In meeting with President-elect Donald Trump on Monday, Carly Fiorina did what women with jobs ― particularly those of her generation ― have always done: She put aside the blatant, offensive sexism of the guy in charge and tried to move ahead.
Of course, she got the kind of criticism that women with jobs ― especially those high up the chain ― typically receive. Not only was the former GOP presidential candidate and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard called out for backtracking on her strong criticism of Trump before he was elected, but she was also criticized for betraying all women.
At first glance, it’s easy to feel betrayed by Fiorina, who reportedly met with Trump on Monday to interview for the role of director of national intelligence. After all, she gave us a pitch-perfect moment of female empowerment early in the primary season last year, one of the rare times a woman directly confronted Trump over his demeaning and objectifying comments.
Remember? Fiorina was asked during a GOP primary debate if she had read or heard about the nasty remarks Trump had made to Rolling Stone about her looks. (“Look at that face!...Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”)
Fiorina was poised. Ice. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said, garnering the loudest applause of the evening, The Huffington Post’s Scott Conroy wrote at the time.
Trump tried to backtrack by calling her a “beautiful woman.” But he looked the fool. “Fiorina’s face remained steely, and the moment belonged to her,” Conroy wrote.
So yes, it was deflating to read Fiorina’s statement about this week’s meeting with Trump (“groveling” for a job is how some put it) ― just the latest moment of horror for women in this country who are reminded daily that the president-elect doesn’t regard them with respect. (One example: Keeping at least three men who have been accused of assaulting women by his side.)
But if you consider Fiorina’s long career as a woman in the male-dominated corporate world and her history of sidestepping her gender in politics, this all makes perfect, sad, sense.
The 62-year-old, one of just a few women to rise to CEO of a Fortune 500 company, knows all about the sexism and harassment endemic to the workplace.
In her recent book on women leaders, Wall Street Journal reporter Joann Lublin describes how one of Fiorina’s colleagues repeatedly made sexual advances toward her after a long day of work on a business trip when she was just starting out as a salesperson at AT&T.
Fiorina rebuffed the guy ― who was higher up on the chain than she ― and returned to her hotel room, only to field calls from him throughout the night. He “was angrier every time,” Fiorina writes in her memoir.
She didn’t sue. Fiorina told another male colleague about the behavior and later excluded her harasser from a new project she was working on. By today’s standards, maybe her reaction seems insufficient. But it’s inarguable that Fiorina won over the long term, eventually ascending to the top at Hewlett-Packard. (Ultimately, she’d be forced out after dismal financial results.)
There was also the time Fiorina forged ahead with a client meeting her colleague had set up ― at a strip club. It turns out her male coworkers were so embarrassed by the experience, they stopped scheduling business meetings in strip clubs, Vox reports.
In the corporate world where Fiorina comes from, you have to ignore and rise above if you want to move up. And that was particularly true when she was starting out in her career decades ago. You had to meet clients in horrid places. You had to ignore the leers from the boss ― or, god forbid, the groping. You had to walk past pornographic images on cubicle walls. You had to stay at the office while they went golfing. Or stay home when they went on men-only weekend outings. You had to look perfect ― not too buttoned-up, not too slutty ― while they put on the same old uniforms every day. You had to be better than all that.
If you consider Fiorina’s long career as a woman in the male-dominated corporate world and her history of sidestepping her gender in politics, this all makes perfect, sad, sense.
The Wall Street Journal’s Lublin also describes her own life in the paper’s newsroom as one of its first, few female reporters: A male coworker asked her to make coffee, her male colleagues stood up when she walked into a meeting in a moment of hostile chivalry, her boss kissed her full on the mouth when her internship was over.
“I fled the office,” Lublin writes in her book, Earning It. She repressed the memory for years and kept moving ahead. She’s now a revered journalist who is still nailing down huge scoops for the paper.
None of this was fair. Certainly, things have gotten slightly better.
But the alternative was, you quit. Complaining to human resources or speaking up in traditional ways didn’t always do much good.
When Megyn Kelly was just starting out at Fox News, the big boss, chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, repeatedly hit on her. Finally, Kelly complained to her supervisor, she writes in her new memoir, Settle for More. He told her Roger wasn’t a bad guy and advised her to just ignore it, Kelly says. The advice, infuriating as it was, worked. Ailes stopped.
“Most women I know have had to do this dance with a male superior at some point ― trying to reject inappropriate behavior while also trying to avoid explicitly calling him out,” Kelly writes.
In a radio interview earlier this month, Kelly told NPR’s Terry Gross she had little power at the time to do more. Ailes ran the company. He was in charge of the human resources department. What could she do? If she had taken legal action, it might have effectively ended her career.
It was only more than a decade later, when she had made a success out of herself, that Kelly felt like she could come out publicly with her story. The balance of power had shifted. Thanks to her and many of her female colleagues, Ailes was done harassing women at his company. Fox fired him.
“Perhaps there is some poetic justice in that. Times are changing for women in this country. We’re putting up with less. Standing up for ourselves more. And making strides some never thought possible,” she writes.
Back to Fiorina.
She is hardly the first person to backtrack on criticism of the president-elect and prostrate themselves before him.
But complicating Fiorina’s reversal is her gender. To some, she isn’t merely sucking up to Trump like, say, Mitt Romney. Fiorina must also shoulder the burden of representing all women while she does it.
Here’s Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Brett Stephens, who in one tweet manages to call out Fiorina for betraying all women and setting a bad examples for “young women everywhere.”
Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway was quick to call out Stephens’ tweet as sexist.
That kind of criticism is pretty hard to take from a woman who has helped probably the most vile and misogynistic presidential candidate in recent memory advance to the Oval Office. She also seems to question Stephens’ right to even make this comment, which is equally upsetting. But the thing is, Conway isn’t wrong about the sexism part.
When Romney met with Trump, was he setting a bad example for all the young men of the world? No one said that, Danielle Decoursey writes at ATTN:
Instead of seeing Fiorina’s meeting with Trump as a betrayal to all women and girls, let’s look at it for what it is: A career move by someone interested in advancing herself and succeeding in the field she’s been trying to move ahead in for years. A person who has, for decades, had to deal with powerful men and their covert and overt sexism.
And, crucially, Fiorina is a politician who has never really made much of her gender.
As a Republican candidate for president, Fiorina didn’t back the kinds of policies that are typically seen as critical women’s issues. She was against a federal paid parental leave policy, for example, claiming that companies could step in and fill the void.
For years, Fiorina has tried to distance herself from the fact that she’s a woman. Many women who rise through the ranks do this. They’ll downplay their gender as a meaningful part of their identity, instead explaining how hard they’ve worked to achieve success.
This reporter has asked more than a few successful women how they made it in a man’s world, and they say it just wasn’t a thing. They were too busy working. It’s part denial and part suppression; sexism is a heavy load, and sometimes you just don’t want to bear it.