Meg Whitman (former CEO- Ebay) says that she often gets asked what it’s like being a female executive in the male dominated world of business and how she handles sexist attitudes. One of the lessons Whitman absorbed was Eleanor Roosevelts’s observation, that you can feel inferior when you give someone else consent to put you down. Whitman’s way of dealing with this type of conformation is to use humour to party and thrust against any attack.
She tells the story of attending a conference in year 2000 – that had brought together various political figures, CEOs, philanthropists, and other prominent individuals. Whitman had missed the opening night even but was able to start the conference by joining the second-day cocktail reception, during which spouses were also invited to attend.
She didn’t know anybody, so she went over to the first group of people she saw and introduced herself. One of the men in the group, a prominent California Politician at the time, asked her, “And who are you married to?” The other men in the group winced at the person’s obvious faux pass. Without missing a beat, Whitman said she was married to Griff Harsh, a neurosurgeon. The politician them smugly asked, “Since when do we invite doctors to this thing?” with the others desperately trying to signal the politician to stop, Whitman didn’t hesitate, saying that her husband wasn’t here, actually. “Oh, there’s no reason you should have known.” Said Whitman. I’m the president and CEO of Ebay.”
Completely disarmed, the man went looking for the nearest rock to crawl under, dying of embarrassment. “As Mrs. Roosevelt said.” Says Whitman, “carry on in the face of an insult and you will usually triumph.”
De-briefing of this story
This is the great Story for anyone – male or female – to demonstrate the dangers of stereotyping. It also delivers a great message that sometimes understated humour can do more disarm others than outright confrontation. Despite the temptation to lash out, the best reaction is to calmly take the high road.
“OH BY THE WAY, I AM THE CEO” can be used to explain the importance:
1- Deflecting Insults
2- Gender equality
3- Women executives
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Meg Whitman, The power of Many (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), pp. 85-87