For the past decade or so, women with big ideas (and big funding) have quickly become the new big thing. They are special guests at galas, they moderate A-list panels, they win visionary awards, and they grace the covers of glossy magazines replete with headlines that all but endorse their plans to “revolutionize" the way something is done.
This frenzied media ecosystem which grooms these women as idols of boy band proportions is also one quick to tear them down the minute there are whisperings of a dishy scandal. The media mentors and press mongers of yesterday quickly delete mentions of these founders from their websites, removing them from their “Top 10" lists and printing terse retractions. They follow up on their adulatory stories with pieces that dig deeply into “What Went Wrong," and how these companies “Went From Billions to Zero." It's a crazed cycle of audience-seeking journalism and it seems to begin and end with entrepreneurship in the competitive world of mainstream media.
“There as so few women CEOs, that everything they do is under a microscope," says Jeffery Tobias Halter, a corporate gender strategist with numerous Fortune 500 clients, and President of YWomen. “Basically 450 men in the Fortune 500 can perform badly but few get noticed. I think the same is true in start-ups and with high-flying entrepreneurs."
Of course the first example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of not-as-revolutionary-as-we-thought healthcare company, Theranos, who is in serious hot water after a much publicized fall from grace. The well-spoken blonde executive, who famously dropped out of Stanford to see through her childhood dream of changing the world, has been slammed by the magazines that used to worship her. In fact, the now pulverized company's first unraveling thread was pulled by The Wall Street Journal, the very publication that had built her up previously in pieces that celebrated her visionary business promising customers the ability to run costly blood tests though a pin prick's worth of blood at (and at a fraction of the cost). Kudos to stealthy reporter John Carreyrou for exposing the fact that the promise was undeliverable, and more than that, may have lead to misdiagnosed prescriptions and even potential deaths, but the question must be asked: Why did it take 13 years, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and millions of blood tests being administered before a journalist went beyond lazily re-publishing the inspiring startup story (which was being told to anyone who would listen) to look deeper into the company's Utopian claims?
The publishing industry uses these female founders and their compelling stories as clickbait, then relishes in their downfall, as it offers a dramatic new angle and opportunity to sell content.
“Magazine editors do not have the bandwidth to investigate the business of every entrepreneur and look at the balance sheets," says a media professional who specializes in the publishing industry. “The problem is there is a narrative created by a company's public relations teams that are toting these unreal valuations and many editors take the claims at face value to get a good story out of it. Magazines are trying to sell themselves in a difficult climate for traditional publications."
T New York Times's style magazine was another publication that built up Elizabeth Holmes as one of its greats. The publication listed Holmes as one of the "Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World," writing that she "may be starting a movement to change the health care paradigm as we know it." Once the investigation into the business went underway, the magazine updated its website with a disclaimer that read there were "recent developments" involving Theranos, linking to a new investigative piece by the Times. According to one media professional familiar with the case, the retraction was something of a stain for T and for its editor Deborah Needleman. In addition to being featured on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, Glamour Magazine went so far as to name Holmes one of its “Woman Of The Year" in 2015.
Courtesy of Glamour
According to the female-focused magazine's story about Holmes: “By now the tech-world unicorn story is well-known: Bright mind ditches school, launches company from garage, changes the world, makes millions. This version of the tale, though, has a welcome twist: The wunderkind dropout is a woman."
Clearly, the magazine was hungry for an inspiring young girl boss in health tech, and there was Holmes, ripe for the picking. “I believe women (and many men) are actually hoping they do succeed and shatter the existing paradigms of leadership that we have in this country," says Halter, underscoring the point that publications can't help but jump on the inspiring startup stories, even if they turn out to be too good to be true. Of course, both male and female leaders are sometimes unsuccessful in their bids to launch world-changing businesses. So, again, why does media continue overpromising?
While the intense media scrutiny may have been justified in the case of Holmes, it cannot be denied that journalists are also quick to jump on stories that are less so. Take the case of beauty box subscription maven, Katia Beauchamp, a celebrated innovator who found her name dragged through the media mud when her company was re-strategizing, and making layoffs in June, 2016. Article headlines like “Struggling Online Makeup Retailer Birchbox Cuts More Staff" emerged, written by reporters who didn't have a complete understanding of what was happening behind closed doors. Despite the growing pains, the Birchbox business has bounced back, enjoying 1 million subscribers, 800 brand partners and operates in six countries.
“Every year magazines look for the top women with lists like '30 Under 30' and that's part of the problem," says one media expert. “Media is turning them into celebrities and so they're being watched very closely. It's the same with television. You see the same faces gracing all the morning shows, one after the other."
The lack of creativity in reporting cannot be overlooked as a reason for the copycat cover girls we see time and time again. It takes much more time and resources to investigate a story and report on your findings then it does to re-write a company-approved press release.
“There is a lack of original ideas, and the result is the same stories appearing over and over across publications," says the media expert. “Without thinking creatively, reporters are beholden to the PR machine."
When journalists take their story ideas from public relations firms, the result is articles that give founders a soapbox for their sensational claims to revolutionize entire industries. While these promises may work in the boardroom to woo investors, they are not necessarily reflective of what a startup is actually capable of. In many ways, by building up these female founders as unicorns, the media is setting them up to fail, as even minor setbacks are seen as a “fall from grace."
Thinx founder Miki Argrawal, is the newest female founder to find herself under media fire with claims that she acted inappropriately in the workplace, making suggestive remarks to employees among other allegations. Of course, if these claims are true, it is certainly condemnable, but what about due process? Shouldn't founders be given the benefit of the doubt until a crime is actually proven? Without a doubt, the idea of a female boss being part of a sexual harassment case makes an entertaining storyline for editors.
“In the example of Thinx you have former CEO Miki Agrawal who is not only a self-proclaimed feminist, selling products to women, but she is being accused of actually groping women in the workplace," says Halter. “Regarding press and public reaction I think many people expect women to just behave better. You rarely see a scandal involving women. Literally everyday there is another sexual harassment lawsuit or gender inequity issue caused by some male leader. Sadly, men behaving badly is rarely new news."
This double-edged sword is without a doubt one of the reasons women face much more scrutiny in the media. In certain ways, men acting badly is expected, but when it happens to women, it's headline news.
“The double bind dilemma is like a Goldilocks effect; women who are too soft are considered wimps and women who are too tough are considered witches," says Halter. “There is a small sweet spot of being 'just right'. Male leaders can be bullies and belligerent but they are called hard-nosed and demanding. Quiet male leaders are seen as thoughtful and introspective. There is a huge double standard that men do not face. This is heightened by the media. How many stories do you read about women that either references their appearance or clothing somewhere in the article? You never read 'John was particularly dapper in his blue suit.' Finally, the media typically also raises issues of women around their families. I have seen many executive women being asked 'as you become CEO who will take care of your children?' I've never seen a male leader asked that question."
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.