The inevitable takedown of the female CEO

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Four years ago when I founded Winnie, I set out to build a different kind of startup. Above and beyond any success our business achieved, it was most important to me that we create a culture where people would want to work. As a new mom at the time, I intentionally decided to build a company where employees would not work on nights or weekends, where there was flexibility for employees to manage their lives outside of the office, where motherhood would no longer be a penalty but a bonus and where underrepresented groups would be valued and promoted. If we failed because we did those things, so be it.

Four years later, I’m proud of the culture my co-founder Anne Halsall and I have built. As it turns out, treating employees well, valuing their families and personal time and diversifying our team are not only the right things to do, but also competitive advantages.

Even so, I worry that being a woman and taking on the role of co-founder and CEO places a target on my back.

Aggressive. Blunt. Furious. These are words that have been used to criticize the behavior of female CEOs of prominent companies like Thinx, Cleo, Rent the Runway and ThirdLove, to name a few. Away is the latest female-led company to come under fire, in an article in The Verge on Thursday.

First, let me be clear: A toxic work culture is never acceptable. Regardless of who started a company or what kind of stress the company is under, it’s never okay to mistreat employees. Some of the things that came to light in these pieces are particularly abhorrent: sexual harassment, lying about one’s credentials, creating an unsafe space for underrepresented groups, overworking employees. These are dynamics that need to be called out and eliminated at all companies, whether female or male-led. The Away example is no exception.

But as a female founder and CEO of a growing company, I have to ask: Why does it seem like so many of the toxic companies in the news are founded and led by women? The number of major public corporations led by female CEOs is less than 5%, and of the 134 U.S.-based unicorns, only 14 even have a woman with a co-founder title.

For such a small fraction of female-led companies, the amount of negative press female CEOs receive is glaringly disproportionate. I have a couple of ideas why.

First, while much of what is revealed in these reports is disgusting, what also comes through is the stereotype of women leaders as “bitches.” Articles often highlight when female CEOs curse, yell and show anger or bawdiness, because the shock value is higher than when male CEOs demonstrate these behaviors. We ask women leaders not only to be successful, but also to be ladylike and likable. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been criticized for not being warm and friendly enough, or saying things that were too blunt.

Second, studies show that when it comes to ethical failures, women are “judged more harshly than men.” The ThirdLove article calls out that “at a by women, for women company” ThirdLove’s practice of discouraging salary negotiation was particularly disappointing. Cleo’s last-minute setup of a mother’s room using hanging curtains and a TaskRabbit was described by employees as one of the “more outrageous” behaviors of the founder. As a breastfeeding mom myself, I hate when mother’s rooms are inadequate, but male-led companies have poor lactation accommodations all the time.

The way we are targeting female founders and CEOs is doing nothing to encourage gender equality. It is only ensuring that the number of female CEOs is dwindling under the pressure of having to live up to stricter standards than men. So what can each of us do to create a more fair and accurate picture?

Reporters should continue to hold companies accountable, but just seek stories of male CEOs in equal proportion to the number of male-led companies out there. Those stories are there and only a few of the very worst examples have been exposed. Let’s have it take much less time to expose the next Travis Kalanick or Adam Neumann.

As readers, it is also worth being aware of our own biases. We can ask ourselves if we’re more outraged at a behavior because it comes from a woman, and if there are men we’re allowing to go unscrutinized. We can ask ourselves if maybe we enjoy seeing successful women taken down a notch (I certainly hope the answer is no).

I will continue to implement a healthy work environment at Winnie, grow a company where my employees can thrive and hold myself to the highest standards of conduct. But as we continue to take down the already few female CEOs one by one, I can only hope that what I do will be enough.

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