Alpha Girls: Stories From Lone Women in Business

Alpha Girls: Stories From Lone Women in Business - Make It Better

Thankfully, the state of affairs for women in the workplace no longer resembles a “Mad Men” episode. The blatant gender bias that once ruled in workplaces has largely been banished. But while women have generally succeeded in overcoming the barriers to getting hired, today’s hurdles, often called “second-generation bias,” instead involve achieving respect and advancement.

Pioneering Silicon Valley venture capitalist Heidi Roizen, one of the rare 6 percent of female partners at venture capital firms, has long been the lone woman in too many boardrooms to count. Before becoming a venture capitalist, she founded and sold a tech company, another arena in which women tend to be a rarity. Recently, reacting to the spate of sex discrimination lawsuits and accusations of sexual harassment roiling Silicon Valley, Roizen chimed in with a blog post about her experiences as an entrepreneur.

She describes an experience she had when finalizing what she called a “company-defining deal with a major PC manufacturer” that would have boosted her then-million-dollar revenue by millions more over the next few years. “It was huge,” she says in her blog. The PC executive working on the deal with her suggested they sign the contract during a celebratory dinner in San Francisco. “When I arrived at the restaurant, I found it a bit awkward to be seated at a table for four yet to be in two seats right next to each other,” posted Roizen. “But it was a French restaurant and that seemed to be the style, so down I sat.” After some toasts, midway through dinner, the VP told Roizen that he’d brought her a present. “… But it was under the table, and would I please give him my hand so he could give it to me. I gave him my hand, and he placed it in his unzipped pants.” Yes, she says, “this really happened.” She bolted and, of course, the deal fell through.

Unfortunately, such behavior isn’t limited to male-dominated industries like technology. Tone-deafness to women’s issues is found in classrooms, conference halls and corner offices around the country.

In San Diego, criminal defense attorney Jessica McElfresh, now 33, vividly recalls the aggressive hostility of some male classmates at the University of San Diego Law School, where women didn’t usually opt for the rough-and-tumble field of criminal law. Having attended an all-women’s college, McElfresh was accustomed to participating in class, and quickly gained a reputation for speaking up. She recalls seeing “the IM messages from a male student on the phone of a woman sitting next to me, saying, ‘No one wants to hear what she has to say.’ And how he’d punch me if I kept talking and how I needed to shut the f**k up.” Today, McElfresh specializes in marijuana law and policy, another male-entrenched field. “Although marijuana advocate groups now are focusing on outreach to females and minorities,” she says, change has been markedly slow.

In Chicago, third-generation butcher Kari Underly began as a journeyman meat cutter in the late 1980s, and was literally the only woman at the bench for years. She remembers not only being ignored and insulted by peers but also once having a knife thrown at her in the cooler by a disgruntled supervisor. Cautioned by male bosses to lower expectations, she told that she thought she’d “be stuck at a supermarket butcher shop cutting table for the rest of my life.”

Instead, in 2002, Underly founded Range, a forward-looking fresh meat consultancy that propelled her to become an industry leader. Along the way, she invented two new cuts of beef, the Denver cut and flat iron steak, published The Art of Beef Cutting, was shortlisted for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award, and helped to establish the sustainable nose-to-tail butchering movement (or, “local whole animal utilization”) for farm-to-table restaurants. At 47, Underly continues to defy those warnings that came from men early in her career. After spearheading butchering workshops, which were developed with female and male participants in mind, around the country, she is opening doors in January 2016 to the Muscolo Meat Academy, a premier butcher certification school headquartered in Chicago. “What I really appreciate is being able to teach young women or older women — breaking down that gap,” she said in an interview at the 2014 Women and Chefs Conference.

Women who have achieved leadership positions are by no means exempt from barriers to continued advancement. Most of the time, men occupy the topmost positions in organizations, which means male approval is critical for women attempting to share this space. Women often find themselves making difficult choices about how or whether to put the brakes on inappropriate behavior from men who hold the decision-making power.

When male colleagues or clients edge into improper territory, says Ashley Swartz, founder of Furious Corp., a New York digital advertising agency, “I typically prevent them from making a bad decision instead of shaming them or embarrassing them. I’m the one who takes the responsibility by putting on my big-girl pants and dealing with it. Your path to resolving such behavior has a lot to do with the kind of woman you are and your personality. I don’t think there’s any right answer. But it does affect your business.”

Swartz acknowledges that it takes time and practice to react confidently when you’re the only woman at the table or in the room. “There are many occasions in my career where I’ve remained quiet and I’ve allowed myself to accept or tolerate bad behavior from men.” These days, she’s calmer, less prone to outrage and more direct. “When I was younger, I was a bull in the china shop and I ran into a lot of brick walls and I made a lot of mistakes and I was very prickly.” She’s come to realize that delivery matters if you want to effectively convey your message. Otherwise, she says, it “reinforces the fact that women can’t play nice and be in the workplace with a bunch of boys.”

Even high-profile women with megaphones must play by different rules than men. Recently, that grand dame of the lone-woman scenario, Hillary Clinton, told a Washington, D.C., audience that she’s been criticized for “shouting” about gun control. Clinton’s response touched a nerve for women, and went viral on social media within minutes: “Well, I’m not shouting,” she said. “It’s just when women talk, people think we’re shouting.”

Reflecting on her own experience in the restaurant, which essentially set up a sex-for-money transaction, Roizen acknowledges that women “face challenges that our male counterparts do not.” But she unfortunately sees little benefit in confronting such behavior, believing that it’s the woman who usually loses in such battles. “So what’s a girl to do?” asks Roizen. “In many situations my answer is: You have to simply walk away.”

Which begs the question — do we really? And if so, for how much longer?


Joanna L. KrotzJoanna L. Krotz is the author of “Being Equal Doesn’t Mean Being the Same: Why Behaving Like a Girl Can Change Your Life and Grow Your Business,” a call to action to women to become entrepreneurs to find parity and purpose. She hosts The Woman’s Playbook podcasts and has also published “The Guide to Intelligent Giving.” Krotz frequently writes and speaks on women’s advancement, including “Redefining Sex and Power: How Women Can Bankroll Change and Fund Their Future,” “Women’s Work: Paying It Forward,” and “Leveraging the Female Advantage” Webinar.


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