That's What She Said
Introduction: Men Aren’t the Enemy
This book began with a flight to Des Moines. In most ways, it was uneventful. The businessman sitting next to me couldn’t have been friendlier. Over plastic cups of white wine, we chatted about his business, his new house in a New York suburb, and his kids’ sports teams.
Then I mentioned I was on my way to speak at a women’s conference. Suddenly my neighbor froze.
“Sorry!” he snapped. “Sorry I’m a man.”
I looked down awkwardly into the bottom of my wineglass. My seatmate gave me a sideways glance and reached for an explanation.
“I had to go through diversity training a few months ago. It was awful.”
The words tumbled out of him. The facilitator had beaten up on him and his male colleagues, he said. It felt like being sent to the principal’s office, or being sat in the corner. Hours of his life, wasted. And the message he and his male colleagues took away, he told me, boiled down to one accusation.
It’s all your fault.
My seatmate’s words struck me. The truth is, I’d heard some version of them dozens of times before. I’d seen the body language, the Don’t yell at me! flinch, more times than I cared to remember. I’d watched self-assured, confident men curl into that defensive crouch when the subject of women—or God forbid, the phrase “gender equality”—had come up.
My seatmate and I spent the rest of the flight in awkward silence.
The next morning, several hundred women gathered in a hotel ballroom. I had been invited to speak about some of the most common issues women face at work—being overlooked in meetings, being underestimated, watching men getting credit for our ideas. As I spoke, I watched those several hundred female heads nodding in recognition.
I stopped right in the middle of a sentence.
“We already know all of this,” I said. “We need men in this room to hear the message instead.”
* * *
FIRST THINGS FIRST: There will be no man shaming in That’s What She Said. No male bashing. No finger-pointing.
For years, the fastest way to drive men from a room has been to mention women’s equality. And who could blame them? The conversation implicitly made men the villain. Long before my epiphany in Des Moines, back in 1859, a Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicted men cowering in a courtroom while suffragettes berated them. In an 1875 cartoon, a gaggle of women yell at a wincing man, above the caption: “Female Suffrage, Male Suffering.”
Men felt demonized. They still do. A recent Harvard study found that corporate “diversity training” has made the gender gap worse, in part because it makes men feel bad about themselves. Which, as it happens, is what it was engineered to do. “We used to do it with a two-by-four,” Howard Ross, a veteran diversity trainer, told me. “We beat ’em up until they saw the error of their ways. If somebody cried, that was great.”
Women, meanwhile, have pretty much wiped our hands clean of men, cutting them out of the conversation altogether. An entire industry of books, conferences, and networking groups has blossomed to tell us that closing the gender gap is up to us, not them. We’re told we need to speak up, to be more confident, to demand to be paid what we’re worth. We talk endlessly among ourselves about all of this. What we don’t do is talk to men about it.
That disconnect between men and women makes no sense to me. If women only talk among ourselves, we can only solve 50 percent of the problem. We need men to join the conversation, to be our partners. And as for the men, most of them aren’t anywhere near villains. They don’t need beating up with a two-by-four. They’d like to see an equitable workplace, they just can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do about it.
And yet men often recoil from the conversation about closing the gap. Some simply aren’t interested. Others are sure they have no problem with women themselves; it must be some other guys who do. And some feel victimized, as if the very topic is an implicit accusation. They’re sure the gap doesn’t exist at all, that if anything, women are getting an unfair advantage when it comes to jobs and opportunities.
Indeed, by some measures outright hostility toward women has increased, or at least become more visible, over the past decade. It’s been fanned both by the Wild West of the Web, where misogyny and racism thrive, and by the same deep economic frustrations and rejection of “political correctness” that powered Donald Trump into the presidency.
Misogynistic corporate cultures have flourished at companies including Fox News, Uber, venture capital firms, film studios, media companies, and more, though when exposed the result has been the ouster of top executives. The tech industry has been roiled by multiple sexual harassment scandals. In Hollywood, after producer Harvey Weinstein was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault over a thirty-year stretch, thousands of women in other industries came forward with their own tales of abuse.
These trends are playing out on the world stage. One out of 5 men in a global survey of more than 17,000 people in 24 countries said that women are inferior to men. Almost half of women as well as men surveyed in Russia and India believe women to be inferior. And this was a survey done in 2017.
Those attitudes make it even more difficult for men who do want to reach across the gender divide. When Robert Moritz, chief executive officer of consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, wrote a LinkedIn post about why the firm values diversity, commenters—professional men, using real names—called his ideas “repellent,” “an affront to every white man,” and argued there’s “no such thing as a real business run by a non-white man.” One suggested that he “surrender [his] job to a diversity hire and stay at home as a house husband.”
It’s no wonder that men feel stymied, fearful of speaking out on behalf of women. While he was a student at Harvard Business School in 2012, management consultant Kunal Modi published a piece in the Huffington Post arguing for gender equality. “Man up,” he wrote. “Men, just as equally as women, must take ownership of these family issues, which are core to American economic competitiveness.” He offered five pieces of advice, including such commonsense suggestions as “learn the facts,” “do your job . . . at home,” and “get involved at the ballot box,” in which he noted that the U.S. ranks “an appalling 90th in terms of female representation in our national legislature.”
Even so, he had to take a hard gulp before pressing the “send” button. “It’s hard for guys to do this,” he told me later. Men worry: “Do I know enough? Do I have the right to talk about this issue? . . . One of the biggest challenges from a guy’s perspective is how do we make these issues discussable.”
Indeed, plenty of other men would be happy to join in the conversation. They’re just terrified of saying something wrong. When Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focused on working women, asked men what might undermine their support for gender equality, a stunning 74 percent cited fear—fear of loss of status, fear of other men’s disapproval, and, most telling of all, fear of making a mistake. Men are walking around on eggshells.
Telle Whitney, president and chief executive officer of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, has witnessed that phenomenon over and again during her organization’s annual Grace Hopper conference for women in technology. The confab attracts not only hundreds of women, but also male executives from the major tech firms, all of which are trying to recruit more female employees.
These men genuinely want to correct the gender imbalance in their industry, Whitney told me. But they are intimidated and uncertain exactly how to act or what to say. When Blake Irving, the chief executive of GoDaddy, a Web domain registry, spoke to the group about how he was trying to change the company’s macho culture, including eliminating its notoriously sexist ads featuring barely clad women, participants attacked him on social media.
Those fears have only escalated in the past few years, when the tiniest gaffe can be instantly magnified by the Internet echo chamber. Complicating matters further, the politics and vocabulary of “inclusion”—of not offending any outsider group—have made it more fraught than ever for men to engage in this dialogue. There are the dreaded “microagressions”—hurtful, even if unintentional, slights. There are the controversial “trigger warnings” for potentially offensive material on college campuses. There are “safe spaces,” where people can go to avoid upsetting interactions. Why wouldn’t men—especially the white men who dominate the upper reaches of business—be spooked?
Their fear isn’t irrational. Researchers have found that when a man advocates for women’s rights, not only men but women are infuriated and surprised. Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant, who has written about women’s issues in collaboration with Facebook executive and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, says some readers have berated him: “What business do you have writing about women?”
Gender experts Barbara Annis and John Gray note that men in their workshops are terrified that they’ll screw up when they speak with women. The men often say they have a history of “saying the wrong thing” to women, a fear that can be paralyzing, they noted in their book Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business. Even one previous episode of unintentionally offending or upsetting a woman can bring back those horrible feelings from adolescence, when boys are afraid to say the wrong thing to girls.
The problem can be exacerbated when these men become bosses. In one survey, 79 percent of male supervisors reported worrying about giving women candid feedback, and said they felt they had to provide guidance carefully and indirectly. The irony is that by self-censoring, the men don’t give women the feedback necessary for the women to advance.
What’s more, that nervousness, that suppression of their natural instincts, makes it all the more likely that the wrong thing will pop out of their mouths. The men are baffled, they’re uncertain, they feel awkward, and it all rolls up into steering clear of particular topics—or of women altogether.
I’ve long been puzzled by this phenomenon. I’ve spent my career as a journalist working primarily with men. All of my mentors were men. Most professional men I’ve encountered truly believe that they are unbiased. And yet when the subject of women comes up, they are so uncomfortable, or fearful of saying the wrong thing, that they simply shut down.
So where does that leave us? With a conundrum: since neither side is talking openly to the other, lots of men are still clueless about the women they work with every day. Not intentionally. But wow. They unwittingly belittle us, or ignore us, or do something they think is nice that just infuriates us instead. Catalyst’s survey found that an astonishing 51 percent of men cited lack of awareness about exactly which issues women are facing.
No wonder almost 30 percent of women say they still endure bias at work, half a century after John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. In the male-dominated technology industry, that figure soars to 80 percent, with 60 percent also reporting sexual harassment. The majority of men, meanwhile, report that as far as they’re concerned, discrimination doesn’t exist. Sexism has already been solved.
It’s even worse for women of color, who face a double bind, discounted for both their gender and their race. Strike one for being female: multiple studies have found that when a man and a woman are equally qualified for a job requiring math skills, employers are twice as likely to hire the man. And strike two for race: women of color are far more likely to experience the “prove it again” syndrome, in which they have to work harder than coworkers and repeatedly prove their competence. A 2014 survey of minority female scientists found that an astonishing 100 percent reported experiencing bias. What’s more, while women in the U.S. earn only 80 percent as much as men, the discrepancy for minority women is far steeper: just 63 cents on the dollar for black women and 54 cents for Latinas.
Sociologists have scratched their heads about why this is still the case. Intellectually we know it makes no sense. Women began earning college degrees in equal numbers to men more than three decades ago, and now earn more than half, so there’s been plenty of time to fill the “pipeline” that leads to management jobs. When I graduated in the 1980s, my female friends—and our male friends too—assumed it would only be a matter of time, and of mathematical certainty, that women would ultimately hold half of leadership roles. We had competed equally in school. We had applied for and been offered the same entry-level jobs.
A few days before graduation, my roommates and I wrote down our predictions for our lives: Where would we be in ten years? Then we sealed our prophecies in an envelope. At the time, Carol was on her way to law school, Ira was soon to enter medical school, Miranda was headed to graduate school for Russian/Soviet studies, and I had landed a job as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Peering into our own personal crystal balls, each one of us predicted that we would have satisfying careers—and big families.
It didn’t occur to us that this might be an “either/or” proposition. Why would it? After all, we were on equal footing with the guys, and they respected us as equals. As far as we were concerned, the battle for women’s rights was over. Women had won.
