Welcome to the first ever Bullish column on The Grindstone! Bullish previously appeared weekly on our sister site The Gloss (here’s an archive). The column will focus on helping women get and make the most of their careers.
Ever since I first figured out how a screwdriver works (you don’t necessarily need to drill holes first — you can screw stuff straight into drywall!), it has occurred to me that there are plenty of really easy things that men are “better” at for absolutely no good reason. Aside from basic tool use, these may include parallel parking, map reading, and catching a gently tossed baseball or football. While it’s possible that men and women have cognitive differences at least in part caused by biology, I’m talking about really basic skills, here; however much either gender lags behind in such skills is clearly cultural. And I’d like to talk about a specific part of that cultural divide: the power of embarrassment.
Why are most American men pretty good at parallel parking, map reading, and catching things? Because if you are a man, it’s humiliating to be bad at these things. However, it is not terribly embarrassing to be bad at these things if you are a woman. Since the natural human condition is laziness, men have more motivation to gain these skills.
I think there is a very similar “embarrassment gap” between men and women about money and business. I think many women think too small because they’re not embarrassed by it, whereas men are forced to think bigger — in part for the obvious reasons (money, glory), but in part just to avoid shame.
In 1998, during the dotcom boom, I started an internet marketing company. I was 19. By the time I graduated, I had eight part-time employees. Senior year, I made $40,000! I felt pretty accomplished. After all, just two years before, I had been financially shamed out of a weightlifting class I had signed up for at the gym. There was a $19 fee, and I wasn’t getting paid from my part-time job until the Friday after the class started. I showed up to the first session hoping it would be cool: “My parents don’t give me spending money. I have to earn it. I don’t have any money right now.” I was asked to leave the gym. (See “Bullish: Social Class in the Office“). So, two years later, it felt pretty good to buy some fancy groceries, and to bill my clients for a few thousand here and a few thousand there.
I had this vague idea that I would graduate, and then keep doing what I was doing until I was a millionaire. So, I would become a millionaire a few thousand dollars at a time, somehow? I started to be plagued with the nagging realization that this was not the point of the dotcom era (whatever the point was, it wasn’t billing services by the hour) and that I was a stupid (now 21-year-old) girl who only does small, cute girl things. And $40,000 a year is pretty good … for a girl. Like I just parked a car without putting the wheels on the curb.
This realization was greatly magnified by the interactions I had with a major client, a company I’ll call WebBoats.com, a site that allowed users to create animated models of boats and sail them on a virtual ocean, while betting on wind speed and whether it will rain. It was not clear how this business would ever make money. I was feeling pretty smooth for constantly supplying WebBoats with the web design, programming, and animation services they required, and I often marveled that I was perhaps the only person making a profit from WebBoats. But then I sat in on a meeting of the executive team, during which these guys (all guys) discussed other, similarly quixotic startups — started by people they knew — that had received large rounds of venture capital funding, and one of them said, angrily, “Where’s our million dollars?”
Seriously. Imagine someone saying that in the most repulsive way possible, as you would imagine someone saying, “Where’s the bitch I gotta give two black eyes to?”
I was stunned that anyone could think himself entitled to a million dollars just for having a pretty middling idea and hiring someone else to make a website about it. I started to realize how stupid I was for not trying to make more money off being smarter than (at least some of) those guys. I had been thinking too small. My company was … adorable.
Now, I realize that many people have posited that women want different things from entrepreneurship, or their careers. I have also been told a million times that, for women, life and work are integrated. I mean, of course they are. You work to have a good life, while also desiring that the work itself be satisfying. I don’t really think that that’s different from what men want. There are tons of “life hacking” and internet business websites with overwhelmingly male writers and commenters, who frequently talk about wanting to start businesses so they can spend more time with their kids, or more time surfing, or any of a variety of other lifestyle choices. Some people want businesses to simply feed a rich personal life. Some people want to build empires. Either way, you want to avoid thinking too small, getting taken advantage of, and stopping before your plans really come to fruition.