The old stereotype is that men are strong and silent. And women? Well, those gals just can’t quit gabbing! They allegedly talk too much.
Any woman who works in an office setting knows intuitively how wrong that notion is. Men vastly outnumber us in the higher ranks in nearly every industry in the business world and, of course, in the political realm. And those men talk. A lot.
Yet the stereotype persists. And on Tuesday it was given new life at ― where else? ― Uber, the multibillion-dollar ride-hailing company currently struggling to demonstrate that it is not a cesspool of sexual harassment and discrimination.
At a staff meeting, after Uber board member Arianna Huffington mentioned that having one woman on the board leads to more joining the group, her 74-year-old male colleague jumped in with a terrible joke.
“Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking,” said David Bonderman, a board member, who is also a partner at the private equity firm TPG Capital. (Huffington founded HuffPost but is no longer affiliated with the publication.)
The term “mansplain” didn’t catch on for no good reason. A raft of studies have found that men talk more than women, particularly in public professional settings, where those with more power often feel more comfortable holding the floor. Men are also more likely to interrupt when a woman is speaking. As Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) found this week when she was cut-off in a hearing.
So not only was Bonderman’s off-the-cuff remark offensive ― employees were quick to lodge complaints afterwards with Uber’s human resource department ― it was also totally off-base.
At the meeting, Uber’s leaders were reviewing a plan to reform the company’s culture, one that has so-far been rife with harassment and discrimination toward women.
Last week, Uber fired 20 people due to various workplace issues included sexual harassment and bullying. Also on Tuesday, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick announced he was taking a leave of absence in light of mounting criticism of his leadership.
Yet Bonderman’s joke, in another way, was sort of perfect. It illustrates Uber’s problems with women. The belief that women talk too much is rooted in the understanding that women should be silent.
And that notion helps fuel exactly the kinds of problems faced by Uber ― where women’s complaints about sexual discrimination went ignored.
“The belief that women talk too much is rooted in the understanding that women should be silent.”
“The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence,” is how well-known feminist Dale Spender, explained the reasoning in her book Man Made Language written decades ago. “Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”
Of course, the reason Uber’s in so much trouble these days is because one woman refused to be silenced. Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, rocked Uber to its core in February when she published a blog post detailing how she was treated by the company.
After being propositioned by her boss on her first day at work, Fowler was effectively silenced. Her complaints, and those of other women at the company, went ignored.
The post led to Uber bringing in two outside law firms to examine her complaints and its workplace culture. Former Attorney General Eric Holder worked for months with other lawyers at his D.C. law firm, interviewing current and former workers and examining stacks of documents, to come up with a plan to reform the culture. (Recommendations include: less alcohol at work events, bosses shouldn’t date subordinates, the HR department should be better and more organized and responsive.)
Things already seem to have changed, at least a little bit. Less than 24 hours after Bonderman made his dumb joke, he apologized and actually resigned.
“I appreciate David doing the right thing for Uber at this time of critical cultural changes at the company,” Huffington said in a statement.
It’s worth noting that despite what Huffington said at that staff meeting on Tuesday, having one woman in the boardroom is not typically an effective path to gender parity. Studies have found that when just a single woman is included in an all-male team of directors, she’s often treated as a token ― who represents an entire gender.
Women who were the only female director at their company said they were often ignored in meetings and decision-making discussions, according to one widely cited survey of female board members.
Huffington was the sole woman on Uber’s board until ― in the face of massive criticism ― the company brought in another woman director, Wan Ling Martello, last week. That makes two women and four men at the top of the organization.
Maybe together those women will be able to get a word in.