The Gaslight of our Times

I am in love with Sheryl Sandberg.

Not a romantic love (though she is pretty attractive as well as inspirational), but the female equivalent of Man Crush (is there a name for this?). I gobble up any videos of her on the web. I read and highlight every second quote by her. I find myself dreaming about meeting her someday and giving her a big hug and gushing about how grateful I am that she is in the world and how incredibly brave she is for speaking up from her position.

She is a woman who has ‘made it’ who isn’t afraid to say that it was a struggle to get there. She’s honest enough to talk about the times when people tried damaging her reputation, targeting her in large because she is a woman:

Do I believe I was judged more harshly because of my double-Xs? Yes. Do I think this will happen to me again in my career? Sure. I told myself that next time I’m not going to let it bother me, I won’t cry. I’m not sure that’s true. But I know I’ll get through it. I know that the truth comes out in the end, and I know how to keep my head down and just keep working. READ MORE

The comments on the article are telling of the underlying biases and attitudes that hold back women. And the same arguments against Sheryl’s honest telling of her trail to success are railed against many other women who are telling the story as it happens: “You are imagining things.” “Stop blaming everyone else for your failures.”

In fact, I watched a kickass woman I admire (and ALSO have a girl-equivalent Man Crush on), Sarah Prevette, experience the same type of comments after being featured in the Globe & Mail by Amber MacArthur. One commenter called Sarah a woman “looking for excuses.” Is this the same Sarah Prevette I know who is the LAST person on the planet who looks for excuses?

I know the struggles. I feel them. I started a Google Group to discuss how we can combat the subtle sexism that Sarah talks about because I’ve had the same conversation with every kickass woman CEO, founder, executive and entrepreneur I know. It goes like, “They don’t say it, but I *know* they treat me differently. They aren’t taking me seriously because I don’t act like a man and when I act like a man, they call me difficult.”

How many VC meetings have I been in where the VC turns to me and says, “Yeah. I just don’t get it. Maybe I’ll show it to my wife.” BURN! Really? Would he say that to a man pitching him the same concept?

Hell, even the VCs (or angel Paige Craig in this case) are talking about how the subtle sexism works and getting shut down. And I look at the companies getting funded…UBER funded…versus those NOT getting funded (or those getting underfunded) and I see lots of women in the underfunding/non-funded category while the same damned ideas are getting money thrown at them when they are led by men.

I had a candid conversation with a prominent tech reporter who told me s/he pitched an undercover story on exposing the VC bias toward young male founders (planting the same idea with a different gendered CEO in front of the same VC firms) who was told it would never happen because it would be too scandalous and the media company would get blacklisted.

But I get the messages from people saying, “Stop talking about this stuff. You’ll only get blacklisted yourself.” and I think about Gaslight, the 1944 Classic Movie with Ingrid Bergman (one of my faves of all time). From the description:

Years after her aunt was murdered in her home, a young woman moves back into the house with her new husband. However, he has a secret which he will do anything to protect, even if that means driving his wife insane.

It’s an amazing metaphor for how many women in technology are feeling today. We are sure we see the signs that discrimination still exists, but then they are explained away or we are told “you are being crazy/blaming/whiny/etc.” and we start believing that we must be imagining it. It doesn’t stop us from moving forward, but it takes its toll emotionally and physically. It wreaks havoc on the personal lives that help re-vitalize us. It isolates us. It pits women against one another. Soon we believe our own insanity.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious. It’s, as Sarah pointed out, SUBTLE. There isn’t a glowing example to point at and say, “See? Look at that? I was right!” It happens in whispers. In comments. In unchecked biases. In rules that favor certain types. It displays itself in absence.

I don’t know how to name it, fight it, overcome it or even really expose it. But like Sheryl, the best I (or any other woman I know) can do is to keep our heads down and work hard and push through it so more of us get into power positions like Sheryl and even out the deck. On the way we are going to think we’re crazy and feel isolated and understand we need to work 5x harder to prove that we are worthy of our successes. We need to toot our own horns and ignore those who call us ‘self-promoters’ (I’ve heard this insult countless times). We need to seek out amazing men who get it and who will help us through their power to get there. We need to stop apologizing, using passive language (I do this too much) and just say, “I know what I’m doing. I’m awesome.” We need to come together and support one another – name it, but then change it.

Thank you, Sheryl. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Nilofer. Thank you, Cindy. Thank you every single woman who is on the Google Group, who has stood up, who continues to fight and who is paving the way. I’m in love with all of you.

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Categories: entrepreneurship, featured, personal

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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16 Comments on “The Gaslight of our Times”

  1. June 1, 2011 at 08:52 #

    I’m glad you are writing about this. When I moved to San Francisco almost 3 years ago and became involved with Silicon Valley startup culture I was aghast at the sexism (subtle and overt) I witnessed around me (something I had rarely experienced in my previous career). Not much was being said about it, I kept quiet myself. I am now watching this movement re/start with women and men speaking out about sexism in technology and startups. Gothamgal, Sandberg, @kurafire, @mike_ftw, and others have been active speaking out about this; it’s inspiring. Keep sharing your perspectives!

  2. Noelle McReynolds
    June 1, 2011 at 09:47 #

    Oh Tara- I feel the exact same way about you <3

  3. June 1, 2011 at 16:56 #

    Thanks for the great post and the excellent pointers to other material.

    I find it encouraging that many of the recent posts about women in tech and women entrepreneurs in general are addressing the subtle sexism that we all encounter. None of this will change if we – men & women – don’t discuss it openly and honestly.

    Huge kudos to you for being right out there with all this stuff, Tara.

