Picture this: You arrive at an event as a speaker, but the person handing out the passes looks straight past you and gives preferential treatment to the man next in line.
As a female founder, I never expected to hit so much unconscious bias and ingrained sexism. But when I attended one of Australia’s largest tech conferences recently, that’s what happened. I was treated as my male co-founder’s ‘plus one’ and not as his business partner.
When we arrived at the speaker registration desk, my male co-founder was greeted first by the young lady on the registration desk and his details were taken and punched into their system. She then turned to me and asked my name. No sooner had I begun to answer, before she cut me off and completed the sentence for me; applying my male co-founder’s surname as my own.
It got worse during the event. Our session was oversubscribed, and we’d not only filled all the allocated seating but had people crammed in around the sides and entry. After that, we met with a very successful male CEO who booked a meeting with me to talk about PR.
We spoke for over 20 minutes about his business and how we could help, when he interrupted the flow of the conversation to check if I was my co-founder’s life partner. When I said no, he then decided to indirectly flirt, informing my co-founder he requested a meeting with me as there wasn’t that many “pretty women” on the conference list.
Unconscious bias and sexism are more apparent to me than ever before in my career. Is it because I work in tech PR? Or is it just the way our culture is, despite all the progress we’ve made as working women?
I’ve had a successful career spanning over 20 years and have won many awards. I thought when I became a co-founder of my own startup, helping spokespeople hone what they say in media interviews, that I wouldn’t find myself having to explicitly spell out I wasn’t my co-founder’s wife.
I’m his business partner. I’m here on merit. I spotted a gap in the market and I shared my thoughts with a working journalist to find out his take. We agreed that we’d identified an opportunity and wanted to work together to solve a problem. We met and planned our business around the kitchen table, and it took off from there.
We all need to take responsibility and stop ourselves before we make quick judgements about people or situations. This is something women need to do, just as much as men. Bias is natural; it’s influenced by our past experiences, our background, our culture, our gender.
But before we voice something we need to pause and think about the impact of our views and how we might be wrong. Never assume – check up and find out the facts. Don’t assume that because I’m a woman working with a man that I’m his ‘plus one’ or subordinate.