Some of the most prestigious—and historically male dominated—companies that came to recruit on campus at that time were even hiring more women than men. When Lehman Brothers recruiters arrived—this was when it was still a king-of-the-world investment bank, long before it almost crashed the economy—my friend Phyllis was one of the lucky ones to snare a coveted spot in its analyst training program. Showing up for her first day of work a few months later, she was surprised—and she laughingly admits, a little disappointed—to find that two-thirds of her entry-level class was female. The dating pool at work was thin.
My friends and I didn’t consider ourselves “feminists.” That was something of a dirty word among many young women at the time, conjuring images of man-hating women who didn’t shave their legs. To us that battle for equality was long over. Men and women would march into the future together, on equal footing. Our professors and administrators kept telling our class that we were the future. We believed them. After all, they didn’t add any caveats. They didn’t say that only the men would be leaders. They were talking to all of us.
Yet three decades later, the world hasn’t turned out at all as we had imagined. We were wrong in our cavalier attitude toward feminists, those women who had sacrificed so much so that we could, unthinkingly, expect we could have it all. Not only were we wrong, but by assuming their fight wasn’t our own—and assuming their battles were over—we inadvertently lost some of their hard-earned gains.
Almost all of the women in that Lehman Brothers class ultimately quit the finance business, including Phyllis, who went on to earn an M.B.A. from Stanford and then abandoned her business career to become a screenwriter. As for my suitemates, those little folded scraps of paper with our predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. While we did marry and have children, half of us dialed back, quitting jobs or working part-time as we struggled to balance work and family. Those who stayed found that guys whom we’d easily bested in school were suddenly bosses. At our ten-year college reunion, the men swanned around in cashmere sports jackets, sussing out which one of them had made bank managing director first. The women had already encountered obstacles and difficulties that we’d never imagined.
My college friends and I are in some ways a microcosm of what’s happened in the wider world. Even though women earn almost 60 percent of college degrees and more than half of graduate-school degrees, they represent just 5.6 percent of S&P 500 chief executives and 18 percent of board members of Fortune 1000 firms. They are only 19 percent of law partners. A Rockefeller Foundation survey found that 1 in 4 Americans believes we will literally invent time travel before women run half of the Fortune 500 companies.
According to a McKinsey/WSJ analysis, at the rate we’re going, it will take a hundred years to reach parity in the executive suite. Globally, the situation is worse. The World Economic Forum estimates it will take 170 years to reach economic parity for women and men worldwide.
This is an urgent problem not just for women but for men. If women participated equally with men in the workforce, American gross domestic product—the total value of the country’s goods and services, and a key measure of economic health—would increase by 5 percent, boosting the economy for all of us.
Nor is this just an American problem. Europe and Asia are struggling with the same lopsided landscape. They desperately need more women working to jump-start their sluggish economies. At least eight European countries have passed quotas requiring 30 percent of board seats or more to be held by women—including Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, and France. In the U.K., new legislation will require big companies to publicly report the pay gap between men and women, a chasm that currently tops £300,000 over the course of a woman’s working life. Japan rolled out a program called “Womenomics” to encourage more women to work, claiming it will boost the country’s economy by 15 percent. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe calls women “Japan’s most underutilized resource.”
But as long as men are afraid, or don’t know how to talk about the issues, or are just in the dark about women, we won’t close the gap. Even the most well meaning men have a long way to go. I recently attended an event for the 30% Club, an organization founded by British finance executive Helena Morrissey that encourages companies to strive for 30 percent female representation on corporate boards. Research has shown that women’s views are discounted until they make up almost a third of any given group.
The event, the kickoff festivities for a mentoring program for promising mid-career women, was hosted by Kenneth Jacobs, the chairman and chief executive officer of banking giant Lazard. We filed into the bank’s impressive conference space high above Rockefeller Center, with waiters passing delicate sushi rolls and windows offering panoramic views of Midtown Manhattan. Jacobs took the podium and looked slowly around at the hundred or so audience members, an overwhelmingly female crowd in their best business suits. He paused.
“Generally, I’m a pretty good public speaker,” he finally began. “But I confess tonight I’m a little nervous. Here I am in front of a room full of women, and that’s very unusual . . . I have to say it’s a bit intimidating.”
The irony wasn’t lost on the room, or on me, either. Every woman there knew what it was like to be the lone female in a room full of men. And no woman—certainly not me—would confess to being frightened. Imagine any businesswoman taking a podium and starting her speech by saying, “Wow, here I am in a room full of men, and it’s terrifying!” That would be absurd. Only a powerful man could trot out that line as a conversational icebreaker. The fact that he didn’t seem to realize the irony was emblematic of how far we have to go in bringing together men and women at work.
It isn’t just him. His one-liner is a common trope among men. At an awards luncheon for women in media, host Andy Cohen looked out at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom filled with more than a thousand women and quipped, “I’m intimidated!” One of the presenters, Michael Roth, chief executive of advertising giant Interpublic, took his place at the microphone and joked, “It’s not often I represent diversity.” Funny, sure. But also a reminder that these men and so many others don’t have to think about what their female colleagues experience all day, every day.
That’s why, prompted first by that businessman on a plane ride to Des Moines, I realized how crucial it is for women to let men in on our secrets. And so I went on a quest to understand not just the challenges women face, but to discover what mystifies or perplexes professional men about the women they work with. My goal was to get to the bottom of issues that men face every day: why women often don’t speak up at meetings, why they can seem tentative when they do speak up, why there are so few qualified women in the management pipeline despite good-faith efforts to recruit them.
And then I went in search of solutions. I sought out male executives who are trying to get it right. I traveled across the U.S. and beyond in search of new discoveries, research, and real-life experiments. I focused on men, institutions, even countries, that are actively trying to close the gender gap.
What I found exploded everything I thought I knew about gender. Some of the most surprising revelations came from the unlikeliest of sources: from the Enron scandal, from brain research, from transgender scientists, from Iceland’s campaign to “feminize” an entire nation. Together these findings offer fresh insights into the way we relate to one another. My hope is that the information in this book will be helpful for men who want to sharpen their competitive edge, and who could use some practical tips to help figure out and engage with women—without judgment or blame.
And for women, my hope is they’ll come away with a new set of tools they can use to break down barriers, right now. Women are accustomed to being passed over and marginalized; we’re frustrated because despite lots of talk, there’s been precious little action when it comes to gender equity. Yet in some corners there’s been remarkable progress, and I’ve sought to crack the code of how successful initiatives can take root.
So consider this an invitation to join the conversation, to work together to close the gender gap. You may be alternately surprised, relieved, irritated, and delighted. But above all my hope is that That’s What She Said will become a rallying cry, for both men and women, finally to take real steps toward closing the gender gap at work and in life.
The people you’ll meet in this book don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nor do I. But their stories offer reason for optimism. We’re on the cusp of a new way of thinking, one that unites men and women rather than divides us—at work and beyond.
The Secret Lives of Women (a Primer for Men)
Let’s say you’re a guy, and you’ve done just fine so far. Why should you think about changing your ways to fit in with women? It seems absurd even to consider the possibility.
“Ladies (women? gals? Hell, I don’t know!) you need to man up if you want to succeed in a man’s world,” one Wall Street Journal reader wrote after I suggested in an article that men try to better understand women.
As another male reader put it, “Women need to learn the way men interact, and change themselves accordingly.”
Actually, women already change themselves plenty. If you’re a man, here are a few things you should know. I wear high heels at work because I’m convinced that makes me look more powerful to you. (Research tells me I’m right—taller women earn as much as 8 percent more than shorter ones.) Linda Hudson, former chief executive of defense contractor BAE Systems, hired a drama teacher so she could get rid of her Georgia accent and lower the pitch of her voice, to sound more like you. Dr. Carmen Quatman, a chief orthopedic surgical resident at Ohio State University, sought out coaching to look as confident as you—as if it wasn’t enough that she’d already published 20 papers, presented at 17 conferences, and won 6 national awards.
All of us, and countless other women, are attempting to fit into a professional world that was created in the image of men. The way we speak, dress, write emails, present ourselves—we’re conscious of how we come across in a culture that’s not quite our own. We’re always a little bit like a tourist, trying to mimic the habits of the locals so we can blend in. New York Times reporter David Streitfeld perfectly captured the impossible balance many women are trying to strike in a piece he wrote about a sex discrimination suit: “Speak up—but don’t talk too much. Light up the room—but don’t overshadow others. Be confident and critical—but not cocky or negative.”
That’s one reason why women have been so intrigued by social psychologist Ann Cuddy’s work on power posing. She’s found that we can improve our confidence and actually increase our testosterone levels—literally appear more like men—by adapting simple “power poses,” like standing arms akimbo with hands on hips and legs wide (the “Wonder Woman”), putting our legs up on our desks, or puffing out our chests. The poses not only increase testosterone levels by as much as 20 percent, they also decrease stress levels.
We change our appearance to fit in with you too. A woman’s looks sometimes count more than her résumé. One study found that women with blond hair earn 7 percent more than brunettes. Women who wear makeup get better jobs and quicker promotions. Thin women outearn heavier women; white women who are overweight pay a financial penalty of a 12 percent drop in their wealth. Multiple studies have found that people of both genders who are more attractive than average earn more money than their less genetically gifted peers. But there too men have the edge: when researchers interviewed fourteen thousand people, they concluded that for women, grooming—hair, makeup, clothes—counts even more than looks when it comes to earnings.
Take it from me, it costs a small—make that more like a large—fortune for all that upkeep. The average woman spends $15,000 on cosmetics alone during her lifetime. And that’s just for starters. Women pay more than men for almost all of their necessities, from dry cleaning to razors to shampoo to blue jeans. It’s known as the “pink tax,” and it’s pervasive. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that 42 percent out of eight hundred products it surveyed cost more for women than for men. That can add up to $1,400 a year for women, a California study found. Considering that women earn less than men for the same jobs in the first place, the financial consequences are significant.
Depending on where you work, the costs can be even steeper. The fashion, advertising, and hospitality industries are particularly brutal for women. When I was an editor at Condé Nast, a publisher known for magazines like Vogue and Glamour, every item of clothing, pocketbook, and pair of shoes I wore was scrutinized, even though I worked at a business publication and didn’t share the same elevator bank as the fashion editors. Walking into the company cafeteria, with a sea of eyes staring you up and down, could turn into an exercise of doubt and self-flagellation.
Early on, some colleagues in the photo department kidnapped me, on a “mercy mission,” they said only half-jokingly, to save me from myself. Apparently, my amateur makeup application looked “too New Jersey.” (Though being born and raised in New Jersey, I didn’t consider that an insult.) They brought in a makeup artist who promptly threw out the drugstore mascara and eyeliner I’d been using since I was twelve years old, and loaded me up with expensive designer cosmetics.
