responsible for half or more of the duties in the house.”

Yes, a harsh side effect of the aforesaid missing Y-chromosome today but get over it ladies. Like breastfeeding in the middle of the night there are some things that are not going to change in our generation so the best strategy is deal with it, let the dust bunnies build up and, when you can, pay for extra help around the house. Now I have a cleaning lady; when my kids were little and I was taking my company public I had two nannies working shifts – and surprise, surprise my kids are just fine.

Yes I had moments of guilt but I want to be a role model to my daughter and every other nerdy, techy young woman out there that they can be anything they want to be – and yes still be happy and have a family. Technology is a fantastic place to grow your career as a woman because, in the end, all that really matters is how smart you are when you are architecting systems and writing code.

We must keep going and get all the way to the top. Women are still scarce as CEOs (especially in tech!) and in the board rooms which are still Male, Pale and Stale – as reported by BNET and Catalyst – and this is a direct result of the low numbers of women in the top jobs. There are enough women at the top now to show young women coming up that there Are No Limits.

I refuse to apologize for being an equal member of society and for wanting the same opportunity as any man. I expect to compete – I’d want no less. I watch men compete hard and ferociously for advancement and so should we. And when we win it’s not news. It’s expected.

Equality, Leadership

Is a broken arm a priority?

I found myself telling this story to a journalist last week as I described some of the weird and funny experiences that come with my choices in life. I’ve written before that I think balance is a myth – it’s impossible to achieve if you are a CEO and a mother – and there are days when you just have to choose.

One day when my son Sebastian was 8 years old – it was the last day of the quarter at Simplex. We had the traditional kind of business where revenue recognition was a major task on the last day of the quarter to make sure we were accounting for our orders correctly and shipping the right ones to make the number, as well as negotiating with customers to get business closed. Typically I would spend the day with my CFO and VP sales intently closing the quarter.

On the day in question, at about noon, I got a phone call from the nurse at Bas’s school – and she told me that Bas had fallen off the parallel bars and broken his arm. She’d called the nanny, and then my husband, but neither had answered and so I had to go and get him.

I remember standing with the phone in my hand and The Clash playing in my head trying to decide what to do: Should I stay or should I go? I walked into my CFO’s office and said “OK you guys have to do this without me. I’ll be back as soon as I can”.

When I walked into the nurses office Bas was sitting with his arm wrapped with ice and hadn’t cried until then. He broke down when he saw me -“Mom, I can’t believe you came,” he said. “It’s the last day of the quarter!”

He’d tell you that story if you asked him. Sometimes he tells it with pride for his mom. Sometimes it’s a great way to embarrass me!


Video interview – on raising venture capital as a woman

Pemo Theodore of EZebis is creating a series of interviews with women, and a few men, around the challenges and successes women face raising venture capital.

The low number of women entrepreneurs getting funded (see the WSJ chime in on this, and Techcrunch be controversial as usual) is a hot topic right now. And how and whether women should get extra help. Dip into the comments on these two articles to see how intense people get on the subject.

Here’s my interview with Pemo which she published today:

I’ve been fortunate enough to successfully raise money in the private and public markets over the last 15 years and I have some opinions about what it takes, and why women have to be serious about themselves, and not self sabotage. Bottom line – we need more women going into technology, and staying technology, and getting technical and operating experience. The statistics are not in women’s favor right now and we must change it.