5 min read

International Women's Day, indeed: On Management #54

"I'm done with scraps. Give women power." Elmira Bayrasli
Women in a crowd wearing lots of pink, pink-hatted young girl piggyback with her mom, in red.
Mother/Daughter, by Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0 Deed

Same as it ever was

After a chaotic holiday and post-holiday, I finally sat down and finished reading Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career, which Jane Watson had suggested to me. Former Amazon executive Kristi Coulter writes about what it’s like to be an ambitious (white) woman in the workplace, and how your own ambition might warp your reality. Among other things.

Coulter is a fish out of water, a frog in slowly boiling water. She takes a job where there will always be more work than can ever be finished. Where you might over-prepare for a meeting with a senior manager — like you do for every meeting, really — and he might call you “stupid” to your face. (And then your boss, a woman, might tell you that he had been treating you as “the leader you are.”) Where another senior dude's response to your question about how to position yourself for promotion might be, "Just change the world."

Where you will never get that promotion.

I switched between the book and the audiobook. Coulter is the audio narrator. In her voice, brief interludes to the narrative about how she sublimates — her female-ness, her anger, her ambition — land like gutpunches. She drops hints about drinking wine to unwind after long days, hashtag relatable. Until it’s clear that she’s drinking, a lot; it might be a problem. She climbs into sobriety — angry, exhausted, and demoralized.

While writing this note to you, it occurred to me that Exit Interview and Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley might bookend this era for women in 21st century tech. I had read an advance copy of Uncanny Valley in 2019, no audiobook back then. So last week, I decided to refresh my memory, and checked the audio out of the library.

Coulter offers a very GenX voice and story about stepping into a large and hierarchical institution. A Millennial, Weiner works in startups that exist in hierarchies that are less-obvious, but equally constraining: company hierarchy, flat on paper only; and, the larger startup “ecosystem,” where VCs are kingmakers for men in their 20s.

These are two very different books, two very different women. So I was truly shocked as I took my second tour through Weiner's memoir. Their stories had similar shapes, nearly identical plot-points. Two liberal arts grads, in different decades, entered the lesser-evil industry, tech, via inane interview protocols. Self-described people pleasers, they worked to assimilate to their cultures, surrounded by white men, occasionally surprised that the products they were creating might be doing harm. The constant message: the drip-drip-drip of ways in which they fell short and did not belong. That they were not all that.

Both left their companies. And both ended their books, more or less, with the 2016 election: Weiner flew to Nevada to get out the vote; Coulter flew to DC for the Women’s March.

Neither woman works in tech today. Weiner has written about tech for The New Yorker, where she’s a contributing writer. Coulter is a writer and editorial consultant.

Isabel, a protagonist of Michael Cunningham’s Day, describes two of her coworkers at a dying magazine, as they move on: “Amber and Emilia are, in their own way, studies in the leave-taking strategies of children, even if, at the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven, they are thoroughly grown. Some children want to be fondly remembered. Others want to make sure they can never return.”

Kristi Coulter and Anna Weiner give voice to the universal story of the indignities of being a woman at work, specifically in tech. Coulter has named names. She can never return.

I do not look forward to reading a similarly-shaped story from a Gen-Z woman in tech.

Another heroine, and part of her journey

I should have watched The Disappearance of Shere Hite in the light of day. Instead, I watched it after dinner; it took a while that night to settle my mind enough to sleep. The next day, I awoke crabby and wordless — I had an anger hangover.

Shere Hite was a groundbreaking sexuality researcher who came to public awareness in the mid-1970s. The film documents her work from its early stages, when, with the support of a group of NYC second-wave feminists, she courted media engagement to get the work noticed. It worked. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality became an international best-seller.

Yet, in being noticed, she drew fire. Hite, her methodology, and her work, were derided in the academy, by the media, and by the emerging religious right: she was doxxed and driven from her home in the 1990s. Her resilience depleted, Hite exiled herself to Europe, where she recovered and continued her work.

I hadn't thought of Hite in this century. She reappears in this film, through interviews with friends and contemporaries, footage of conversations with pundits of the day, her writing, and voiceovers from study subjects. I was left with an impression of someone whose work was born from deep compassion, and a belief that equality would benefit everyone – and whose once-transgressive ideas have become conventional wisdom. Someone whom I should not have forgotten, not allowed to have disappeared.

What more do you want?

Lots of newsletters hit my inbox for International Women's Day – my favorite piece was Elmira Bayrasli's brief essay, Power, in her newsletter, Interruptrr.

Long-term unemployment

In the US, our Bureau of Labor Statisics counts someone among the long-term unemployed if they have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. I know more than a handful of people who find themselves in this situation; it's tough out there, and my heart goes out to anyone in your circle who may be living this experience.

I'm thinking and reading about this topic right now – if you have any recommended readings, opinions, or ideas, I'd love to hear from you!

Thanks so much for reading my newsletter, polished* on this, my least favorite day of the year. The time change must die!

Many thanks to folks who support On Management financially, and to Jane Watson for bringing Kristi Coulter's memoir to my attention. Many thanks to my local public library, and the wonderful librarians who worked with me to find Shere Hite's biography (successful) and a DVD of the film (no dice.)

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free. And I wish you a good night's sleep.

Anne Libby

*I will usually find a typo or other necessary edit immediately after I send the newsletter. Then, I update the post on The Internet.

  • Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career, by Kristi Coulter (library) (Bookshop)
  • Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, by Anna Weiner (library)(Bookshop)
  • Who gets to tell stories — about tech? is my piece on Uncanny Valley (and more,) from my January 2020 newsletter, The Story is the Story.
  • The Disappearance of Shere Hite is currently available via the otherwise not terribly valuable (imo) AMC+ subscription, and other streaming services. At this time, there's no publicly available DVD.
  • The Disappearance of Shere Hite is based, in part, on Hite's memoir, The Hite Report on Shere Hite: Voice of a Daughter in Exile (library.) This book has been mostly disappeared. I could not find it used, or as an ebook. I'm currently reading it thanks to the Northern Illinois University Library, via interlibrary loan. Also, the efforts of the interlibrary loan librarian at my local public library.

Sandra Bullock and Kate Blanchett, from Ocean's 8. They're sitting on a park bench, sunglasses, Kate is patting Sandra's arm.