All those extra costs don’t even include the hours women spend on styling our hair, getting manicures, and putting on makeup. One of my favorite examples of how this plays out comes from the former president of Barnard College, Debora Spar, who in her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection calculated that she spends 282 hours a year on basic maintenance, versus the 30 hours that her husband spends. “Over the course of a forty-year career, I will spend 10,080 more hours than the average guy sitting next to me—nearly five working years—trying to make myself look presentable,” she wrote.
That’s a sobering thought, that women need to cram in five extra years over the same time period of our careers just to stay on par with men. And that’s before considering the additional time women spend on child care and housework, which despite admirable gains that men have made in these areas over the past generation, still clocks in at about nine hours a week more than men spend.
Women in positions of authority make even more changes, so that they don’t appear too threatening to you. One study found that 48 percent of female CEOs and 35 percent of female senators have blond hair, even though only 5 percent of the white population is blond. Hillary Clinton, who in her student days appeared to be a brunette, has long since become blond. Sandra Day O’Connor, first female Supreme Court justice? Blond. Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett Packard? Virginia Rometty, chief executive of IBM, and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York senator? Yep, they’re blond too. Researchers theorize that lighter hair color is associated with youth, beauty, and warmth, which helps counteract the harsh trait of aggressiveness that goes against female stereotypes.
Women even change the way they speak to fit in with you. Linguists have documented what most of us have observed in real life: men typically have speech patterns that are more assertive and aggressive, while women tend to be more inclusive and self-effacing. I am reminded of that every time I attend the Matrix Awards luncheon for women in media. Each year, on a Monday in April, a Manhattan hotel ballroom overflows with female television anchors, executives, writers, tech pioneers, and actresses. Onstage, either being honored or presenting awards, are some of the most accomplished women in the country, from Tina Fey to Toni Morrison to Katie Couric.
The honorees each give a short acceptance speech. And almost every one of them, in some form or another, says the same two words: “I’m lucky.” At one awards ceremony, even honoree Lena Dunham, the actress and very model of modern feminism, proclaimed how “lucky” she was—twice.
When men succeed, they attribute it to their own grit and intelligence. Women attribute it to luck. It’s hard for us to own our accomplishments. We diminish them, or refuse to talk about them, or give the credit to somebody else. We apologize all the time, even though we aren’t sorry. We lard up our work conversations with qualifiers like “This may be a stupid question, but . . .” or “I don’t want to bother you, but . . .” We make statements that sound like questions, even when stating facts (“Shouldn’t we turn right here, not left?”). We use language that makes us seem hesitant, that downplays our own status, and that implicitly cedes more power to the other person in the conversation—especially if it’s a man.
We also are highly aware of this, and are trying desperately to change it. We know that to men, our natural speech patterns can be misconstrued as a sign of weakness or indecision.
Comedian Amy Schumer spoofed the tendency for women to apologize in a hilarious skit in which the women speaking on a “females in innovation” panel, including a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Nobel Prize winner, trip over each other as they apologize for increasingly absurd scenarios, culminating in one of the women being fatally burned by scalding-hot coffee spilled on her by a man (“Sorry, is this coffee? Sorry, this is my fault”). It wasn’t that far off from the truth; Hillary Clinton became the first presidential candidate in recorded history to say “I’m sorry” in her concession speech.
So we try to erase our own natural speech patterns, to sound more like you. Some female executives keep a “Sorry Jar” on their desks, contributing a dollar each time they find themselves uttering the word. Google even offers a gmail plug-in for women called “Just Not Sorry.” It highlights those undermining words and phrases with a red underline, as if they are misspelled. It is a reminder to women to stop sabotaging ourselves in your eyes.
All of this is simply to fit in with you, to be as unobtrusive as possible so that we can be recognized for our work, and not penalized for the way we dress or speak or look or act. It takes hours of effort and hundreds of tiny daily conscious and subconscious decisions about what to say, when to speak, what to wear, whether to acknowledge we have a sick kid at home—moves we make to protect ourselves and that are completely invisible to most men.
My point isn’t to blame men, who for the most part don’t realize any of this is happening. I’m simply stating the facts. This is the reality for the women who work with you.
* * *
LINGUIST DEBORAH TANNEN, author of Talking from 9 to 5, has famously argued that all of these verbal and behavioral tics—the “upspeak” at the end of sentences, the apologies, the hedging, the self-effacing language—date back to childhood. Little girls learn to play with other girls by collaborating, while boys learn to play with other boys by trying to one-up each other. Girls who try to grab power are shunned. Observing children play, Tannen noted that young girls in a group use language and actions that assure others they are all equal. Girls who overtly jockey for status are ostracized by the group. Boys gain status by winning and one-upping others, while girls lose status for precisely the same behavior.
Girls who violate the norm aren’t seen as “nice.” They’re “bossy” or “nasty.” And of course who doesn’t want to be seen as nice? I certainly do. Girls learn early that we pay a price for acting differently than what is expected of us.
Tannen wrote her seminal book about these miscues between the sexes more than two decades ago. It’s troubling to her that its insights remain as fresh now as ever. When the book was first published, “If you asked me, ‘Will everything be the same in twenty years?’ I would have said, ‘I hope not,’” she told me. She sighed. “But no, things haven’t changed.”
All of this adds up to one exasperating, infuriating fact: despite the decades that men and women have been working together, we still haven’t quite figured each other out. Men, even the most enlightened of them, often remain oblivious to the issues facing their female colleagues sitting in the next cubicle. It’s no wonder. They’ve grown up with the concept that “equal” at work has meant “the same”—a notion that has done us all a disservice. It doesn’t allow for the many differences that may inadvertently reward men while penalizing women. It smooths over and ultimately negates the challenges that women face every day, which in turn makes their experiences invisible to men.
That’s a dangerous situation for men and women alike. If men are blind to the gender gap experienced by women, we can hardly expect them to care about it, or to be partners in helping to close it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent Pew survey found that the majority of men believe obstacles to women’s success “are largely gone,” while the majority of women believe “significant obstacles” are still in the way.
The same goes for sexist behavior, which men consistently underestimate. While the majority of women in a nationwide poll said they had been touched inappropriately by a man, only a third of men thought their partners had experienced that kind of harassment.
The bid for gender equality still is perceived largely as a female struggle, led by women for the benefit of women. As sociologist Michael Kimmel has said, “Most men do not know they are gendered beings. When we say ‘gender’ we hear ‘women.’” That explains why one study found that 43 percent of women agreed with the statement “Women have fewer opportunities than men”—while only 12 percent of men agreed. The men simply couldn’t quantify what they couldn’t see.
Men who can’t see the problem end up instead exacerbating it. Being blind to the issue emboldened Kevin Roberts, then-chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world’s largest advertising firms, to publicly insist that gender diversity is “an issue that isn’t really there,” that “the f——ing debate is all over,” that the lack of female leadership in his industry isn’t “a problem,” and that he spent no time on “supposed gender issues.”
He didn’t make those comments fifty years ago, as you might expect. He made them in 2016. This despite the advertising industry’s significant gender gap in leadership; while the industry as a whole is evenly split between genders, women make up only 11 percent of creative directors. His comments provoked such fury that he ultimately resigned.
That blind spot also helps explain why the following year John Allan, the chairman of British supermarket giant Tesco PLC, complained that white men are “an endangered species” on U.K. corporate boards, despite the fact that just 29 percent of directors appointed the previous year were female, and his own board of eleven members had only two women. (He later backtracked on his comments after women threatened to boycott his stores.)
What set these men apart wasn’t their boneheaded comments. It was that they said them out loud, in public. Decades of research has shown that their perceptions are common: men tend to overestimate not only women’s progress, but their presence. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that on average, only 17 percent of the people in film crowd scenes are female, but the perception among men is that 50 percent are women.
Men also believe women speak more than they do in reality. While they perceive that women talk more than men, women actually don’t even get equal time in group discussions unless they make up a majority—60 to 80 percent—of the group. That goes for films too: USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that in 2015, female characters made up less than a third of speaking roles in movies.
The reality is that even today, being male is the norm. Being female is the outlier. This isn’t just the case at work. “Male” is the default mode around the world—at home and in school, at the mall and in the doctor’s office, online and in real life. Even the words we speak are primarily male. In European and Asian languages, the default form of any word is male; you need an alternate form—an added esse or ette, for example—to transform it into the female equivalent. The male variant is taken more seriously. A “movie star” has more gravitas than a “starlet.” And who would want to be operated on by a “surgeonette”?
* * *
ALL OF WHICH is to say that women are already living in a man’s world. We’re adjusting to you, every day. The more intriguing notion to me, though, is that men are starting to meet us halfway. They’re recalibrating their behavior, just as we recalibrate ours. And in doing so, they are transforming a one-sided conversation—women talking to and about women—into something far more powerful. When men and women both reach across the gender divide, we actually will have a shot at closing the gap.
Consider Glen Mazzara, an executive producer of the hit television series The Shield, about a Los Angeles police squad. The characters in the show are diverse, yet when he first began working on it, “I looked around the writers’ room and a lot of my fellow writers were white, middle-aged guys,” he recalled. Even when he asked talent agents specifically for female writers, they kept sending over white guys. They didn’t believe he was sincere; one agent even told him, “I was just trying to cover my ass.” Mazzara began to believe that “the system is rigged to accept white males, to train them and keep them in the pipeline.” Indeed, less than a third of film and television writers are female, while in 2016, just 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films were directed by women.
Ultimately the show brought in a two-person female writing team. But then another problem emerged: the women weren’t contributing in the writers’ room. They didn’t have a chance. Every time they tried to present prepared material, some guy would cut them off. Worse, Mazzara realized, this had been going on for quite some time. It took him too long to notice it himself. “I was complicit in this because my male ear was tuned to the interrupting male voice,” he said. “So I realized I had behavior that I had to unlearn.”
Mazzara’s realization that the women were being shut down may have been news to him—but it’s familiar to women everywhere. Visit any meeting, at any company, anywhere in the world, on any given day, and you’ll find the same scenario. Men dominate. Women often don’t speak at all, or self-censor, or tentatively pose statements as questions. Women who do speak up are interrupted or ignored. If they do manage to get an idea out before being shut down, a guy inevitably will grab credit.
If an alien landed in the middle of a quarterly budget report at a typical company, the imbalance would be easy for the alien to spot. Yet to most men, it is invisible. Meetings, quite simply, are the killing fields of a woman’s career.
