Is sexism a dirty little secret in the business world today, or has the problem diminished over time? We spoke with some women entrepreneurs who started their companies over the past four decades to get their take on sexism and how they've dealt with it.
Looking back, Gwinavere Johnston, 60, founder and CEO of $1.5 million JohnstonWells Public Relations in Denver, admits she encountered her share of sexist attitudes after founding her company in 1971. "In the beginning, I ignored most of them because I didn't think there was much I could do about it and I really didn't feel [it] affected me too severely," she explains. "But today, I know this: It would have been easier to build my business if I had been a man."
More recently, Johnston has witnessed an attitude change that gives her hope. "I've seen women really working at starting their own 'good old girls' networks. I don't mean that in terms of organizations or formal networking opportunities," she says. "But lately, I've sensed that corporate female executives just might prefer to work with another woman from a consulting standpoint. I've never seen that before, and I consider this the greatest sign of progress yet."
Attitudes have changed ever since Marianne O'Connor, 42, founded her PR firm in 1989. "A decade ago, when I would attend conferences with my husband, people assumed he was the executive and I was a 'stay at home, tennis-playing and/or child-rearing' spouse," recalls the president and CEO of $3.2 million Los Gatos, California-based Sterling Communications Inc. Today, O'Connor says, other CEOs (as well as their wives) no longer think it unusual or threatening when they learn she's the CEO.
"The interesting twist is that many male business owners I know have matured to the point where they understand how much time it takes to make a home or rear children well," says O'Connor. "So [now] they're amazed I'm able to do a job like theirs and still take on many 'wife/mom' duties in my spare time."
Role models are what 39-year-old Michelle Drolet feels has helped her deflect sexism in the business world. The CEO of Conqwest Inc., a $4 million Internet security services firm, admits, "Having strong male and female influences while growing up taught me that I could be and do anything I wanted. Today, I still seek guidance from both men and women. There have been times when the old boys network rears its ugly head, but I chose to ignore it and move on. Why get attached to things that are unpleasant?"
Drolet sees an increase in the number of women willing to take risks in business since starting her company in Holliston, Massachusetts, in 1993. Women "are proving to be as entrepreneurial as men, if not more so," she says. From a high-tech point of view, Drolet sees more women in higher executive positions in her field as well as more women running tech companies. "I'm not the only female in the room anymore, and I'm glad for that!"
"Women business owners have definitely gotten stronger," observes Stephanie Shirit, 32, CEO of $2 million recruiting and executive search firm Resource Associates in Las Vegas. "We are becoming the majority instead of the minority."
While Shirit hasn't encountered sexism directly since founding her company in 2000, she doesn't think she has avoided it-she's just been lucky enough not to encounter it. Says Shirit, "Women need to continue to be strong and support one another as men do, and eventually we will prevail. I also believe that maintaining a professional demeanor at all times is very important, no matter what happens. Your reputation and name are everything."
Aliza Pilar Sherman (www.mediaegg.com) is an author, freelance writer and speaker specializing in women's issues.