As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Women Can Discriminate Too


This piece was originally published in

n this era of Lean In-inspired dialogue, we can often assume that only men are guilty of gender bias. Yet I find that women can be perfectly capable of discriminatory behavior.

For better or worse, women sometimes tilt to their own.

Here’s a conversation I once had with a young manager. She’d been working hard to recruit a new team member.

Me: “So tell me about the three finalists. Are there any men in the group?”

Manager: “No, alas none of the guys really stacked up to the female candidates.”

Me: “Did you try really hard? We have 60 percent women and we should always try to even things up”

Manager: “I did. I can show you the resumes from the top guys if you want, but they were weak. I tried to give the best one a double look. When I later told him I was moving on, he wrote me a scathing and offensive response. But I do have to admit that I gravitated to the candidates who reminded me of me in my earlier career, so they were women.”

Me: “Aiieee! That is exactly the behavior that keeps women and minorities locked out of jobs and promotions. We have to fight that natural comfort zone very hard.”

We went on to discuss her process–I could see the manager had really created a thorough and gender-blind recruiting project. And I appreciated her honesty about her leanings, yet I could not believe this was at risk of happening in my own company. But then again–I could–because seeking familiarity is simply human nature. Men get roundly criticized for it, but women can do it too.

Do you hire the best candidate or not?

I’ve had a version of this same conversation with my own board, when I was contemplating (yet another) woman for a leadership role. I wanted the board to hold me accountable for creating diversity on my team and I expressed concern that we are not balanced at the top (where we have only one man). Their response: “You have to hire the best candidate–man, woman, or martian.”

Still, I had to wonder how common it is for a male CEO to call himself on the carpet, in the privacy and pressure of the boardroom, for a lack of diversity in his leadership team?

That simple act of introspection represents a marked difference between male and female leaders. When female CEOs create teams, we are naturally attuned to diversity because we are used to operating without it.

Homogeneity has drawbacks, so think hard about how you hire.

For better or worse (and it is mostly worse) we know the negative consequences of homogeneity in a business. So while we have natural biases and leanings towards familiarity in hiring and promoting, we tend to be self-aware about the risks.

As a woman it’s a really worthwhile exercise to scrutinize yourself and your female leaders through this lens. It’s essential because you just can’t afford to hurt your company with the same–but opposite–discrimination that holds back male-led companies.

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