This too dates back to the sandbox. Linguist Tannen has found that little boys don’t listen to girls. Even as youngsters, boys “pay less attention to females of their own age than to other males,” she says. “And the experience of women at meetings indicates the same is often true for adult men and women.”
Indeed, women who do speak up at meetings are often penalized just as little girls are. A Yale study found that male executives who spoke more than their peers were viewed as more competent. For the female executives, it was the reverse. If they spoke more than their peers, they were judged 14 percent less competent. And when researchers observed company meetings for a 2012 study, they found that men speak a whopping 75 percent of the time—and that women as a result have little impact on decisions.
This is as true for world leaders as it is for company trainees. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said that in a meeting, when a woman speaks, “many of the male board members start to withdraw physically, they start to look at their papers, to look at the floor . . . and you need to disrupt that.” She doesn’t hesitate to call them out on it: “When you’re the chair, you say ‘Somebody’s talking. You should be listening.’”
Similarly, Linda Hudson, the former BAE chief executive, has noticed the phenomenon throughout her career. “You can see it. . . . around the conference table,” she told me. In a meeting, “the men who speak will pay more attention to other men than to women. It’s just a dynamic that has developed over decades and lifetimes, the view that somehow what the man has to say is important. It might matter more than what a woman has to say.”
Dozens of studies have concluded that women are interrupted more frequently than men, and that men do so to display their power. Kieran Snyder, a tech executive with a Ph.D. in linguistics, calculated interruptions in meetings at her own company, and found that men were three times more likely to interrupt women than other men. Perhaps even more dispiriting, though, the very few women who did interrupt others overwhelmingly cut in on other women—a stunning 87 percent of the time. They almost never interrupted men.
Not even the Supreme Court is immune. A Northwestern University analysis of Supreme Court arguments over a dozen years found that the three female justices were interrupted three times more frequently than their male counterparts. As powerful as these women are, they “are just like other women,” the researchers wrote, “talked over by their male colleagues.” Interestingly, though, the longer the female justices sat on the court, the more they adopted speaking patterns similar to those of the men, using fewer polite qualifiers like “excuse me” or “sorry,” and speaking in a more aggressive, declaratory style.
Like the justices, tech executive Snyder concluded that women need to change their behavior, to act like men in order to be heard: “Women don’t advance in their careers beyond a certain point without learning to interrupt.”
Even then, they face steep odds. I was reminded of that at a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Each year, billionaires, CEOs, and world leaders descend on this tiny Swiss ski resort town for a weeklong orgy of backslapping, schmoozing, partying, and amassing bragging rights for running into George Clooney or Xi Jinping. And, oh yes, solving the problems of the world.
For several years I’ve been there too, as a journalist covering the proceedings. Each time, I am newly astonished by how few women I see. This is a conference of three thousand people, yet there’s never a line for the ladies’ room. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the “global elite.”
The forum has made a concerted effort to invite more women. It even took the somewhat desperate measure of allowing companies to bring an extra attendee beyond the maximum four—as long as the extra is female. It reminds me of the dive bars I went to in college: Ladies’ Night! In 2017, the conference organizers announced, proudly and with great fanfare, that 20 percent of attendees were female. The audience applauded, to my consternation. Since when is 20 percent, when women comprise slightly more than half the population, something to celebrate?
“It takes endurance,” one of the forum participants, Kim Metcalf-Kupres, the chief marketing officer of Johnson Controls, told me during the 2017 meeting. “I’m naturally an introvert, and as a woman in these forums, this is a forum of extroverts and a forum of big egos.”
Most of the action in Davos takes place not in the large formal sessions, but in small private meetings. There, she says, “the men dominate the conversation. Their body language to me is offensive. I find my personal space becomes smaller and smaller and their arm gestures become bigger and bigger. And nobody wants to ask questions. Everybody want to make statements . . . It becomes about grandstanding . . . It’s all thought provoking, but they’re all talking at each other, past each other.”
It takes guts for women to speak up. And sometimes a thick skin too. I know from painful experience. For years I barely spoke at meetings. I feared that others would think my ideas were stupid . . . or that I was. The first time I pushed myself to do so, I was terrified that my remarks would be ignored, or greeted with derision, or dismissed with the journalist’s most dreaded insult: “Everybody knows that.” Day after day, I would sit silently as men spoke up, making points I had been thinking beforehand but had been too timid to express. Finally, I tried, tentatively, to interject my own ideas. At first, it was liberating. My boss was attentive, my ideas for news coverage were having an impact. So far, so good.
But then one of my more swaggering male colleagues, who considered himself a rival for our boss’s attention, pulled me aside. He led me to a vacant office and closed the door. The vein in his forehead was throbbing. “Stop talking!” he yelled. “Just stop. You’re not as smart as you think you are.”
I was too startled to respond. I was, literally, shaking. I was mortified. And furious. And also . . . wondering if he was right. Maybe everybody else in the room did know more than I did. Shaken, I confided as much to my husband, Tom, that night. My gallant husband’s first reaction was to offer to beat up the guy, which I appreciated. But then he shrugged and said, essentially, get over it: this was simply posturing by a colleague who was vying for our boss’s attention.
The next day, gulping in a deep breath, I forced myself to speak. In the following weeks, every day I did the same. Speaking up didn’t come naturally—it still doesn’t. But my husband was right. My voice was heard. As for my swaggering colleague, he eventually left the company.
My experience, and my self-doubt about the value of my opinion, would hardly surprise sociologists. Not just men but women themselves have a hard time accepting it when a woman’s behavior is at odds with long-held stereotypes. One survey asked more than three thousand professional and college-age women what lessons they were taught growing up. Topping the list: “be nice to others,” “be a good student,” “be respectful to authorities/elders,” and “be helpful.” At the bottom? “Be a good leader,” “make a difference in society,” “master a skill,” and “share your point of view.”
When women do force ourselves to speak, that’s just clearing the first hurdle. The next may be even harder: when women’s ideas are accepted, it’s often because the credit goes to a man. Olivia makes a smart comment and no one seems to hear it. Then Bill paraphrases it, and suddenly he’s a genius: “That Bill! What a sharp thinker he is.” The women in the room, meanwhile, are all thinking the same thing: “WTF?? That’s what she said!”
Almost any woman you ask is familiar with the experience. It’s so common that Mother Jones ran a list headlined “Ladies Last: 8 Inventions by Women That Dudes Got Credit For”—including the double helix (Rosalind Franklin), computer programming (Ada Lovelace), and the game Monopoly (Elizabeth Magie). The classic example is Kanye West, who took credit for singer Taylor Swift’s success: “I made that bitch famous. God damn, I made that bitch famous.”
“It happens to all of us, every day,” Metcalf-Kupres of Johnson Controls told me, laughing ruefully. “They don’t even know they’re doing it.”
I once referenced the phenomenon in a speech before a group of lawyers. During the Q & A afterward, one of the men in the audience raised his hand, eyes wide. He was part of a working group in which the majority of an assignment was done by a female lawyer, he said. But when the work was complete, one of the men in the group gave the final presentation to the senior partner and got the credit. As he spoke, he seemed stunned by this new and sudden realization. All around him, a hundred female faces looked bemused, and just a tiny bit annoyed. I could almost hear their collective response: Duh.
And yet men who become aware of this dynamic are in the best possible position to help us change it. That’s why Glen Mazzara’s epiphany, that he needed to “unlearn” some of his own behaviors to make sure women were heard, is so critically important. When he realized that female writers were constantly being interrupted by their male counterparts, he came up with a new rule: No interrupting during prepared presentations. For anyone. The idea wasn’t to coddle women; it was to make sure the best ideas got surfaced, and the worst were summarily killed.
Every writer is entitled to present their pitch, to its conclusion, without anyone else jumping in, Mazzara explained. “Then, when they finish, then you can rip it apart and leave them in tears—whether they’re male or female.” Mazzara has since gone on to become the showrunner for multiple hit series, including The Walking Dead, and has brought the practice to each.
* * *
THOUGH MEN MAY not realize this, women have been coming up with similar kinds of life hacks for years, in order to be heard. Jennifer Allyn, PricewaterhouseCoopers managing director for diversity, advocates the “brag buddies” approach. Women have a difficult time talking about their own achievements, and are viewed unfavorably when they do. It’s the “humility trap,” she says, the idea that “good girls don’t brag.” So she recommends that women instead trade success stories with one another. Then each makes it a priority to talk up the others to colleagues; they support each other by pointing out the others’ achievements.
The women working in President Barack Obama’s administration invented their own twist on this idea. Obama prided himself on championing women. The first bill he signed into law when he took office in 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, effectively extending the statute of limitations on equal-pay lawsuits. By the end of his tenure, women made up 44 percent of his top staff.
And yet women in his administration still felt overlooked and bulldozed by the men in meetings. So much so that they created an echo-chamber solution they called “amplification”: when one woman spoke up, another would repeat her idea and give her credit for it. The women reinforced one another, allowing them to take ownership of their ideas before a man could steal them.
I’m encouraged to see that more men are embracing these kinds of tactics too. After he became a manager, Paul Gotti, Cardinal Health’s vice president of nuclear pharmacy services, noticed that in meetings, a woman “will say something, and it’s not acknowledged until a guy says it later.” So now he makes sure to credit the woman and then bring her back into the discussion, asking her, “Why don’t you elaborate on that?”
The beauty of Gotti’s solution is its elegant simplicity. You don’t need to be the boss to recognize when a woman has a great idea that’s been overlooked or credited to someone else. Any one of us, male or female, can speak up and give her credit on her behalf.
* * *
THE MYRIAD WAYS in which women are adjusting to you, all day every day, nevertheless remain stubbornly invisible to most men. It’s time to put a stop to that. And that’s where this book comes in. Whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’re just starting out in your career or are a senior manager, whether you’re a father or a mother, it’s time to acknowledge the gap and understand how we can work together to close it. I’ve been on multiple sides of this equation, as an employee and a boss and as a mom to a daughter and a son, both of whom I hope will experience a more equal world—something my husband wishes for as fervently as I do.
Wherever you stand, once you see the gap—women being overlooked, interrupted, their ideas credited to a man—you’ll notice it everywhere. The good news is, that’s the first step in closing it. As I traversed the country and the world, speaking with scores of executives and academics who are making an effort to reach across the gender divide, they all noted this same essential step. Awareness, like sunlight, isn’t just the best disinfectant. It’s the cure. The men I met who became attuned to the issues told me they modified their own behavior, and tried to change the culture of their own workplaces too.
