Recently, there was a bit of a to-do over at Forbes Magazine between Kim Polese and Eric Jackson. What happened was, Jackson wrote an article about Sheryl Sandberg being Silicon Valley’s new ‘it’ girl and compared her to Kim Polese, whose career had a similar moment 15 years ago. Polese was all over it and called Jackson out for his sexist perspective on women in executive roles. Jackson promptly posted an apology, but I’m still sitting here writing about all of this, so clearly there’s more to it than meets the eye.
First of all, the term ‘it girl’ needs to disappear from our collective vocabulary. Aside from its objectifying undertones, it labels women as temporary icons, making them dispensable. I understand that Jackson did not mean to be sexist, but if you include the term ‘it girl’ in your article’s title (and your article isn’t about how that term needs to go away), you’ve already begun digging that hole. What’s more concerning, though, is that while Jackson had no intention to be sexist, he was — in that subconscious way that hides in the back of so many people’s heads who don’t consider themselves sexist yet can’t write an article about a woman in business without focusing on her gender. Oops!
Because when you write about women in business, you’re already separating them as a different group, as if their roles, accomplishments and failures were somehow different than those of any other normal human being (men = regular people, women = women). Jackson meant to criticize Sandberg as a Silicon Valley exec and didn’t even realize that he was unable to do so without focusing on her as anything but a female professional. Why is it impossible to separate a woman from her gender in the context of work, especially in the business world? When men are critiqued, they’re written about as a person in business, their gender is a given and irrelevant. Do women still have to prove their merits more than men because vaginas just can’t think so good? I would like to move forward, please, and not the opposite. Corsets and oppression just aren’t a good look for me.
Of course, there’s always the argument that since women CEOs are still such a minority (only 3.6% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, as Polese points out), it’s important to make note of their accomplishments. Focusing on gender still creates a ‘separate but equal’ space, however, which we all know isn’t a real thing. Women occupy so little space in the CEO sphere not because of their lack of capability or ambition, but because from an early age we’re trained to be submissive and not extended the same opportunities and support for our potential as men are. A woman who sets herself apart and is ambitious has to deal with judgments and double standards that a man doesn’t. So while focusing on gender when praising a woman in her executive role can be beneficial, the flip-side, criticizing her, ends up being far more detrimental – and it wouldn’t be fair to do one but not the other.
The worst part of Jackson’s article is the fact that he compared Sandberg and Polese. That sounds like a great idea, pit two women against each other and weigh their pros and cons while you’re at it. Vagina is as vagina does! It would make no sense to compare Sandberg to any of her male counterparts currently in a similar position in terms of being COO of any kind of current social media venture, better find another woman even if it means going back a decade and a half. It’s not like technology and business have changed at all since then or anything. How many times must we go over this, you guys: a woman’s job performance is not dependent on what her work entails, but on whether her breasts are booby enough to vagina her in relation to all the penis.
I could go on about how Sheryl Sandberg is doing no worse a job than any male peer in her position is, or about how Jackson acknowledged her success to be deserved and the result of hard work. I could talk about how she’s a strong, exemplary woman who is COO of Facebook, one of the most globally relevant social media companies today. But I’m not a business journalist and that’s not what this is about. As Polese pointed out, Sandberg was criticized for the attention she gets in the media, as if there weren’t two dozen men to each Sheryl Sandberg. The great thing about Jackson’s article was not anything he wrote, but the fact that Polese wrote an impassioned and legitimate rebuttal.
It’s clear that while often unacknowledged and subconscious, sexism continues to be a pervasive element in the business world, as in all workplaces. How many times have we felt pride in making connections with others in the workplace that we thought would help us move forward, only to later realize that what we thought to be a positive professional interaction was, in fact, our co-worker’s excitement to talk to our boobs? Polese’s reaction is the best thing we can all do – in each situation, each time that instinct of “this can’t be right” goes off, we need to speak up for ourselves. We need to call it as we see it and assert ourselves, and I congratulate Kim Polese for doing just that.