April 7, 2012

Alice Baumgartner: Putting a Face on Women

Alice Baumgartner is one of the founders of the FACE IT Campaign.  After graduating from Yale in 2010, she worked for a year at a medical clinic in rural Bolivia—an experience which made her an avid proponent of disruptive innovation. She is now studying Latin American history at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.

One afternoon, at the end of my first semester at college, a group of men from my philosophy class were studying for our exam in the dining hall.   Since I had questions about Kant’s Metaphysics—actually, about most of the readings—I decided to ask if I could join them. But, as I approached the table, the men grew silent.  I asked if I could sit down, and then waited uncomfortably for a response.  They said nothing, and after a few minutes, I walked away, confused and most of all, embarrassed.

The next day, I ran into a friend, who had been at the table. He immediately apologized for what had happened.  It had nothing to do with me.  It was just that the men in the group had decided that they did not want to study with women.

I was taken aback.  I’d always been told I could do anything, so long as I worked hard enough.  This, I thought, was no different. I just needed to work harder. I needed to show them I was good enough—no matter my gender.

Then it hit me:  I would never be invited to join that study group.  It did not matter how hard I worked because the decision of who to include was never based on merit.  Instead it was made according to who these men were friends with, and whom they felt comfortable around.  It was a question of networks—not abilities.

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It would be easy to chalk it all up to schoolboy capers, of no concern outside of the dining hall, except that these principles seem to operate elsewhere, especially in corporate America.  The most recent example is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose company filed in February for the largest IPO ever in tech—$5 billion—without a single woman on its board.

To me, it seems obvious this board is an enormous mistake for a company whose mission is the “direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.” But when I tell my friends about Facebook’s board, they’re not so sure.  They believe firmly in American meritocracy.  If there are no women on the board, well, it is probably because there are no qualified women.

They are overlooking—as I had once overlooked—the process by which these groups are selected.  When it comes to boards, that old adage applies: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.  You might be at the top of your graduating class.  (After all, seventy percent of college valedictorians are female.)  You might run your own company.  (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980.)

But unless there’s a Larry Summers to your Sheryl Sandberg, it won’t really matter.  Only twenty-four women were added to Fortune 500 boards in 2011.  At this sluggish rate, it will take 40 years for women to occupy just 30% of Fortune 500 board seats.  That means that when my friends and I are in our sixties, ready and qualified to serve on a corporate board, our male peers will still stand a better chance of taking a seat at the table—for no other reason than that they were born male.

Unless we start doing something about it now.

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On April 2, I launched the FACE IT Campaign with a group of friends to protest the fact that although women make up the majority of Facebook’s users, produce the majority of its content, and drive its revenues, Facebook’s board is made up entirely of white men.  We are using Facebook, not to topple Arab governments, but to create meaningful change in corporate America—change that has not occurred for years, despite the articles, conferences, and commitments to do better.   We are doing it because we want to be judged by our abilities—not our gender.

Often, in the past week, I’ve been told to stop making such a fuss.  And, in those moments, I try to remind myself of that study group my freshman year—and what made a difference.  It was not hard work.  It was my friends, who decided to sit—uninvited—at that table.  At first the men remained silent.  Then one started to hiss.  But my friend stayed put.  And, finally, after a few days, the men stopped meeting at that table.

Instead they began to form new study groups—this time, with women.

***

What experiences are formative to your dreams?

Have you ever had someone try to tell you that something isn’t true, when you know it is?

Will you take a moment and say atta girl to Alice for pursuing her dream?

P.S.  Alice reached out to me after reading Why I’m Glad Sheryl Sandberg Isn’t On Facebook’s Board (Yet)

  • Lisle

    Atta Girl, Alice!!

  • http://www.gooddisruptivechange.com Susan Alexander

    Alice:
    Such a great post, and such great work you’re doing.
    I have seen, many times, that when someone (as you have) takes issue with an inconsistency, or points out that something significant has been overlooked, the reaction is essentially what we see here:
    1) stop making such a fuss
    2) what you’re saying isn’t true (or doesn’t matter anyway).
    Rarely do people/organizations actually meet us head on, substantively, by addressing the facts or attempting to SPECIFICALLY address the positions on both sides of the issue.
    Why? Generally, I think, it’s because they can’t, i.e. they know the one who’s raised the issue IS right. So all they can do is resort to 1 and 2 above. And, of course, 1 and 2 above are easier. Addressing the positions on both sides of the issue is hard work.
    I admire what you’re doing. Great post.
    Susan

  • http://MariaCarr.co Maria

    Atta girl Alice! Thank you for what you are doing and for opening my eyes.

  • Glenn Wilson

    This problem, is far deeper than it seems. The foundations lie at the very route of the progression from girl to womanhood and boy to manhood. The majority of teenage girls lay themselves open to be dominated by guys. They actively encourage it for the sake of ‘peer pressure’. It goes hand in hand with sexual awakening – this is the time when gender actually starts to mean something.
    Girls manipulate this for attention and self-esteem to compete with their peers. They dress up older, they attract themselves for sexual power and confuse their young lustful emotions with the expectations of ‘fantasy love’ they see on disney. There’s such a fine gap between childhood and adulthood.
    In the minds of men, this is used for their own sexual power. It’s almost subconscious. ‘Laddish’ behaviour amongst their own peers almost excuses and justifies their attitude towards woman. Woman become a ‘practical’ use – sex, cooking, cleaning, etc.
    What happens next is that this attitude evolves into manhood. They still see woman in the way they were as teenagers mentally. Woman have empowered them with a moral highground by way of their surrender at the time when they were awakening their own gender identity. It becomes a vicious circle.
    More needs to be done in schools towards life skills at a very early age where this equality needs to be conditioned before the sexual/gender awakening starts. Then the shock of puberty wont merit such an emotional shock. It is a slow process but not impossible. Girls need to believe in THEMSELVES as equal long before puberty starts before this will ever change.
    Hindsight is only powerful in retrospect.

  • http://www.nilofermerchant.com Nilofer Merchant (@nilofer)

    So impressed with the strength of resolve and clarity of vision in the story. Thanks Whitney for amplifying Alice’s great work.

  • http://curt-rice.com curtrice

    Great stuff, Alice!
    As one of the original supporters of the faceitcampaign.com, I’m very pleased to see how it’s going. The force-joining with Ultraviolet is wonderful, too. (I mentioned in a comment on the Ms. blog a few days ago that it would be natural to combine forces here.)
    My own writing about this issue at Facebook includes
    Why Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg must resign, at http://bit.ly/zdfcPC
    Sex, war and boardrooms: Sheryl Sandberg as a modern day Lysistrata, at http://bit.ly/H0UZiV
    I’ve also written on the meritocracy argument, and endlessly on the quality issue. Keep at it!!

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