Sometime around 2005 – 2006, I was on a flight from Stockholm to New York. The flight attendant took my ticket at the gate and asked me to step aside and wait without explanation. Seemed odd, but OK. She then took boarding passes from everyone in line while I stood waiting further instructions. When the last person in line passed, the flight attendant turned to me and said the flight was full… so they were bumping me to first-class. Seat 1B. Have a nice flight.
Surprise ending and my lucky day.
Seated next to me in the first-class cabin was a cordial Swedish lady named Leni.1 She was polite and even continued the initial pleasantries with me in Swedish for 5 or 10 minutes until I got into a sentence I couldn’t get out of and switched to English.2 The point being, she allowed me to switch languages instead of switching before me, even though her English was clearly superior to my Swedish.
During our initial conversation, I learned my seat-mate’s job title was Minister of Defense for Sweden. I’ve never been one for titles, but the highest military role for the country is a fairly senior position.
She was very polite and would have conversed with me longer (I think) but I let her enjoy her flight without much further interruption. I just didn’t want to be the person who suddenly becomes intrigued and engaged in conversation based on a person’s title. Besides, she had a stack of papers in front of her that looked like it might require a significant amount of attention. Also, I fell asleep, which I am prone to do while traveling.3
After the flight, I asked myself, “Could we have a female Secretary of Defense in the United States?”. I understand we can legally, but socially? At the time, I concluded, “Probably not.”. Keep in mind, this was early 2000’s. Hillary Clinton had yet to run for President. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, it was different. As I think about this same question now, I would answer, “Possible but improbable.”4… but that can change quickly… and maybe it will.
Incidentally, three of the last six Ministers of Defense for Sweden have been women. Why? A Swede would likely answer “because half the population are women, so this ratio makes sense statistically. If we want the best person for the job, why would we intentionally exclude half the population from the candidate pool?”. To a more egalitarian, Scandinavian society, it really is that simple.
As far as I can tell, there are two major types of omnipresent inequalities for women in the work place. One injustice. One prejudice.5
1) Injustice – Women who choose to have children experience a natural injustice simply because they physically give birth and men do not.
In the back of our minds, do we consider not hiring a young female candidate for a position simply because she might, one day, have a baby and perhaps leave the company or need to re-prioritize her time for a season? Does this thought cross our minds during hiring decisions? It is certainly easy to consider the significant impact this change might have, especially on smaller companies. But how we factor this information into our decision-making process and how we ultimately handle this scenario shapes and defines the type of companies we have and the values our companies hold toward women. Is your company female-friendly on this front or does the possibility of this natural, physical event negatively impact career options for women at your firm?
2) Prejudice – The second type of inequality stems from a more covert prejudice. It resides in the insidious attitudes that permeate our thoughts from culture at large. All the stereotypes that men (and women) cast about women (and about men). All the traditional roles we assign, regardless of their assumed merits, or lack thereof. I have no doubt that these basic assumptions collectively restrict opportunities for women in the workplace.6
As company leaders, we should question the basic cultural assumptions about traditional gender roles in the workplace. Doctors are not always men, nor should they be. Nurses are not always women, nor should they be.
We should listen for these prejudices in our language and in our mannerisms. We would do well to study and learn from the most modern societies when it comes to equal rights and equal opportunities for career advancement. In this area, the Scandinavian countries represent best-in-class.
An Example from Investment Banking
I attend merger & acquisition conferences around the United States several times per year. While at these conferences, I cannot help but notice that more than 90% of the attendees are male. Further, of the 10% females in attendance, most are in supporting, administrative roles.
I have two daughters and a son. Clearly, I want a world for them where equal career opportunity is assumed, for all three. If I were to bring my kids to an M&A conference to show them what dad’s job looks like when traveling, what would my daughters take away from this skewed male/female ratio within the high finance world of investment banking and private equity?
Etching Equality into Our Companies
To change the corporate world for the better, we, as entrepreneurs and business leaders, must do a better job constructing our operating norms such that our companies treat other people’s daughters like we would want our daughters treated. Fairly.
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- Leni Björklund.
- As others will attest, Swedish is difficult to learn in part because Swedes are so well-versed in English. Most Swedes will switch to English at the first sign of an accent. I originally had a goal of three complete sentences exchanged before my Swedish counterpart changed to English. I have since lowered my standards.
- Some people may argue that I missed an opportunity to make an excellent networking connection. I feel otherwise. I imagine well-known public figures get quite tired of people trying to network with them. If she had wanted to talk further, she would have… unless of course she thought I was too important to bother (wink).
- As of early 2019, the U.S. has not yet had a female Secretary of Defense.
- There are probably more. I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic. These are just the two areas that I can readily identify and categorize. If you have additional thoughts or would like to elaborate further on the subject, I’d love to hear about it in the comments at the bottom.
- More so than they do for men.
- While medical schools now graduate about 50% females, only 15% of Department Chairs are women… even though females have constituted 40%+ of medical school graduates since 1992. This gap should have closed by now.
- In 2018, just 24 females are CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies. Not quite 5%.
- Only 9.7% of senior level executives at private equity firms are women.
- As of Jan. 2019, there were 25 women serving in the U.S. Senate (25%)… up from 23 in 2018, 21 in 2017… with fewer representation prior to that.
- As of Jan. 2019, there were 102 women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s 23% representation, a misnomer.
- 0% to date.