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.


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.

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)

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