These men are already making a difference. Consider my college pal Matt Krentz. We became fast friends freshman year, when he and a group of boys lived directly above my own suite of five girls. They were like brothers, who alternately protected and tortured us. Once, my roommates and I came back from dinner to find all of our furniture—which we had pooled our meager resources to buy from the Salvation Army—was gone. We panicked and called the police. The guys, realizing we were too naive to understand that no self-respecting thief would want our tattered plaid couch, had to admit they had stashed it in their own suite as a practical joke.
After graduation, Matt landed an entry-level job at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Matt hails from a family of strong women: he has two brilliant sisters, a mother with an advanced degree in English, and he met his wife when they were classmates in business school. So he was perplexed to find that, as the years went by and he rose through the ranks, at each level he had fewer female colleagues. Ultimately promoted to run the firm’s Chicago office, he looked around and realized there were no female partners at all in his group. That’s when he began assessing the issue in earnest.
Matt became an anthropologist in his own firm, studying the habits, habitats, and interactions of the men and women around him. Consulting is a difficult career for anyone. The path to partnership, designed decades ago for men with wives at home, typically takes about eight years and requires continuous travel to embed with clients.
But Matt and other firm leaders began noticing other, more subtle issues that were alienating to women in particular. For example, “We are a very critical culture. We often tell people what they need to get better at”—a message that was effective for many men, but was devastating to many of the women. Indeed, researchers have found that some women react to negative feedback far more strongly than men do. When given a mix of positive and negative feedback, men focus on the positive—while women put greater weight on the negative.
At BCG, women took that critical feedback to heart so strongly that it undermined their confidence. Even for high-performing women, the firm’s feedback often was “You need to be more edgy, more confrontational,” which inadvertently sent the message that they were supposed to act like men.
For men, “that environment doesn’t feel foreign,” Matt said. But “the women become much more disconnected, and we lose the opportunity to retain them.” Not only were women quitting at higher rates than men, those who didn’t leave voluntarily were being cut at a disproportionately greater rate than men.
Matt and like-minded colleagues took a hard look at their own behavior, and realized that “we need to change the environment in which we work, how we give feedback, and more proactively engage on how we are mentoring, sponsoring, guiding” women, he told me. Among other steps, he paired women with successful partners so they could model real-world success. The partners didn’t just offer advice and moral support; they were able to advocate for the women they worked with.
“A mentor isn’t good enough. You need someone who will stick their neck out and say, ‘Yes, I will vouch for this person,’” Matt found. By the time he moved on to his next role, close to 20 percent of the partners in the Chicago office were women.
Today, Matt is one of BCG’s most senior leaders, a member of the executive committee and head of the global people team. (And I assume no longer pilfering his friends’ furniture!) His work helped lead to a program called Apprenticeship in Action, which, among other things, helps junior employees develop professional relationships.
Performance evaluations have changed too, to focus on strengths, not just weaknesses, and link those strengths to areas for development. Managers check to make sure they don’t fall back on the male-dominated tropes like “‘You need to be more confrontational in meetings, you need to speak out more,’” Matt said. “Just telling someone to do that and then watching to see if they can do it is poor development, but we default to that because men will respond.” From 2011 to 2016, the number of female consultants grew by 70 percent.
We have to behave differently. Think about that for a moment. Women spend our whole careers trying to fit in with men. But when men like Matt Krentz and Glen Mazzara change their behavior to adapt to us as well, the landscape suddenly shifts. The old saw about Ginger Rogers—“she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels”—has been a pretty accurate description of how women feel at work. When more men reach across the gender divide, we can work side by side instead—facing forward together.
She’ll Make You More Successful
One day in 1945, a failed landscaper stumbled on an idea he was sure would make him rich.
Earl Silas Tupper had already gone bankrupt once, and may well have been on his way there again. He had lost his Massachusetts tree surgery business during the dark days of the Depression. Who cared about pruning your trees when you couldn’t feed your kids? He had tried his hand as an inventor too, but nobody wanted to buy his fish-powered boat or his dripless ice-cream cone.
Desperate for work, he had taken a job in a plastics factory. After scraping together enough savings, he bought some molding machines and went into business himself. When World War II erupted, he turned himself into a military contractor and churned out plastic parts for gas masks and jeeps.
But when the war ended, demand for gas masks evaporated. What’s worse, so did the raw materials he needed to keep his plants running.
“Sorry, there’s just not enough to go around,” a Bakelite sales rep told him that day, when Earl went looking for the plastic resin he needed for his molds.
Earl refused to leave. “What else have you got? You must have something kicking around.”
The rep shrugged, and handed Earl a rubbery, stinking black substance that left a greasy film on his fingers. It was slag, the waste left over from industrial smelting. The military had used it during the war to insulate wiring on military devices. But now that the war was over, nobody needed it.
“We have tons of this stuff sitting around and we don’t know what to do with it,” the rep said. “You can have all of it if you want.”
Earl took the greasy hunk home. Thoughtfully, he turned it over and over in his hands. Maybe, he thought, if he could figure out how to liquefy it, he could make something useful out of it. So he threw it in a pot of water and boiled it.
Soon, he was mixing up different concoctions using the slag, technically known as polyethylene. Every night, he would bring home a dozen samples of the stuff, mixed with different chemicals and processed using different pressures. Then he and his teenage son Miles would throw the samples into vats and cook each at different temperatures.
For months, they slaved over the stove, experimenting with different recipes, temperatures, pressures. Finally, they figured out a way to make it malleable—liquefied enough to pour into a mold, supple enough that when it hardened it wouldn’t crack, translucent instead of ugly black. Earl even found a way to inject it with pastel colors. He called it “Poly T: Material of the Future.”
Then he started making things out of it. Beads. A cigarette case. They were fine, but even he had to admit they were nothing special. It wasn’t until he tried making it into a bowl that he realized he was on to something.
Food storage was a problem for the housewives of post-war America. After America’s boys came home from battle, they married, had children, moved out to tidy houses in the growing suburbs. As farmland was bulldozed to make way for tract houses, supermarkets sprouted across the country, their shelves groaning with a dizzying array of products, as many as ten thousand in a single store. Ribbon cuttings at huge new A&P and Safeway stores seemed to make the front page every week.
But women couldn’t figure out how to keep the food they bought fresh. Mostly they improvised. One popular method was to cover leftovers with a shower cap. It wasn’t much of a solution; air still seeped in, and food spoiled.
That’s where Earl saw his opening. He crafted a lid for his bowl, one that would fit so tightly that no air could escape, guaranteeing that your fruit salad or leftover dinner would stay fresh. The only glitch was that to close the seal properly, you had to open a corner just a bit and let out the trapped air.
Earl called it Tupperware.
The reviews for his new invention, which he manufactured in an array of pastel colors, were rapturous. “Fine art for 39 cents,” declared House Beautiful. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art displayed Tupperware bowls in a housewares exhibit.
Orders poured in. One of the biggest department stores in the country, Detroit’s J.L. Hudson, put his whole line on display. Earl found himself, at the age of forty, an overnight success. A 1947 Time magazine article called him a “one-man boom.” He was sure he’d sell a million of his bowls in the first year, according to author Bob Kealing, whose book Tupperware Unsealed recounts his history.
A great success story, right?
At stores around the country, the beautiful new bowls sat. And sat.
Women couldn’t figure out how to use Tupperware. The few who bought it returned it, saying it was defective, sure that the top didn’t fit. It gathered dust in department store displays.
Earl had failed again.
* * *
THE AMERICAN ECONOMY is fueled, overwhelmingly, by women. Some 75 percent of America’s gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services, which is generally used as a measure of economic health—derives from consumer purchases. An astonishing 85 percent of those purchases are driven by women.
Yet just as in Earl Tupper’s day, men overwhelmingly control the design, manufacture, and sale of the vast majority of stuff we’re buying. This leads to a lot of comically awful product design, marketing catastrophes, and way more “What the hell were they thinking?” moments than strictly necessary.
Even Apple, renowned for its impeccable design sense, infuriated a lot of women when it first introduced the oversize iPhone 6 Plus, sized comfortably for most men’s but too big for most women’s hands—and pockets. Where were we supposed to keep the thing? “iPhone 6 Plus: Is It Too Big for Women?” asked CBS News. Clothing designers struggled over whether to redesign women’s pockets. Adding insult to injury, the phone’s camera snared women’s hair so often it launched the Twitter meme #hairgate.
Male-dominated design explains so many mysteries of life. Almost every woman I know keeps a sweatshirt, a wool throw, or—like me—a space heater in her office. Sometimes you’ll find me wearing gloves while I type. I used to wonder why I was always freezing at work. I asked my doctor about it once. Am I literally thin-skinned?
Apparently not. As the New York Times reported, office temperatures have been set since the Mad Men era by using male anatomy as a baseline. Most office buildings use a formula that calculates an ideal room temperature by factoring in the average metabolic rate—the rate at which a body generates heat—of a forty-year-old, 154-pound man. Men typically have a faster metabolic rate than women. So this creaky old formula spits out an office temperature that feels great for a guy in a suit or shirtsleeves, but is frigid for women in dresses and heels.
If goose bumps were the worst problem women had to deal with, we could shrug it off and buy a sweater. But there are far more serious consequences. A 2011 study found that airbags and seat belts are designed primarily for male bodies—meaning women wearing seat belts are 47 percent more likely to sustain injuries in a crash.
And in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration found that women were routinely being prescribed overdoses of the sleeping pill Ambien. The FDA cut the recommended dosage in half after finding that at prescribed levels, women risked dangerous side effects, including impaired driving. How did the dosage go so wrong? Because medical testing of Ambien, as with most testing historically, used men—and men metabolize the drug differently than women.
Indeed, scientists for decades didn’t take into account differences in basic biology when figuring out whether drugs work at all. Men were simpler test subjects, since their bodies didn’t deal with inconvenient issues like menstruation and hormonal swings. Even today, most medical testing on lab animals uses males.
Now imagine a world where men and women truly work together equally. Where designs and products are created with input from both sexes. What would that look like? For starters, we’d probably have fewer technology startups like Titstare, pitched to potential backers at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in 2013 as “an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.” (The crowd of young white guys in hoodies loved it, though it ignited a firestorm of protest on social media.)
