by Selisse Berry | Last week I attended the 22nd annual conference of the Professional BusinessWomen of California. Thousands of women came together for ideas, mentoring, and support in their business careers. A couple of the speakers in particular had a strong impact on me that I wanted to share with you.
One was the political strategist Donna Brazile, who worked on every presidential campaign from 1976-2000 and was awarded the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s top honor for political achievement. In her entertaining and inspiring speech, she commented that if a little girl from Louisiana can grow up and now pick up the phone and call 6 or 8 presidents, knowing that they will return her call, then anyone can make it in this world.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Harvard-educated COO of Facebook, was also a powerful speaker. She shared a lot of statistics and studies about the position of men and women in the workplace. One of them that I thought was very interesting is that as men become more successful in business, the people who work for them tend to like them more. However, when a woman becomes more successful, she is liked less by the people who work for her. When men are seen as decisive, women are still seen as jerks. It’s amazing how these old prejudices just hang around despite all of the progress we’ve made. Or haven’t made—women still only make $.78 for every dollar that men make. That’s an improvement of only a couple of pennies in my lifetime.
There was a lot of conversation about statistics that show that men consistently overrate their performance, while women do just the opposite and underrate our performance. At the conference, the message was reiterated that while humility is something to be appreciated, so too is being honest about our achievements. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to promotions and moving forward in the corporate world. Women need to be more comfortable putting themselves forward.
In reflecting on all that I heard at the conference, I was struck by the connections between the movement for women’s empowerment and our work for LGBT empowerment. I see strong similarities between the experiences of women and the experiences of LGBT people in the work place. Internalized homophobia is still present and, unfortunately, is still pervasive; it hampers LGBT careers in all kinds of ways.
It is important that we look at the gender dynamics that impact LGBT people at work and how that may be different than that encountered by their straight peers. Studies show that gay men make almost a third less than straight men with the same qualifications. Transgender people face incredible challenges in employment, with much higher rates of poverty than their non-transgender peers. (The American Psychological Association has a great summary of these studies on their page, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons & Socioeconomic Status.)
Yet I know a lesbian who attributes part of her success in business to the great mentoring she received from straight executives who were less threatened (or whose wives were less threatened) by them spending a great deal of time with her. She also was an athlete and played golf with leaders in her industry, giving her access to leadership that her straight women counterparts didn’t have. Which is certainly not to say that lesbians don’t face significant prejudice in the workplace.
We still need to learn more about the ways in which gender dynamics and the politics of sexual orientation and gender identity play out at work. Because, ultimately, the goal is a business climate where people are judged at work based on their contributions, their skills, and their passion for the job, and not on their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.