Real Boss Females Say The Future is Inclusive

This week, Knotel hosted a provocative conversation with three women leaders in the New York tech world: Knotel CMO Rachel Meranus, who has twenty years of experience in the technology marketing industry; Tovah Haim, CFO of Daily Harvest; and Nicole Anasenes, CFO/COO of SquareSpace.

Moderated by Knotel’s Head of Product, Sanjiv Sanghavi, the executives discussed the unique challenges faced by women in male-dominated industries like tech, the progress they’ve seen toward more gender equality in the workplace, and the ways companies can evolve to embrace inclusivity in the future.

Check out the highlights from their conversation below:

On negative experiences in the workplace:

Rachel: I experienced the typical, misogynistic-male-partner, young-female-twentysomething relationship. Something I’ve also experienced and taken with me throughout my career were the ways in which professional women have treated me at times. A lot of these women chose a career over a family and there was a level of resentment. I’ve made it very much a part of who I am as a manager and mentor to do everything in my power to empower and elevate women. To never be that person who makes a woman feel like she can’t have both or do both.

Tovah: Every Monday morning we would have a meeting. The men would sit around the table and make all kinds of jokes about their wives. It helped me recognize inclusive and exclusionary behaviors. My first move out of the world of Wall Street was to Ralph Lauren, where I was the head of finance and strategy for their e-commerce and digital division. Ralph Lauren has pretty nice gender diversity and it was a dramatic change. I started to understand how different men and women’s communication styles are. There was a thing in private equity investment banking, a communication phenomenon that I call “bulldozing.” It’s basically where two people want to speak and one person is speaking and the other person interrupts. In a functional conversation one person will speak first then let the other person speak, rather than interrupting or being interrupted. In a male dominated echo chamber type environment, they both speak and it becomes a game of chicken.

On progress:

Tovah: Growing up as part of a truly different generation, there was not an embrace of femininity in the same way that there is now. The millennial crowd is not afraid to wear pink or glitter or speak in a feminine way. For a millennial, this may sound funny but if you’re from my generation, you didn’t do those things because it actually endangered your legitimacy in a conversation. You didn’t wear skirts too often because that could make you not be taken seriously. That is going away, which is really cool.

On creating the right environment

Rachel: Male dominated work environments can become a boy’s club super fast. If you’re a guy debating with another guy you can get in an argument laugh it off two minutes later. It’s not as easy when a male and a female are going back and forth. It’s a different dynamic. You need to work hard not to make the kind of environment where the back and forth is dependent upon male ribbing jokes. If you want a humorous and happy-go-lucky environment, make it an inclusive one. The bottom line is: you’ve got to listen to each other and respond to someone else’s dynamic in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Call it out when you see it and stand up for your opinion and don’t let it get stuck under the carpet.

Tovah: Put structures in place that enable women to get equal representation but are not reliant on self-representation and self-promotion which we know women are not as good at as men. From my perspective, that comes down to awareness of the issues and where the divergences are.

On making mistakes:

Rachel: I feel women are called out faster for their mistakes than men are. They’re noticed quicker. It’s the little details, the tactical things and not the strategic things that get noticed. With men, they get patted on the back for the strategic stuff even if the tactical stuff didn’t get executed. It’s the idea rather than the execution. With women, if the execution fails there’s no recognition that one is part of an overall strategy.

On motherhood and the workplace:

Tovah: I was nine months pregnant when we started fundraising. We were literally having investment meetings at my apartment when the baby was two weeks old. It was crazy. I’d be asked, “How do you think you’re going to manage having a company and kids?” That really got under my skin. My response was, “Has anyone ever asked you that question?” I’ve never seen a man be asked that question and it was a question we got from more than one person in the process. They don’t know how to respond. That’s one of those situations where you call something out and it makes the other person uncomfortable and you sort of feel bad about that, but at the same time how are they going to learn the inherent bias they’re displaying without somebody calling it out?

Nicole: My husband stays at home with my son. I have the opposite situation. I’m experiencing a very different issue from him because his exclusion based on his choice, and his potential limitation of choices in reentering the workforce as a result of that. There’s a core element of inequality in company policies that are for specific genders, right? The policies should be equal and the culture that reinforces those policies needs to be consistent across genders. Under a parental leave policy, if a male chooses to stay at home during that time it should be equally respected as a female’s entry in and out. You don’t want to create policies oriented around inclusion versus exclusion, nor oriented towards specific genders.

Tovah: Having family leave and not just maternity leave is critical to women having equal opportunity at the executive level. Leadership needs to encourage appropriate behaviors and I think it’s really important that men are encouraged to take family leave. Even if the family leave is available, the problem is that men aren’t taking it. Is he really willing to, or does he feel too uncomfortable doing it because of societal pressure? It’s structural and it’s deep and there’s only so much that a company can do here. Encouraging men to take family leave isn’t the only answer because it’s a much deeper issue, but it’s a start.

On introverted versus extroverted office culture:

Nicole: Whether male or female, there’s different levels of introversion and extroversion. Different levels of comfort with how you hear and give constructive criticism. I’ve had to completely adjust how I interact as I moved from the very aggressive cultures that I’ve worked in to a more nuanced culture in terms of gender and age. I have to be more self-aware.

It’s not just about changing one thing. It’s mentorship, it’s example, it’s programs that reinforce the notion that any gender can take some time out for family. Reinforce a culture that is neutral on communication styles or acknowledge that we communicate in different ways and make sure that everyone is heard even though one’s voice is not necessarily the loudest.

On the big picture:

Rachel: We’re talking about something very binary right now and the world is not binary. It’s not male-female any more, if it ever was. The bottom line is recognizing who’s around you and that we are all very different people. We have to be able to provide environments that are safe and productive and inclusionary for all types of people. Unfortunately, we’re living in a world where that doesn’t sound like the norm, which is insane. Because of that, we have to work harder and demand that our workplaces are inclusionary. We can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do that. We have to do that for each other and do that for ourselves.