It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement transformed the conversation about America’s workplaces. Companies large and small have been inspired — in some cases forced — to address the ongoing problem of workplace sexual harassment.
Amid that progress, a quieter but equally destructive problem remains: workplace sexism. While sexual harassment can often be blatant and more easily quantified, workplace sexism is often just subtle enough to remain ignored.
So let’s talk about it. If our community can discuss this difficult subject, we believe a growing number of employers and employees of all genders will be unwilling to tolerate it.
Below, we give a platform to Lenore Blum to share her story about her career at Carnegie Mellon University and why she chose to leave. “I appreciate the opportunity to help shine a light on the issue of sexism in the workplace, particularly in academia — which I have come to realize is much more rampant, and undercover, than I have previously imagined,” Blum told us. “Quite frankly, as an advocate for women for most of my professional career and priding myself on being fairly astute in this regard, my lack of awareness about the magnitude of the issue has come as a real shock to me.”
We’ve also contacted the university for comment and are awaiting a response, which we’ll include when we receive it.
This is Lenore’s story in her words, condensed here for brevity. If you’re a woman in the workplace, we’re guessing you have your own story to tell. We’re interested in hearing it. E-mail us or message us via Facebook if you’d like to share it as part of our ongoing coverage of this topic.
You and your husband joined Carnegie Mellon in 1998. You’ve done groundbreaking work and mentored many highly accomplished students. How did your experience there evolve?
From the start, I was encouraged to follow my passions and chart my own course at CMU. I was able to create the Women@SCS program and I am proud that our undergraduate Computer Science program now has near gender parity, way ahead of the rest of the nation. Later, I was able to create Project Olympus, which has created more than half of CMU startups and played a catalytic role in the city’s growing startup scene.
With the McCune Big Ideas grant based on my 2010 White Paper outlining major future directions for innovation and entrepreneurship at CMU, Project Olympus was able to partner with the Donald Jones Center for Entrepreneurship to form the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), of which I was founding co-director.
But when the CIE morphed to the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, the management structure changed completely. The equitable balance became one that, I’ve come to understand, is inherently sexist. This corporate model, with a CEO-like position holding almost complete control and being the face of the Center and CMU’s entrepreneurship on and off campus, enables wanton abuse of power given bad actors at the helm. This management structure has no place in an academic setting. And yet I’ve come to understand from the many responses I have received to my email about resigning, this sexist structure is often subtly inherent in many areas of our academic community.
With this change in management structure, my role was noticeably marginalized, while ironically, Project Olympus, and all its programs, became a major part of the new Center. What might have previously been considered unconscious sexism became blatant.
Just one example: The LaunchCMU conferences, initiated under the CIE, continue. But while I helped plan the six earlier launches (all with women on the program), under the auspices of the new Center I was given a copy of the Fall 2016 program for the seventh launch a single day before it was to go to press. After I complained to the Provost that it was an all-male program, I was given one day to recruit some female speakers. One day to confirm that accomplished, busy people could attend and speak.
A teaching moment, I thought. They’ll remember next year that balance matters.
The following spring, I was shown the program for the next launch event 37 minutes before it was published. Not a single woman was presenting (except for me giving some introductions). This time, I was not given the opportunity to change the program — our Silicon Valley showcase had not a single woman presenter. Not appropriate even for Silicon Valley, and certainly not a great advertisement for (or a help to our bragging rights about) equity at CMU.
What reaction did you get when you announced your decision to leave?
When my husband Manuel and I e-mailed colleagues about our resignations, we did not know what to expect. We’ve been overwhelmed by support from colleagues across campus expressing, almost to a person, shock and sadness. Most surprising? The outpouring of #MeToo responses from women colleagues on our campus, many expressing almost a cathartic relief that I had dared to air experiences they recognized. Many thanked me and wrote about their own stories, in poetry and prose. The message was this:
I want to thank you on behalf of women at CMU for speaking out. I know there are many of us here that share these sentiments. I have been struggling with similar issues for years and it has led me to question my own future here …
So many women are facing this. And while sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace are related, neither is acceptable in a university or elsewhere. I am talking about sexism in the workplace. Subtle biases and micro-aggressions pile up, few of which on their own rise to the level of “let’s take action,” but are insidious nonetheless. Speak up and you’re labeled “difficult.”
Sexual harassment, ironically, is the “sexier” topic right now and is now frequently discussed. But we can’t whitewash the more pervasive, and no less damaging effect of sexism in the workplace — not only by individuals, but enabled by systems incorporated in the workplace.
Have you heard from the people you are accusing of sexism?
What has been the response from CMU?
We have been overwhelmed by support from colleagues, including SCS Dean Andrew Moore who has backed me all the way. (Editor’s note: Andrew Moore resigned from his position as Dean of the School of Computer Science in late August at the end of his four-year commitment.)
You may have seen the letter from CMU President Jahanian to members of the CMU community saying that the university is “committed to thoroughly investigating those concerns” and that he has appointed the President’s Task Force on Campus Climate. This Task Force will follow last year’s Task Force on the CMU Experience.
And I have been interviewed by the university’s counsel.
Do you think your resignation will in any way change the culture of CMU?
My main hope is that it will shine light on sexism in the workplace. And that it will be taken very seriously, by which I mean that it will lead to zero tolerance.
You have been asked by some to advocate and be a catalyst for other women. In what ways do you see yourself in this role?
First of all, and I repeat myself, I want to make a clear distinction between sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, which affects many, many more women. It affects women’s ability to move forward and invent our future. Again, subtle biases and micro-aggressions pile up, but because few of them on their own rise to the level of “let’s take action,” they continue. Attempts to point them out label you a complainer or “difficult.”
Recently, the former CDC director was arrested for an allegation of “groping.” Physical acts like this are now being discussed and in some workplaces addressed. But what action is taken for complaints of:
- No women chosen to be highlighted at major events of your organization
- Belligerent refusal to answer emails from female colleagues
- Macho locker room humor that becomes a meme in the workplace
- Female employees’ ideas not being taken seriously
- Female employees’ ideas being repeated by male employees, offering them as their own
- Female employees’ work being appropriated without credit
- Female employees being left out of major decision making or kept in the dark until after a decision cannot be changed
- Female employees not being informed of major upcoming events or meetings
- Withholding key information (budgets, finances), even after multiple requests, from female employees
- Gender-based salary inequities due to position title
All of this needs addressing. I’m not sure how I can best help. I am open to suggestions. Perhaps I can serve best as a “cover” for those who should be heard. If someone in my position says, “I’ve experienced these micro-aggressions, and it became serious enough for me to resign,” others may be able to point to that to help their grievances to be taken seriously. I don’t think others should have to take actions as drastic as my own in order to have their voices heard.
Sexism is rampant in all sectors of the workforce, beyond academia. What advice do you have for women who are dealing with this?
This is tough. Many women in the workforce feel vulnerable. In fact, they are vulnerable if they bring up their issues. But there is power in numbers, if only you know about others in similar situations. I did not, until my resignation e-mail circulated. On our campus, I know there are several senior women now who are offering to help. I would suggest seeking out senior women in your own organization and beginning a dialogue.