Sunday, March 27, 2011

Short skirts, politics and gender bias

Each year we get closer to equality, and yet we still take steps back.

This week Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to chip the glass ceiling of American politics, died. Ferraro was the first woman on the Presidential campaign ticket and the first to show that a woman could handle the ferociousness of a presidential campaign. It was an exciting moment in the U.S. which was then, and still is, so far behind other countries in a woman's ability to hold the top political office.

More than twenty five years later Hillary Clinton put major cracks into the glass ceiling with her campaign for President (and I still wish that she had won). As Secretary of State in just 15 months she has out traveled all her predecessors and shown us how strong, smart and wise she really is. Who now could doubt that a woman cannot lead as well or be as effective as any man as President of the U.S? As Hillary said in this week's People magazine (yes even I read People at the barber shop waiting for my son), equality for women is the great project for the 21st century.

But it's two steps forward, one step back. Women are still objectified every day in ways men would not tolerate. Take Bill Maher's reference this week to Barbara Bachmann and Sarah Palin as "two bimbos". Lord knows I hate their politics but just because they are attractive women does the press need to show a continuous gender bias against their intellect?

The bias that women cannot be good looking and smart is so insidious even women do it. Last week at SxSW a tech PR firm, Fresh Ink, put out cards with tips for giving speeches, including “A speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the topic, yet short enough to be interesting.”

Violet Blue's opinion piece in ZDNet said it all. It's sexist, offensive and an attitude that continues to set us back. The women led PR firm responded to the criticism with a blog post that attributes the quote to Winston Churchill and that we should not take ourselves as women so seriously. Seriously!? PR is still a pink ghetto and I coach young women not to go into PR because they'll never get back out to a line management position on the path the C-suite.

I do believe that, in the moment of sexist behavior towards me, humor is the best way for me to defuse it, but our society is still so gender biased it horrifies me that women would perpetuate the attitude themselves. As Violet said: "But tech (and tech media) is still an old boy’s network. And if you think it’s not, then you’re not paying attention."

We need a woman to win the Presidency and smash the highest glass ceiling , just as we need more women CEOs and more women in the board room. And as a society we need to put gender bias behind us - it demeans us all.


Starr Million Baker said...

Hi Penny -

I appreciate your viewpoint, and hope you can appreciate mine. I was not making a statement about what women should wear, I was making an analogy to a speech and yes, using a bit of sexuality - not sexism - as part of that. Never did I state nor do I believe that women need to wear short skirts (or be good looking, in your words) to be heard. I used the analogy to make the point that speeches should be brief and interesting. In hindsight, a more boring analogy would have done the trick, but I was going for a sense of humor - obviously I failed.

It is unfortunate that I am being judged based on a brief read-through of a few short blog posts, but such is life in this online world. I have learned quite a bit through this entire process so am thankful for having gone through it, even though it's been painful.

I find it discouraging (and hypocritical) that you would encourage young women not to go into PR. Why would you ever encourage women to not go into any field they wanted to, much less one which they very well could be successful and find a place at the executive table, if not the corner office? The CEOs of the companies I work with call on me for my advice regarding their business, effectively giving me a seat at that table. Women can absolutely find successful and fulfilling careers in PR as the communications field is a challenging one so those that conquer it will have long, fruitful careers ahead of them.

I feel compelled to tell you that I am more than just the owner of a PR firm that had an error in judgement on a piece of collateral. I am a strong, independent woman who has supported myself since the age of 16, worked three jobs to put myself through college, worked hard to climb the career ladder of other companies before I started my own, and now I have a thriving business which I find a challenge and a thrill every day. I am also the lucky mother of two beautiful girls who I am encouraging to be strong, independent young women themselves and whom I hope see a woman President in their lifetime - and not because she's a woman, but because she's the right person for the job.

I don't wear short skirts, but I don't have a problem with others that do because I don't tie their words, ideas, thoughts and values to their clothing. And I apparently need to work on my choice of analogies.


Penny Herscher said...


Thank you for commenting. I've have posting for Huffington Post over the last 2 years and been surprised and thrown by the nastiness and misinterpretation the internet can lead to. Roll with the punches - it is not about you and in a live conversation of more than 200 words you would be understood.

And congratulations on building your own firm. I know how hard that is.

I have strong opinions about gender bias having spent the last 25 years not just in tech but semiconductor, having broken many firsts personally and taken the judgment and flak that went with that. And sadly I have seen how many CxOs treat their PR team, hence my bias to encourage young women to go into line jobs (ie. P&L) not staff jobs(like PR and HR).

Good luck - and the silver lining is you put Fresh Ink onto a bigger stage with the controversy.


Starr Million Baker said...

Thanks for your kind words.

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