Then, on Thursday, we had equal rights

Anyone who wonders why there are not more women in technology, not more women startups should read the book, A strange stirring, by Stephanie Coontz about the impact the book The Feminine Mystique had on America.

Like Coontz, I read The Feminine Mystique and found it kind of boring, although there were parts that resonated. Coontz’s book, on the other hand, is anything but boring. I had to keep putting it down because it brought back memories from 20 or 30 years ago that made me pissed off all over again.

In case you don’t know, Coontz is a historian and very well known for her work on history of the family. She had an earlier book called, “The way we never were“.

Let me give you a few points from Coontz’s book, from my life and the lives of other women of my age and older. Please do note that, in terms of age, I’m still a good 15 years from retirement.

When I was in middle school, it was still perfectly legal in many states for women to be required to get credit in their husband’s name, regardless of if they had their own income. I remember my mother buying a car and the title had my dad’s name on it. My mother insisted that it have her name because she had a job, had earned the money herself and it was her car. She was told,

“That’s okay, honey, when you get home, you can just cross out his name and pencil yours in over it.”

My mom, who generally was a very calm person, took me by the hand and we marched right out of there. This was not an isolated case. This was the law of the land. It was perfectly legal to advertise for positions for men only (management trainees) and women only (secretaries). It was legal, and customary, for schools to offer sports for males and not for females.

When I was pregnant, and insisted on still training, because I was the number one ranked athlete in my sport, the doctors at the U.S. Olympic Training Center had an absolute fit. My doctor told the OTC doctors that I was pregnant (which I would DEFINITELY consider a violation of confidentiality) “for the protection of my baby”. I moved to San Diego, took a job as an engineer at General Dynamics and trained up until the day before Maria was born, then went on to win the U.S. Open six weeks afterward.

I asked a woman around my age about her early experiences. Here is someone really smart, degrees in math and computer science, and she said, yes, she was told early in her career by her manager that if he only had enough money for raises for one person, her male colleague would get it because he had a wife and child to support. At that point, she said, she began looking for another job.

I had one boss tell me that he would not hire me because,

“We had a woman engineer once and it didn’t work out.”

I did actually get that job because it involved a fairly esoteric programming language, the company had a policy of preference for internal candidates and they could not find anyone else available in the company who knew it.

I had another boss who told me,

“We can’t give you more of a raise. We already pay you as much as the highest paid man in this department. If we gave you even more of a raise, you’d be making more than ALL of the men.”

To no avail, I pointed out that I’d brought in a lot more money than any of the men that year. When that didn’t work, I went somewhere else, picking up a 50% raise along with it. BUT I SHOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO HAVE LEFT !

My husband said to me today,

“Yes, that all sucked, but so did slavery. We got rid of it. There has been great progress.”

Yes, there has been great progress but, unlike slavery, we got rid of these laws AFTER MANY OF THE SENIOR WOMEN TODAY BEGAN WORKING. So, in 1978 when I graduated from college, the men who were the managers, professors, the senior technical staff  had been working for twenty, thirty or forty years. For their entire lives it had been the social norm and the law that women had separate, and lesser, careers than men, if they worked at all.

Does anyone seriously believe that after a life time in a society where politically, socially, legally and economically women were universally agreed to be “less than men” that all of a sudden one Thursday afternoon when some law or another passed all of those senior managers sincerely accepted equal rights for women?

In college, when I took calculus, statistics, operations research and similar courses there would be three women to sixty men. The professors often addressed the class as “Gentlemen”. I had one professor tell me to my face that I was taking the place of a man who would need this degree some day to support his family.

I took my first SAS programming course because I was a very pregnant industrial engineer walking around on a plank mill to try to better understand the quality problems we were having and the managers found sending me off to a programming class to be an acceptable way of getting me out of the plant because I might “fall off” the machines. Fall off? What the hell made them think that pregnant women randomly tip over?

