When I was 18, just getting ready to graduate from high school, my philosophy teacher used to tease me a lot about how I would be the first one walking around with a stroller even if I were planning on going to undergrad and grad school. He was suggesting all my efforts would lead me to housewifedom, no matter how many degrees I was planning on getting. He knew it would drive me crazy because I called myself a feminist and believed in getting higher degrees like my older brother, so I could provide for myself and maybe one day also for my boyfriend, husband and/or children.
My mother raised us children and always worked. She was never a housewife and still, she was also running things at home and managing all our lives, including dealing with losing her oldest daughter to leukemia at age 7. My grandmothers were also working women. My mom’s mom, born in 1918, had an undergrad degree and was a teacher. She escaped from the Nazis and later ran a household with 5 kids, supporting her doctor husband. My dad’s mom was an entrepreneur and opened a pastry shop in Luxembourg with her husband, just after the end of the Second World War. She ran the business for over 20 years and transformed it into an institution.
Being a woman in my family always meant being strong. I had female entrepreneurs, academics, and doctors in my family and would not let anybody tell me that I have less opportunities than my brothers. My parents reinforced that in my upbringing, teaching me to work hard and believe in myself.
I grew up speaking 4 languages and being a top performer in academics. I got into an elite French university, Sciences Po, and ended up getting into a highly competitive study abroad program in the U.S. Then I went to grad school, graduating at the top of my class with a master’s degree at age 23. I uprooted myself and immigrated to the US, throwing myself into a job market that I didn’t know anything about but was eager and hungry to grow, learn, and perform.
Until I started working, I lived in a bit of a bubble, never feeling like I had less opportunities as a woman compared to my male peers. Then I entered the NYC startup world, getting a job as employee number 8 at a venture-funded company. The first few companies I worked for were all started and run by men. 95% of the senior management teams were male, at each of the companies I worked for. Investors were also men. The board consisted of men as well. I had female coworkers at the junior level who were working hard and diligently, but they weren’t the decision makers.
I recall one of the only women at my first job, who was also the only woman who was part of the senior management team (not sure how much she was involved in actually making any decisions). She was also my boss and part of our weekly rituals was a 30-minute one-on-one session. She was generally super happy with my work but gave me this one piece of feedback: she told me I had too much empathy and needed to never, ever apologize, even if I made a mistake. Because men don’t apologize. Wow. At the time, I took it very seriously and swore I would become tougher and show less feelings. She engrained in me that I needed to be tough to be successful and that I needed to be like my make coworkers. I was 24 at the time.
A few years later, I joined a women-owned software startup. It was night and day compared to my previous startup experiences. 70% of the company were female, 50% of the board was female, the investors were women. My world turned around. This work environment reminded me of the way my parents raised me and my brothers. My feelings and sensitivity were valued, even encouraged. There was an incredible focus on communication, positive feedback and above all, empathy. I worked for and with women who have children and are running a company and/or their team like a boss. Without losing their female attributes. I saw that I could be myself, be a woman, and be smart and successful at the same time. I became involved in making crucial decisions for the company and felt like I was able to thrive in an environment totally depleted of personal egos and agendas. It blew my mind that this was possible.
Even though I had this incredibly positive experience at my last job, I believe that reality in 2018 in the United States is more like my first jobs. I believe that the women-owned software startup is still very much an exception and I know that the founders had to fight hard, harder than their male peers, to build this company and raise money. I’m still unsure why though. The women in my family were strong, they overcame huge life challenges, they kept their head down and worked hard. And still, they seemed to never get to the same level. I feel the same sometimes. I know equality isn’t a real thing yet because we need to talk about it all the time, we need to proactively push for it, it’s not culturally ingrained yet. The good thing though is that my millennial sisters and brothers won’t give up until we all really believe, live and breathe equality. Because ‘history has shown us that courage can be contagious’ (Michelle Obama)–let’s not lose hope.
Do you have a story about working in a male-dominated industry?
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