The Sexism Blind Spot: What I learned at Women in Product 2017

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Last week, I was sitting in a coffee shop in California with my boss, Nicole, when she revealed that when she was in her thirties she failed her company’s sexual harassment test. Wait, what?

Let me explain. Nicole spends a lot of her time talking about how to get more women into tech by focusing on proactive hiring practices, by creating environments that are welcoming to women, and by mentoring young, talented women from atypical backgrounds. In fact, the reason we’re in California is to attend the 2nd annual Women in Product conference.

All week, we’d been chatting excitedly about how incredible it would be to be surrounded only by women at a tech conference. That’s when Nicole dropped the bombshell that she’d once failed a sexual harassment test.

“The reason for this,” Nicole pauses, “is because I was a woman working in tech. I just assumed that all the things I was experiencing were ok. I didn’t realize I was supposed to question them!” And suddenly, the reason we’re attending the Women in Product conference becomes even clearer. Nicole continues: “I didn’t even experience anything that bad!”

One of the common themes at the conference was the subtle sexism that women face every day in the workplace. While dicier topics like how to respond to unwanted advances from investors did come up, most of the day is spent discussing more subtle forms of sexism such as:

While most of the day left me feeling empowered, there are still moments that reminded me of how far we have yet to go. One start-up founder mentions that during pitches she would emphasize that her co-founder was a man in order to gain credibility with investors.

Another woman, a self-identified ‘brown, female CEO’, recounts making a game out of seeing how long it took partners to realize that her white, middle-aged, male employee wasn’t her boss. When one of the speakers asks how many women have been told that they are ‘too aggressive’, almost every hand shoots into the air.

During the welcome presentation, we discover that out of all the conference attendees,

40% have faced discrimination as a Product Manager because they were a woman. I am surprised the number isn’t higher, and would wager that many of the remaining 60% who said ‘no’, or declined to state, have faced discrimination, but weren’t able to recognize it because of their ‘Sexism Blind Spot’ – a similar blind spot to the one that lead Nicole to fail her sexual harassment test. When certain behavior goes on for long enough, it becomes the norm, and we stop recognizing that it is even a problem.

Slide from Women in Product Conference, 2017

So, what do we do with these experiences? The first step is learning to question the covert sexism we face each day. We need to stop accepting lower pay, we need to stop giggling uncomfortably when someone makes a ‘well-intentioned’ joke about women in the workplace, and we need to continue doing everything we can to create an environment where women (and men!) feel comfortable working.

We need to question traditionally male forms of leadership, and replace hierarchical, authoritarian, competition-driven systems with structures built on empathy, compassion, and mutual respect. We can’t be blinded to sexist practices, just because they are the norm.

Change won’t happen until we are able to recognize the problem – so I ask that all women continue to recognize, call out, and fight against the problems that they see in the workplace, even when they seem ‘small.’  Because the sooner we get rid of our blind spots, and learn to identify sexist practices (even subtle ones), the sooner we will be able to create an environment that makes women – and all workers – feel welcome, empowered, and successful.

You can read about Nicole’s experience at Women In Product 2017 here: Why Women In Product 2017 gave me goosebumps