Long before the global employee walk-out at Google in November 2018, when more than 20,000 women and their male colleagues protested working conditions and pay inequality at the company, Google co-founder Sergey Brin revealed why there might be a problem. Asked to name his own female role model at a 2017 staff meeting, Brin struggled. According to those present he was, in fact, stumped.
Finally, he recalled being impressed by an outsider he’d recently met at a company event, but her name escaped him. Larry Page, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reminded him that the (relatively) impressive woman Brin had spoken to was Gloria Steinem.
As far as we know, Steinem has never worked for Google or had the opportunity to actively mentor Mr. Brin. The anecdote about Brin’s confusion, as reported by the New York Times and several other sources, aptly illustrates a key deficit in the American workplace beyond the well-documented lack of women CEOs and other C-suite executives. The notion of having a female role model to look up to, seek as a mentor, or simply affirm one’s own ambition to “make it” in business, has been exclusively limited to one class of workers: younger women.
The primary blame for the paucity of successful women business leaders has generally centered on three reasons over the last 50 years: 1) not enough qualified women in the pipeline; 2) male leaders who are afraid, especially after #MeToo, to individually mentor a female subordinate no matter how talented she might be; and 3) men at the top who are most comfortable promoting employees “who look like them.”
Reason No. 1, the pipeline problem, was Harvard Business Review’s unapologetic excuse for naming just three women to its December 2018 list of the 100 Best-Performing CEOs in the World. Noting that 2018’s female numbers had increased by a whopping 50 percent from the prior year—there were two female CEOs listed in 2017—the prestigious publication lamented that it had no leeway on the 3 percent figure. “It’s the result of very low female representation among the CEOs of global S&P 1200 companies, the universe from which our ranking is drawn,” said the list-makers.
The magazine explained that the S&P 1200 index comprised 70 percent of the world’s stock market capitalization, adding that no one who had been on the job for less than two years was included on the Top 100 list, nor was anyone who was convicted of a crime or arrested. Boasting that its list included executives who “ran enterprises based in 29 countries,” one can easily picture the female CEO in Tokyo or Houston opening her copy of the magazine and sighing, “Ah, here’s the CEO status quo issue … again.”
Reason No. 2, the fear of meeting with a female subordinate anywhere other than an open-door, glass-walled office illuminated by very bright daylight, gathered significant steam thanks to comments by Vice President Mike Pence. In 2016, Pence told the Indianapolis Star that he had strict rules to avoid even “rumors of impropriety,” including never working late with a female assistant, and never dining alone with a woman other than his wife. At least one law professor correctly noted on the Vox news site that Title VII guarantees equal access to one’s employer for all workers. The vice president has countered that his rules protect his self-defined “zone of marriage,” leading to the conclusion that, for this man, his female role model has to be his wife, Karen Pence, a choice with which he would undoubtedly concur.
As to Reason No. 3, promoting lookalikes, the practice of encouraging men to identify female role models does provide some hope for change. Assuming that men in power prefer advancing workers with the Y chromosome because it “just feels more comfortable,” but also assuming they would consider a woman “if she is [equally] qualified,” what might sway the executive’s decision? We know that women dressing like men failed way back in the 1980s, with the demise of women wearing little ties around their necks. Women are never going to “look like” the male executive’s idea of a leader if he’s seeking a doppelganger. But a female would be much more likely to be chosen if the executive himself were grateful for some strong woman who had continually inspired him during his career.
Imagine if he consistently thought to himself “What would she do in this crisis?” or “How would she react to this problem?” or even “What would she advise me to do right now?” A businessman in the habit of asking himself these questions is already accustomed to powerful women of the most salient kind: female role models.
One easy way to implement the process is to include a mandatory interview question: “Who is your female role model?” And, to avoid the Pence problem, adding the words, “outside of your family.” The question could work both ways, to be asked by the interviewer as well as by the applicant. Someone at Google had the guts to pose it to Sergey Brin. Now we need to make it as common as “Tell me about yourself.”
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps businesses and individuals with workplace issues, including MSP Communications.