Those two managers who conspired to get me out of the plant before I fell off of a machine? Years later, I married one of them (yeah, NOBODY saw that one coming, including us). The other, his best friend, was the best man at our wedding. The manager who said he wouldn’t hire another woman engineer? I worked for him for a couple of years. None of these were evil men out to undermine the lives of women. As a general rule, they were absolutely regular guys, intelligent, good at their jobs. They had wives and daughters they genuinely cared for.  However, they had lived their entire lives under a set of assumptions that happened to benefit them and which were just never questioned. Of course there were no women engineers when “engineer” was a position advertised under “Help wanted -Male” and no one ever thought it was a problem because there never had been any women engineers in their company.

Women the age of Steve Job, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison grew up in a DRAMATICALLY different environment than their extremely successful male peers. To say as Stephanie Coontz admits she is ashamed to say that she once believed, that if the women were strong enough they could have defied the stereotypes misses the point that many men didn’t HAVE TO defy any stereotypes. This isn’t to say that people like Jobs et al. were not exceptionally brilliant, or that they didn’t work their asses off,  but that it was EASIER for them than for women of the same age, for a whole bunch of reasons I have just touched on. (This is just a blog post. Coontz wrote a whole book on this. )

Young women now look ahead of them, see far fewer women at the top of the Apple / Microsoft/ Oracle food chain and are told that since opportunities are equal, the conclusion is obvious, women just don’t have what it takes, prefer their families, etc.

Whether opportunities are equal now is open to debate. What is NOT open to debate is that opportunities were very far from equal in the 1940s,1950s and 1960s and when women like me entered the work force in the 1970s and early 1980s, they entered work places that were run by the men (and they were ALL men) who had been socialized in the 1950s and 1960s. Those women were both subtly and very blatantly discouraged from careers in general and in technology in particular for a good bit of their lives.

If you start a 100 yards back and then all of a sudden have an equal playing field, it’s no surprise that those who started at the back don’t catch up.

I’ve been able to do fairly well – get a Ph.D., start a company, make money and raise four children I love a lot. What I don’t want to do at this point is devalue those other women who did not steer the same course. I DON’T want to ever say that,

“Hey, I did it and if you’re strong enough, you could have done it, too.”

To the women my age, I’d like to say this,

“A lot of times, I had to be super thick-skinned and a straight-A bitch to get my point across. If you were not that way, you SHOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO BE. You shouldn’t HAVE TO defy social expectations.  It was WRONG that women got sexually harassed, lacked in mentors and had a hundred other disadvantages. It was totally fucked up. You’re NOT stupid, you’re not lacking and all I can say in the way of any small consolation is that it is somewhat better for our daughters.”

To the women younger than me, I want to add,

“Don’t take the small number of women in tech, women running start-ups as any indication of YOUR chance of success. As Vivek Wadhwa has found 47% of tech start-up founders are over age 40. Out of that 45% are between 40 and 60 (putting many of them my age or older) and those women did not have your opportunities. It’s still bullshit that it’s completely equal, but it’s better.”

To everybody, men and women, I would say, read Stephanie Coontz’s book.

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  1. My wife got a B in high school calculus, despite her A average, because the male teacher freely admitted that he didn’t think girls should be taking such hard classes. (And he got away with it.)

    We met as undergrads at MIT.

  2. One reason that I think there is and still will be a lot of inequality with women, especially in America,is due to Christianity:


    I actually work with a woman, who strongly believes that women are weaker than men and is completely anti-feminist.

    Lastly, I could argue that women now, are at an upper hand in several realms. They currently have higher employment rates and higher graduation rates than men.

  3. Certainly women are doing far better now than in the past. It may be in some fields that women have an advantage – not in any I work in, but perhaps in nursing or other areas that have been traditionally female – I don’t know. Certainly in elementary and secondary education we are seeing a lot more female administrators.

    As far as Christianity relating to inequality – I think that depends on the person and the church they attend, even within a specific group, such as Catholicism. The church, too, has been changing in many areas. When I was young, there were no “altar girls” and there was a lot more about how women needed to be submissive. It’s not changing fast enough to suit me – but that’s a whole ‘nother subject!

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