It’s also a pretty good bet that we’d give the economy a boost. We’d spend more, company profits would rise, employment would follow. “Here’s What Would Happen if More Women Designed/Marketed Lady Products” was a headline on the women’s blog Jezebel. The article suggested products that wouldn’t exist (pink razors, pink tools) and those that should (kids’ medicine that isn’t red, cosmetics that don’t explode on airplanes). Buzzfeed weighed in with its own listicle of “21 Pointlessly Gendered Products,” including pink earplugs, pens, and cellophane tape. More practically, rather than complaining about it, a female researcher at MIT Media Lab organized a hackathon to create a better breast pump, a contraption that any woman who has used it can tell you is clunky, awkward, and embarrassingly noisy—clearly designed by people who have never nursed a baby.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Remarkable things can happen when men reach across the gender divide. You’re probably familiar with the Container Store. It’s nirvana for a certain type of neat freaks and neat-freak-wannabes like me. With its perfectly arranged wicker baskets, hangers, shoe racks, closet organization systems, and multicolored containers of every kind, it makes you imagine that you too could have a streamlined, clutter-free life. Its store aisles are arranged to soothe, like a Real Simple magazine cover come to life. Every bit of that illusion is intentional.
“Our whole image of that is, it’s all about a woman. You’re trying to get two kids ready for school, everybody’s late, there are tears and stress and it’s terrible,” company founder Kip Tindell explained to me. “But if you have the organized life, then it’s joyful, the little girl’s school uniform is perfectly pressed, the husband is a little hunkier. Everything is better.”
One of his products in this carefully constructed world, though, wasn’t delivering. It was a cosmetics organizer, the kind women stash on a countertop or in a vanity drawer to keep lipsticks and mascara easily at hand. Tindell was perplexed. Women wanted organizers, they came to the store searching for them, so why wasn’t this one selling? To get to the bottom of the mystery, he started at the source: Taiwan. That’s where the organizers were made. And here’s what he found: the designers were all men.
“It was insane,” he said. Taiwanese men sat in a room creating “arbitrarily designed” cosmetic organizers that “weren’t functional . . . no different probably than a fishing tackle box.” So he dropped the line and hired American women to redesign a cosmetics organizer. Sales quadrupled.
Tindell since then has not only favored women designers, he favors female executives too. Women, he says, generally have stronger communication skills, empathy, and “emotional intelligence,” all of which he finds strengthen company performance. If men champion women at work, he says, “their business will do better. Women make better business leaders.”
* * *
CERTAINLY, THERE’S A strong and wise argument to be made for equality for women as a social good. It’s a basic human right. It’s simply the right thing to do.
But that isn’t Tindell’s argument. Instead, he discovered on his own what economists have since concluded as well: if you want to be more successful, about the best thing you can do is hire women.
Multiple studies have found that adding women to all-male teams leads to greater financial success. Companies with female chief financial officers make fewer, better acquisitions than those with male chief financial officers. Female executives make more profitable acquisitions and take on less debt than male executives. Firms with the most female board members outperform those with the least by almost every financial measure. Companies whose top management is at least half female post returns on equity that are 19 percent higher than average. And adding women to work teams tempers risky behavior like the financial gambles that crashed the economy in 2008.
One study concluded that female-led funds outperform those run by men by a large margin. And in a study of thirty-eight thousand households, researchers found that men traded far more frequently—and as a result earned lower returns—than women.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Warren Buffett, considered the era’s most successful investor, takes a very different approach than other male financiers from his office in Omaha, Nebraska, far from the testosterone-fueled alleys of Wall Street: investing for the long term, putting money only into companies he understands, and avoiding the frantic trading and panic selling that is the undoing of so many male investors. There’s a reason that when author LouAnn Lofton wrote a book analyzing his investment style, she titled it Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl.
The evidence also backs up Tindell’s intuition that women make better executives. One survey of 7,280 leaders found that women ranked higher than men in 12 out of 16 competencies, including stereotypically male traits like taking initiative, driving results, and championing change. The researchers found that women were more effective precisely because of the perception that they aren’t as good as men; they believed they needed to work harder than men to prove themselves.
“They’re afraid to rest on their laurels. Feeling the need (often keenly) to take initiative, they are more highly motivated to take feedback to heart,” leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman concluded. “The irony is that these are fundamental behaviors that drive the success of every leader, whether woman or man.”
Adding women to all-male groups can be transformative, in sometimes surprising ways. Consider the humble plastic bucket. A few years ago, with its sales slumping, Home Depot decided to try to reinvent the bucket. People buy millions of them every year. You probably have at least one or two that you use for mopping or gardening or washing your car. It’s likely in some mildly unappealing color, like jaundice yellow or hospital blue. The plastic bucket hasn’t changed in years; you could have bought the same one in 1967, when it was first invented. Not coincidentally, that was the year The Graduate was released, along with the memorable advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock: “The future can be summed up in one word: plastics.”
But by 2010, nobody needed to go to Home Depot to buy a bucket; it was just as easy to stay home in your pajamas and click on Amazon. Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus knew he needed a new reason to bring people into his stores. So the company launched a top-secret program, called Project Whitespace. It had a seemingly quixotic goal: to reinvent ordinary, everyday objects, to improve not just their looks but their function.
Home Depot turned to a California industrial-design firm led by Scot Herbst to puzzle over the bucket. Not many women are industrial designers—by most estimates, just 10 percent or fewer of the industry’s employees are female—but Herbst included one on his team. She quickly identified an obvious flaw that fifty years’ worth of male designers and retailers had missed: when a bucket is full, it’s too heavy for most women to lift. The design team then went into the field, observing real people as they used buckets to wash windows or mop floors. Sure enough, they observed women awkwardly trying to carry full buckets with two hands, or drag them along the floor.
Back in the studio, Herbst and his team designed prototype after prototype to try to solve the problem. Finally, they hit upon a solution: a bucket with a second handhold molded into the bottom, and an ergonomically designed handle to better distribute weight. Women can lift it with two hands, carry it without tipping it over, and pour it more easily. The Big Gripper has since been ordered up by other large retailers like Walmart. It’s becoming a new standard.
* * *
THE PLASTIC BUCKET hadn’t yet been invented when Earl Tupper was trying, unsuccessfully, to sell his Tupperware in 1949. While he contemplated failure once again, halfway across the country, in a Detroit suburb, a divorcée with a young son had discovered she had a gift for selling housewives stuff they didn’t know they needed.
Brownie Wise had been scraping by as a secretary when a salesman for Stanley Home Products knocked on her door. She was unimpressed with his sales pitch. I can do better than that, she thought to herself. And so she gave it a try.
Soon she was hosting home parties where she showed housewives the Stanley brooms, brushes, and cleaners they couldn’t live without. She was a gifted speaker—a skill honed as a child, when she gave speeches at union rallies organized by her hat-maker mother. She was so successful that she was able to quit her secretarial job.
Her greatest talent, though, turned out to be recruiting other women to host their own parties. She intuitively understood that her neighbors, many of whom had worked in factories during World War II but now were sent back home to the kitchen, longed for the glamour, the respect, and the power that came with a job. They needed the money, for sure. But Brownie’s great insight was that they craved the recognition at least as much. Besides, what better job than one that allowed a housewife to stay at home with her children and have dinner on the table for her man every night?
Brownie lavished attention on her growing sales force. She awarded trophies, heralded them in her newsletters, and gave out gifts to her biggest producers. “There is nothing new about the need for personal recognition. It is as old as mankind,” she would often say.
By 1949, she was Stanley’s star sales manager. She was certain she was in line for a big promotion to a corporate job when she was called to the Massachusetts headquarters. Instead, she got a different message. She wasn’t eligible for management, the company founder told her, because the executive suite is “no place for a woman.”
Infuriated, she returned to Detroit. She had topped out, her ambitions dashed. “I’ll show him!” she vowed to her son.
Perhaps that’s why she was so fascinated when a local teenage boy, one of her best salesmen, gave her a gift. It was a curious object he’d found in a local store: a Tupperware bowl. Brownie, like most people, was at first flummoxed by this strange new object. She dropped it and watched it bounce. She puzzled over the lid, trying to figure out how it worked, finally remarking—in what would become a famous marketing refrain—“you had to burp it, just like a baby.”
Brownie and her young protégé quickly realized something Earl Tupper didn’t: women were never going to buy these odd new bowls on their own. They needed to see how the product worked. Once they saw the magic, she was sure they would flock to it. She soon switched her allegiance—and that of her growing sales force—to Tupperware.
Turns out Brownie was even more successful selling Tupperware bowls than she had been selling mops and brushes. She set her sights on those hordes of housewives who were wrestling with leftovers by covering them with foil and shower caps. She set sales records and recruited dozens more women to join her to host Tupperware parties. “Get rid of your shower caps! Turn your leftovers into makeovers!” was their rallying cry.
None of this had occurred to Earl Tupper himself. He didn’t intuitively understand that his overwhelmingly female customers would be baffled by how to use his beautiful bowls. Nor did he realize the frustration of women looking for validation in a world that had sent them back to the kitchen—women who could be mobilized into a powerful sales force.
It wasn’t long before Brownie drew the attention of Earl himself—and promptly told him that if he wanted his company to succeed, he must stop selling Tupperware in stores altogether. It should only be sold at home parties. She was insistent that he change his business model. She was certain she knew better than he did.
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable a moment this was. Women didn’t tell executives how to run their businesses in the 1950s. This was two full decades before the first woman would be named the chief executive officer of a major company—and that woman, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, inherited the job from her husband. A woman was supposed to stay at home, to keep her husband happy, and to never, ever talk back.
Women weren’t believed to have the same capacity for business or the same level of intelligence as men. A Kenmore mixer ad from the era proclaimed, “The Chef does everything but cook—that’s what wives are for!” An ad for Lysol disinfectant—which started out its life, astonishingly, as a vaginal douche (and which women used as a primitive, unsuccessful form of birth control)—warned women darkly, “Instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself” and urged women to douche with Lysol to “Keep you desirable!”
In this context, given the overwhelming cultural forces of the era, Earl could easily have ignored Brownie’s advice. Instead, almost defiantly rebelling against the conventional wisdom of his time, he took her suggestion. He likely didn’t consider the magnitude of this break with tradition. He wasn’t trying to advance the cause of women. He was simply trying to save his business. And so he followed Brownie’s playbook. He pulled Tupperware out of stores, handing the sales efforts over to this persuasive, insistent woman and her legions of housewives selling Tupperware in their living rooms.
Brownie’s insights proved to be precisely right. Earl’s once-failing business exploded. Within a few years, Brownie was commanding a Tupperware sales army some nine thousand strong, almost all of them housewives, from headquarters she built in Kissimmee, Florida. Rejected early in her career by Stanley, she now redoubled her efforts to prove that she could be as successful an executive as any man.