  4. Vicky
    June 2, 2011 at 01:19 #

    I read a great post about this “The Man Who Knew”

    And yes, I heart Sheryl Sandberg. I think you can call it a gal-crush :)

  5. June 2, 2011 at 07:29 #

    Thank you thank you thank you. Having come from the era (I’m a boomer) where we were very honest about discrimination, it has become the new way to control women-subtle discrimination.

    Never mind those of us who asked for more respect and better wages have been negatively referred to as those radical feminist.

    I saw nothing radical in my Mother. She is a rather soft spoken woman who listens more than she speaks. She is an avid feminist and wrote many papers while in school that I loved hearing. She taught me while in school herself what she uncovered has happened over time and history for and to women.

    Did she go out and burn bras, nope, did she even go out and become a high level executive, nope. It was not her DNA and did not interest her. What she did do was raise a woman who sees very clearly what happens around her-she raised a woman who is not afraid to say the Emperor does not have on clothes. She raised a woman who went on to be an entrepreneur who supports women in business.

    My question is what will we do to be participants this continual victory for women? We all have an opportunity to make a difference instead of allow it to continue.

    I agree with Julie we need to have open conversations then take actions to expose it or we will never be on the other side of this ravine.

  6. June 2, 2011 at 09:10 #

    The undercover tech reporter idea is masterful. I hope some gutsy media company pursues it; any favor they lose they will more than gain with their women viewers/readers. Similarly, another smarty-pants Tara (Tara Mohr) wrote a fascinating piece in HuffPo ( about how Top Chef favors male chefs + how blind taste-testing would likely catapult more female chefs to stardom (like in the infamous blind auditions in orchestras which increased female hirings seven fold).

    Thanks for keeping an important dialogue going. I, too, admire Sheryl Sandberg. She points out challenges women face, but she also challenges women to demand more. A quote I loved from her recent commencement speech was this: “We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap.” Amen to that!

  7. June 2, 2011 at 09:45 #

    This conversation is even more needed now than it was when we were the age of those graduates Sheryl addressed.
    Sexism has gone from overt to covert.
    We have the chance to move this dialog forward, but not if we’re afraid to have it.
    I have been watching this bubble to the top again the past couple of weeks – and have many thoughts. But rather than leave a post on your own in the guise of a comment – I think I’ll finally sit down and write the danged thing.

    So I’ll just take this chance to thank you, Sheryl, and the dozens of kickass women I know who are still willing to take the brunt of the hostility so that it can be blunted and maybe even done away with by the time my daughter is my age.

  8. June 2, 2011 at 11:14 #

    YES, YES, YES and YES

    (Gaslight is also one of my all time faves).

    Beyond that?

    “Do Awesome Sh*t, Ignore The Haters” Is my mantra.

    To be honest, if someone refuses to work with me based on my gender, I feel sorry for them.

    They missed out on a GREAT opportunity. Yes, I’m awesome, smart and talented. If that makes me “bitchy” or “difficult”. Fine. They get a handwavy dismissal and I move on to greener pastures.

    It’s really just that simple, in my mind anyway.


  9. June 3, 2011 at 11:03 #

    What a terrific, nuanced piece that gets to the heart of it. Brava! That love is shooting right back atcha, big time.

    We want to put our heads down and work, and say nothing — just trust that it will be recognized. But it does nothing to change the behavior. And we work way too hard to tolerate not getting our due.

    And tech startups fancy themselves as being ahead of the curve in many things. They recognize, in part because the entrepreneurs are young without experience elsewhere, and investors are not subject to anti-discriminations laws as corporations are, that the net net is that they are very far behind much of the business world.

    And the insidious buildup of the ‘make her crazy’ rings so true. When a woman is not being called a ‘bitch’ for being assertive, the alternative is ‘psycho’. And that’s perhaps worse because it gives them permission then to question your stability and reliability as an entrepreneur. And I find this moniker gets thrown around more frequently as a woman ages, correlated with her growing confidence in calling out bad behavior (skills we build in life and especially parenting). They discount her as a ‘psycho’ who must be having ‘hot flashes’. And being not crazy when people think you’re crazy…..makes you crazy.

  10. June 6, 2011 at 08:53 #

    You rock!

    Work hard and good things will happen.

    I’m a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg too. I 100% agree that the way to make an impact is to do good work. Keep it up!

    PS- I’m a funded female founder-work hard and good things will happen.

  11. June 6, 2011 at 13:41 #

    I read the whole article about Sarah Pervette that you linked to and went over to her site only to discover twelve male faces staring back at me on her homepage. I was kind of floored, to be honest. I thought maybe the selection of photos was random, but refreshed it a few times and still – all male. I guess Sprouter’s visitors don’t want help from women?

    I have been in several other industries where the sexism is much worse – or more overt. I found the tech industry refreshing in comparison. Sure, it is all men, but in my experience, they have been incredibly helpful and welcoming, especially in DC where I recently moved – at least after they understood I wasn’t just a girlfriend. I agree that sexism is more insidious in the tech industry however and the excuses that “Women are just not interested” or “Gender differences are born innate” make my blood boil.

    I also despise the claim that the tech industry is clamoring for women founders and so now we somehow have the advantage. Riiight! I also asked an angel investor recently why there weren’t more women in tech, and he responded that women just can’t get along with each other. I implored him to never repeat such an idiotic statement again and schooled him on the real reasons (as I saw it).

    We need more work on all sides. At least we’re talking about it. No one even talks about the lack of Black women in men in tech. I could go on and on, but will stop here…

  12. June 6, 2011 at 15:39 #

    Rebecca: I went back to look at because I -knew- I had seen numerous women on their rosters before. The splash page doesn’t show any women, that’s true. Logging in and scrolling through the “Featured Experts” and found around a dozen (including Tara.) But it wasn’t until I was 5 screens in before I found the first one. That sounds like something that should be addressed.


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