If you experienced something that shed light on a pretty serious issue, would you be bold enough to share it with the public?
I ask because a young woman named Erica Swallow did just that and I’d like to share her story.
Erica wrote a post this summer, On Being a Female in Venture Capital, for her school’s student blog. In it, she details her experience interning in Venture Capital where she struggled to find her place “as a woman in a man’s world.”
I applaud her. As an intern I probably would not have been confident enough to share such a personal reflection that could ignite even the slightest backlash. Now, however, as co-editor of Positively Smitten, I aim to share valuable lessons and personal experiences in hopes that others learn from them or feel not so alone. But it is unnerving to put opinions, feelings, and experiences to a virtual journal that the world can see. And even I wonder if I would have been bold enough to share the same experience publicly that she did, out of fear that I would be criticized and rejected.
And that’s exactly what Erica got from many people.
People who said things like, “The next time a VC firm is thinking about hiring a woman, they will think twice because if they don’t treat her like the entitled brat she is, she will go and write a tale tattling blog post about it.”
And “Go ahead: write a blog post about this. Tell lies. Make up stories. Seek attention. Tell the world how you received a brutally honest comment and broke down crying and then sought to exact revenge by writing up that person in the WSJ. Absolutely disgusting.”
And “Whining about the opportunity you were handed. For what? For your 15 minutes of fame??”
These comments were under a post she wrote for The Wall Street Journal about what happened when she spoke up. In other words, she must have been at the center of quite a hoopla for The WSJ to have her write about the reaction her blog post received.
Perhaps the comment that upset me the most was the one that tells me some people miss the point altogether. When Erica wrote, “There were no other women in sight on the investing side”, somebody made this disheartening statement:
“This is standard in VC. And in finance. And in tech. And in construction and in engineering. Guess what? There are a lot of industries in which women are under-represented. That might be because women tend not to major in those fields, maybe they don’t seek work experience in those fields, maybe the work is unappealing to women, maybe the hours and demands of those fields are less compatible with the demands of primary caregivers (which, like it or not, women tend to be), maybe there’s some discrimination going on. The simple observation that there’s a gender imbalance is NOT indicative of discrimination.”
Sigh. The point Erica intended to make in her blog is at the very heart of this matter: that women are intimidated to pursue these career paths because of exactly what she experienced. And women are not encouraged to enter the fields because that’s just the way it’s been.
Sure, her blog wasn’t perfect. I personally don’t like her reference to the women who do exist in VC as being “high-heel-studded secretaries and assistants”. That’s a blanket statement that comes across a tad degrading. But I don’t think she is ungrateful or a waste of an intern. She makes it very clear that she enjoyed her internship and respected and admired her colleagues. I believe Erica when she says she did not intend to upset them by sharing her thoughts. Rather she hoped to start a dialogue and make a number of valuable points, such as:
- “My summer in venture capital, while educational and eye-opening, showed me…that entrepreneurship is even harder than I imagined.”
- “There were no female decision-makers on the investment team…for me to look to for mentorship.”
- “I count this experience as one more step towards educating myself, a part of the millennial generation, that a lot needs to change in our time at the helm.”
- “I’m drawn towards making sure women are better represented at the table in the worlds of entrepreneurship and venture capital. How to make that happen, I’m not sure. But I’m open to ideas.”
Did she accomplish making these messages clear? Read it and you be the judge.
I think she did, but I’m most impressed by her bravery. She told The WSJ that “People have called me brave, courageous and completely out of my mind for expressing my thoughts.”
Even so, despite the reaction, she said she wouldn’t change a thing. She would have put the truth out there for the world to see.
I can only imagine the backbone it must take. I’d like to think I would have that kind of a spine in a situation like this. I’d like to get to a place, both individually and for women as a whole, to not be afraid to share the reality of what goes on behind closed doors – or in the board room. To be more like Erica. And then when the comments come in, to lift our chins up.
Now let me ask you, would you have done anything different? Would you have written this blog? Leave us a comment below, and feel free to share examples of times you have spoken up!