Her annual “Tupperware Jubilees” for dealers and managers were equal parts revival meeting and carnival. At one Florida celebration, she buried mink coats, diamond rings, and television sets, then handed out six hundred shovels for the saleswomen to dig for treasure. She gave out Cadillacs and trips to Europe. She would whip her crowds of acolytes into a frenzy, offering as prizes the dresses off her back and shoes off her feet. Any woman could be a Tupperware star, she promised them. She sometimes ordered a hundred thousand blenders at a time to give out to party hostesses as gifts.
“Brownie had the ability to just talk to your dreams. Things you didn’t even know you wanted,” as one of her saleswomen put it. “She’d draw these beautiful pictures and you could suddenly see yourself being, you know, something that you hadn’t thought about before.”
Thanks to Brownie and her team, Earl surpassed even his wildest goals, selling millions of pieces of Tupperware. He became unfathomably rich, a millionaire many times over.
Earl and Brownie, as a team, were able to achieve what neither could alone. He made a great product but didn’t understand women. She understood that female employees wanted recognition as much as cash, and that female customers wanted excitement and magic. They were better together than either one could be apart.
The astonishingly successful collaboration between Earl and Brownie predated by half a century research that explained exactly why their partnership was so fruitful. But we know now that they unwittingly had created the precise conditions for men and women to work together with maximum results.
Researchers have found that, just as with the Tupperware duo, when women are added to all-male teams, solutions are more creative than those of single-sex teams of either gender. In one experiment, when male and female students were asked to come up with a new business to fill an empty storefront on campus, the mixed groups consistently came up with more innovative ideas than single-sex groups of either gender. Researchers found that single-sex groups were quick to agree with one another, which led to limited, unimaginative ideas. The mixed-sex groups approached the problem from multiple viewpoints, resulting in far more inventive solutions.
As with Earl and Brownie, mixed groups are just smarter. An intriguing study that asked groups to solve a murder mystery gives us deep insights into why this is so. Researchers asked homogeneous groups—in this case, a three-person group of male fraternity members and another of female sorority members—to finger the killer in a whodunit mystery. The single-sex groups felt comfortable with one another, and worked easily together. They quickly came up with their solution. They were confident in their answer. They felt good about the process.
Next, researchers sent in an outsider to join the groups—a man into a female group, or a woman into a male group. The group bonhomie evaporated. There was discomfort all around. We naturally gravitate toward those like us, and bringing in an outsider threw off that easy dynamic. Alliances shifted; the “in” group members who agreed with the new outsider’s views felt as if their social ties to the rest of the group were strained. The group members as a whole suddenly felt more pressure to justify their answers. These groups had more difficulty solving the murder mystery. They were less confident about the result. The process wasn’t pleasant.
And yet, as it turned out, these mixed groups nailed the correct perpetrator far more frequently than single-sex groups. And they did so precisely because of that awkward dynamic. In the mixed group, every individual had to be at the top of his or her game, carefully justifying and explaining his or her beliefs. Researchers concluded that simply by adding in someone of a different gender, the groups became more thoughtful, worked harder to find common ground, and as a result came up with superior solutions.
More than half a century ago, men like Earl Tupper proved it first. When men reach across gender lines, when men and women work together toward a common goal, great things can happen. All of us are better off for it.
* * *
EARL TUPPER WAS an outlier in his time, bucking social conventions by bringing in a woman as his business partner. He wasn’t trying to promote the cause of women’s equality. He was hardly a social activist, as his later life would prove. He was focused, simply, on the bottom line.
In that respect, he was aligned with his modern-day counterparts. While reporting on this book over the course of two years, I interviewed more than a hundred successful executives, physicians, academics, and others who are reaching across gender lines. Virtually all of them shared one distinctive quality with Earl Tupper: like him, most aren’t activists agitating for women’s rights.
Instead, the common thread among the men with whom I spoke was that, like Earl Tupper before them, most don’t view their attempts to close the gender gap primarily as a political statement. These men don’t walk around calling themselves feminists. They aren’t compelled by grand goals like reversing centuries of male domination, or atoning for their forebears’ discrimination, or righting history’s wrongs.
They see gender equality simply, instead, as a business imperative. More than one explained the analogy in terms of gym class. When you’re the captain of the volleyball team, you want to choose the very best players in the room. If you only get to choose from half of them, but the opposing captain gets to pick from 100 percent of them, you’re going to lose. Want to win? You need to pick the best, period, from all the available talent. Cutting out half the population will get you nowhere.
* * *
YET THERE’S ANOTHER, more alarming quality these men also share with Earl Tupper. Earl faced tremendous social pressures in partnering with a woman. In a perplexing turn of events, the men I spoke with told me they too face hostility. They navigate bitterness and opposition from other men who are suspicious of their motives in championing the cause of women. Their detractors are sure that a woman’s success means a man’s failure. It’s a zero-sum game. If women win, they will necessarily lose.
That zero-sum mind-set has a long and ingrained history. The nineteenth-century British barrister Ernest Belfort Bax warned ominously that women were “working, not for equality, but for female ascendency.” His view was a common one in the days when women first began to agitate for the right to vote. A typical early color postcard titled “Suffragists (cq) on the War Path” showed women beating a prostate police officer with umbrellas. The message was clear: these women wanted not equality, but supremacy. Success for women meant failure for men.
Fast-forward to today, and a University of Virginia study of undergraduate couples found that men interpret a girlfriend’s success as their own failure. Researchers in that study gave couples a test that they were told measured problem-solving and social intelligence. In reality, the test did neither. Instead, researchers randomly assigned test scores to each individual. Then the couples were told how each of them had fared. In some cases the man “outscored” his girlfriend; in other cases it was the reverse.
Afterward, the researchers measured each participant’s self-esteem. Astonishingly, the men who were told their girlfriends scored at the top felt worse about themselves; their self-esteem took a hit. But if their girlfriends scored poorly, it actually boosted the men’s self-esteem. (Women’s self-esteem, meanwhile, didn’t change regardless of how their boyfriends scored.)
Similar experiments with students in the Netherlands and with volunteers recruited in an online survey came up with the same results. When a man so much as thought about a girlfriend’s success, his own self-esteem plunged.
There are powerful cultural forces shaping these reactions. From birth, men are conditioned to see the world in terms of winners and losers. Recall from chapter 1 that Deborah Tannen has found that young boys play with one another by competing, while young girls learn how to play by collaborating. For boys, the goal is to one-up each other. When these boys and girls grow up, the dynamics remain much the same.
As adults, men associate being the breadwinner with masculinity—and with winning. Even among young men in their twenties and thirties, a generation that prides itself on sharing equally in marriage and parenting, “one thing that hasn’t changed is the role of being a financial provider,” says Fordham psychology professor Jay Wade, who has studied the connection between earning power and masculinity. “A man feels that if he’s going to get married and have children, he should be able to provide for his wife and children. I think that is as true today as it was when my father in the 1950s was having his family.”
The hit to men’s self-esteem is made worse because men consistently view themselves as smarter and more competent than they actually are. One study found that men routinely overestimate their IQ by five points, while women underestimate theirs by the same amount. In another experiment, after men and women each took a math test, men overestimated their performance by 30 percent, twice as much as women did.
Let’s be absolutely clear on this: The men weren’t lying. They truly believed that they performed far better than they actually did. They were quite confident that their performance was superior. It can be devastating, then, to be faced with a woman who is more successful—implicitly suggesting the man has failed.
Some men respond by lashing out. Researchers have found that when a woman outearns her husband, her husband is more likely to cheat. Worse, the more the woman earns, the more likely it is her husband will have an affair. Yet the reverse is true for women: when she outearns her husband she is less likely to cheat. One study found that instead, she’ll take steps to shore up her husband’s masculinity. She’ll minimize her achievements or increase the amount of housework she does.
That harsh reality makes plenty of men fearful of openly supporting women, even if they want to. Adam Grant, who has cowritten several pieces about women in leadership with Facebook executive and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, has experienced that kind of backlash firsthand. Readers have attacked him for attempting to take the side of women. “Many men who would like to see more women leaders are afraid to speak up about it,” he concluded in The Atlantic.
Robert Moritz, the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) CEO, didn’t anticipate how harsh the backlash would be when he wrote his LinkedIn post about diversity. He has long been a champion of working women. In 2010, his firm launched a program with the very deliberate name “White Men and Diversity”—an acknowledgment that 79 percent of the firm’s partners were, yes, white men. Among other things, the program works with partners to help them acknowledge blind spots about women and minorities, and suggests ways in which they can bridge the gap. For example, it encourages men, before meetings begin, to talk to the woman sitting by herself in a corner rather than joining in with the guys debating the latest NFL draft pick.
Working with women and other underrepresented groups “makes you a better leader, because the world’s not getting any whiter and our clients aren’t getting any more homogeneous,” as PwC’s Chris Brassell, director of the U.S. Office of Diversity and Inclusion, puts it.
Moritz, in his LinkedIn essay, was thoughtful and measured, explaining some simple actions he’s taken at his own firm that others can follow, like hosting dinners with female partners to hear their concerns. Men “can be so worried about saying the wrong thing that sometimes we default to saying nothing instead,” he wrote. “But that is a mistake.”
His suggestions, which also included “make it personal” and “ask questions, listen to someone else’s perspective, and show them that you care,” were hardly radical. But commenters, more than two hundred of them, immediately attacked, lashing out as if he were out to destroy them:
- Diversity = secret code for “get rid of the men.”
- “As a ‘white guy’ I wonder why it is always my fault? We are in 2015 and I am sick of this ‘white men are the root of all evil’ nonsense.”
- “White men are the most discriminated group on this earth.”
Nor did the commenters spare Moritz himself, calling him—among other epithets—a “white coward.”
For men like Moritz who are trying to change the culture and to be more equitable toward women, the pressure to back off, and to conform to the status quo, is intense. It takes courage and conviction to push against that tide. The truth is, Moritz’s kind of advocacy goes against the very nature of human beings; we are wired to be suspicious and distrustful of those who support groups that they aren’t a part of themselves.
Researchers have found that people are actually resentful of men who promote women’s rights, because it isn’t viewed as their fight. Men who do so anyway, violating cultural norms, are often attacked, as Moritz quickly learned. What’s more, championing diversity doesn’t benefit male executives in terms of pay or recognition; a Harvard Business Review study found that doing so has no effect on how their own bosses rate them for competency and performance.
Despite the risk of hostility and suspicion, Moritz and his colleagues have been joined by an increasing number of male executives reaching across the gender divide. They’re braving abuse and distrust to do so. And they’re doing so for a simple reason: it gets results.
Many of the men I spoke with can pinpoint their “aha” moment, that sudden, smack-the-forehead epiphany when they realized that, yeah, I’ve got to figure out this woman thing. For Tom Falk, that moment came during a board meeting. Falk is the chief executive officer of Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the company that makes consumer brands like Huggies, Kleenex, and Kotex.
At one meeting, Falk and the male executive who ran the Kotex business were attempting to explain tampon strategy. A board member quietly approached him afterward and asked a simple question: “Don’t you think you can get a female to present the strategy to us?”
Back at his office, Falk took a look at his organizational chart—and noted that 81 percent of top jobs were held by men, even though the company’s customers are overwhelmingly female. If you’ve ever wondered why tampon commercials feature gleeful women twirling around in all-white spandex—something no actual woman having her actual period has ever willingly done—now you know.
Falk already considered himself a champion of diversity. He viewed himself as fair and unbiased, and assumed that his enlightened attitude percolated throughout the company. But the numbers he saw on his spreadsheet told a different story. “My board gave me a kick in the pants,” he later told me. “I looked in the mirror and said, it starts with me. I’d been to all the [diversity] events, but I hadn’t put it enough on my personal agenda.”
So Falk began making changes. He spoke out about diversity at company meetings. He presided over enhancements in the work environment, including adding lactation rooms and flexible scheduling. In China, where epic traffic jams at rush hour are common, he changed start and end times to allow new mothers to spend more time with their babies, and linked this with an external Huggies campaign urging other companies to do the same.
Then he went beyond those soft measures, the lifestyle issues that can be difficult to quantify. He built a diversity initiative into the company’s financial incentives, adding it to the company’s compensation equation. Kimberly-Clark’s executives earn bonuses based on four different “buckets” of performance. One of those buckets now includes not just hiring, but training, promoting, and retaining people from diverse backgrounds. Some other companies are starting to adopt similar policies, including Intel, which now links bonuses in part to diversity goals.
The transition hasn’t always been easy. Overhauling the corporate culture at a giant corporation is a complex, difficult task to navigate in the best of circumstances. And just as Moritz found at PwC, Falk faced a powerful backlash in some quarters. The zero-sum-game mentality is a hard one to shake. Some men at Kimberly-Clark pushed back. They were “threatened by this,” said Sue Dodsworth, the company’s global diversity officer. Even a man she had worked closely with, someone she assumed would be an advocate, complained to her, “I cannot support this. If you keep pushing this, I’ll never get promoted again.” He ultimately left the company.
Other male executives dragged their feet. They insisted that they supported the diversity initiative while not taking any actions to push it forward. “We try to pull them in one by one,” Sue Sears, vice president of global diversity and inclusion, told me. “You look at who are the champions and you give them the podium. They start getting recognized by the CEO and promoted because they’re creating diverse teams and getting better results.”
Ultimately, that’s exactly what proved to be the key at Kimberly-Clark: better results. It’s astonishing what a little bit of female influence can do. Kimberly-Clark employees often make what they call “mom visits” in order to get to know their customers better. A small group will visit with a woman at her home and ask her to show them her cleaning products, or to talk about her menstrual cycle.
At one such visit in Israel a few years back, Falk had joined an all-male group to question a teenage girl about her period. Not surprisingly, it was an uncomfortable and rather fruitless encounter all around. Other times, to gather information on customers, executives will visit drugstores to watch consumers make purchases. “Nothing like five guys in suits watching women shop in front of the fem care section,” as Falk notes dryly.
Adding women to those teams made all the difference. During a home visit in India, a female member of an otherwise all-male team noticed that a new mother’s in-laws also lived in the home—and she sensed that the grandmother was calling the shots, not the mom. Her team was able to use that intelligence to adjust how it markets baby products in the country. In the U.S., an all-female team was able to push past the embarrassment factor in interviewing women about bladder leakage for the Poise adult diapers line—leading to a comic campaign fronted by Whoopi Goldberg, who on the talk show The View admitted to wearing them, and who starred in a series of lighthearted commercials in which she posed as Mona Lisa and Joan of Arc (“When I laugh, I kind of spritz”).
Indeed, one of the first Kimberly-Clark departments to get an overhaul was marketing. And one of the first moves it made was to throw out those old Kotex ads. A tongue-in-cheek new commercial mocked its previous campaigns, showing a montage of those ecstatic ladies gamboling in white, as a woman wryly narrates: “How do I feel about my period? I love it. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And I do it in my white spandex. And usually by the third day, I really just want to dance.”
The campaign was dubbed “Apology.”
Falk openly admits he didn’t hire and promote more women to be politically correct. “It was about getting the best talent,” he told me. So what ultimately happened to the men of Kimberly-Clark? Well, for one thing, they got richer: Kotex sales surged, and the company’s stock price more than doubled since Falk embarked on his initiative in 2009—a boon for the men working there as well as the women.
* * *
PERHAPS EARL TUPPER could have predicted as much more than half a century ago. Then again, maybe not. Despite his forward-thinking partnership with Brownie Wise, he ultimately was a creature of his time, succumbing to the cultural pressures arrayed against him. Even he never quite got his arms around the fact that women and men can succeed, side by side. He never quite understood that life isn’t a zero-sum game. He couldn’t accept that Brownie Wise’s achievements, as significant as they were, didn’t detract from his own success. He couldn’t quite comprehend the true synergy that comes from men and women working together, that in doing so they create far more value than either can create alone.
The coda to their successful collaboration underscores why, even though the benefits seem so blindingly obvious, we still live in a world that is largely run by white men. For a while, the partnership between Earl and Brownie couldn’t have been sweeter. Their strengths seemed ideally aligned. Brownie Wise was in her element, inspiring women to sell Tupperware and housewives to buy it, rocketing Earl Tupper from obscurity to become one of the most successful businessmen in the country, the overlord of the Tupperware empire. If not for her, Tupperware, Earl’s greatest and most enduring invention, would most likely have been consigned to the junk heap of history long ago.
Their personalities seemed aligned as well. Earl shunned publicity, while the vivacious Brownie adored it. He was satisfied to stay in the background and watch his empire grow, while she delighted in serving as its public face. With the help of Tupperware’s publicity team, she was transformed into a media darling, fawned over on talk shows and in women’s magazines like McCall’s and Cosmopolitan, which dubbed her the “Sunshine Cinderella.” The two balanced each other in a way that helped the business soar.
Until, that is, April 17, 1954. That’s the date Brownie Wise became the first woman in history to be featured on the cover of Businessweek. This was no ladies’ magazine or television talkfest. This was the bible of business, read by men, by successful men—the men Earl considered his peers. And Earl barely even got a mention in the piece. How dare Brownie hog the credit!
Brownie Wise had become the most successful businesswoman in the country, perhaps even the world. She was a household name. And after the Businessweek cover, even more adoring press followed. Brownie herself published an inspirational book for women called Best Wishes (“It’s wonderful to be a woman. Women and wishes just seem to go together!”) and convinced her idol, inspirational preacher Norman Vincent Peale, to write the foreword.
And so Earl did what he needed to do.
He fired Brownie Wise.
After almost eight years working together, he cut her off. He instructed his staff to bury every copy of her book in a pit in back of Tupperware’s headquarters. He had never given her stock in the company, nor did she have a severance agreement. After she sued him, he reluctantly gave her one year’s salary, about $30,000. A few months later, he sold the company for $16 million—the equivalent of $132 million today.
* * *
BROWNIE WISE DIED in obscurity in 1992. The onetime celebrity is long forgotten (though she does now merit a page and an exhortation—“Be like Brownie!”—on Tupperware’s website). Earl had died almost a decade earlier. In their post-Tupperware years, neither one alone ever again achieved the pinnacle of success that they had reached together.
And as for Tupperware? In 1992, the year that Brownie passed away quietly at her Florida home, Rick Goings joined the company as an executive. An ebullient man, with an unusual background as a veteran of both the U.S. Navy and Avon cosmetics, he walked into a firm that still reflected Earl’s sad legacy. Brownie Wise had been erased from the company’s history. Women played almost no role in company leadership. The product lineup was stale. Tupperware was a fading brand. It was something your mom used to buy, in awful pastel colors. Sales were struggling.
Goings immediately set to work to turn things around. Among his first initiatives was to recruit more women. The amiable seventy-one-year-old, who remains just as passionate about Tupperware today as he was on that first day twenty-five years ago (“There’s a Tupperware party starting every 1.3 seconds!” he announces when we meet), admits it’s been a heavy lift. It’s also an effort he has continued since being named chief executive officer in 1997. For the first time in the company’s history, a woman is president and chief operating officer; half of the board members are female, as are a third of managers—a ratio Goings hopes to move to 50 percent.
In the process, Goings has overhauled Tupperware’s business model. By the time he joined the firm, American women were pouring into the workplace. The bored housewives that Brownie Wise had counted on to be her sales team were a dying breed.
So Goings quickly shifted the company’s focus to overseas, where 90 percent of sales now originate. In the small U.S. market, Goings has more recently pinned his hopes on millennials, those young people who are part of the “gig economy,” taking on freelance work rather than permanent jobs. Eternally optimistic, he cites a statistic that 58 percent of millennials “don’t want jobs. They care about relationships more. You’re seeing this shift. Look at millennials on a date—there are seven of them!”
Overseas, meanwhile, he’s found success in China, where water quality is poor and Tupperware water-filtration products are in demand, and in Third World countries, where women have had few economic opportunities. An evangelist for Tupperware, a true believer, Goings is passionate as he tells me about how selling Tupperware lifts impoverished women out of poverty “to feed her family.” I know he has given this same spiel to audiences around the world about a million times, and yet he’s mesmerizing, all but jumping out of his seat and grabbing me by the lapels. You’d think he was saying this all for the first time.
As idealistic as Goings is, though, he switches his tone, back to pragmatic CEO, when the subject turns to women in the workplace. It occurs to me that while Earl Tupper probably wouldn’t recognize the company he created today, there’s one crucial quality that he and his successor share. Like Earl Tupper before him—and like Kimberly-Clark’s Falk and PwC’s Moritz—Rick Goings isn’t hiring women to be politically correct. He’s more realistic than that.
This is, after all, an executive who has held on to the top spot of his company for more than two decades. He’s looking out for what’s best for his business. It all goes back to that analogy about gym class, about picking the best there is, not the best from half the population. The bottom line for him is, bringing in women is about winning.
“Stop leading the cause with ‘It’s not fair!’” he says emphatically.
“I try to get people beyond the point of altruism,” he tells me before we part. “Don’t start with altruism. Start with ‘It makes good sense to empower women.’”