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A woman I know is a hybrid team-lead/engineering manager at an established Bay Area startup and she frequently encounters issues that I, having been in similar roles, find troubling. For instance:

  1. Her time-estimates are second-guessed or told they're wrong (we work together on them and I think they're optimistic). Her estimates have always (rare, I know) been proven to be accurate

  2. In official staffing documents, part-time contractors are counted towards her team whereas they are not counted towards other teams

  3. Despite having a cross-functional team that interacts with many other teams and (very large) customers her meeting-schedule is gainsaid frequently

  4. Her team receives very high ratings by the organization, yet how and where she spends her time are questioned constantly

  5. Her team is staffed exclusively by other women and LGBTQ+ folks, and she was told that it was not a "high business priority" despite being very explicitly treated as such in project and revenue planning

  6. The company hired a somewhat mediocre male contractor (as full-time) as a senior engineer and at approximately the same time promoted a high-functioning female engineer to the same position, yet they paid the (now full-time) male contractor substantially more than the existing female engineer despite my friend's best efforts to get them the same salaries or similar packages.

  7. Her manager, the director of engineering, told her that she would need to "work 70 hours a week for 3 years" to expect a promotion, despite the explicit company guidance that people are not expected to perform or rewarded for constant heroics

  8. She was informed that she should not comment on or be concerned with the (mis)-treatment of another female employee because the other employee was not in her organization

  9. Her manager informed her that his style was that of a "benevolent dictator," which we, in this context, interpreted as her not having any leeway to question his style

  10. She's given ambitious goals and when she accomplishes them is frequently informed that they weren't the correct goals or that things that fell below the cut-line (by agreement of the organization at the time, including her management) that they were "critical" and that they "slipped"

  11. Despite having executive experience and better qualifications than her manager, she was hired in under him

From my perspective, some of this is "normal" startup toxicity that folks put up with because of the high salaries and valuable equity, but a lot of it seems to be focused at her team. Despite the hot job market for engineers with her qualifications, leaving would deprive her of valuable equity and so she's reluctant to do it (she also enjoys many aspects of the job).

Is this sexism? If so, is it actionable? If not, what are some effective ways of managing this or correcting it?

EDIT I am not an employee at the company in question. I don't want to identify my friend at her request (although she did authorize this question).

Most of the issues above are attributable to her direct manager, and to a lesser extent his manager (the CTO).

EDIT 2 To clarify, I'm not asking for legal advice. If someone more familiar with the matters saw a behavior that they suspected was illegal I would refer her to a lawyer. Aside from that, I'm curious as to whether actions such as HR, mediation, etc. might help. My primary intent is to learn how to effectively handle situations like this for her benefit and mine.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Feb 2 at 14:10
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    Is it by chance that "her team is staffed exclusively by other women and LGBTQ+ folks" or is that a intentional thing? That could be clearly a problem if "certain hires are directed to her team" or "she only hires certain people". Both would be a problem.
    – JonSG
    Feb 2 at 18:15
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    @FreeMan The other teams have plenty of folks from different backgrounds :) Feb 2 at 19:07
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    @csstudent1418 feel free to join the chat if you'd like to discuss this further Feb 3 at 17:52
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    – Lilienthal
    Feb 3 at 18:31

7 Answers 7

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Advise her to leverage her good relationship with the CEO and high ratings to foment change, while leaving the suggestion of sexism implied rather than explicit.

You have documented quite a lot of toxic behavior. She can probably add more, and her allied colleagues can probably contribute as well. Regardless of whether this is sexism, (I bet yes), you've described a ton of unnecessary trouble for high performing employees. Tell her to collect her most impactful criticisms and collect from others if she has their confidence. Assign each of these criticisms a cost, then narrow the set down to those with the highest cost that can be reasonably addressed. Then request a 1:1 with the CEO to present it. Stick to the facts and merely imply sexism because that case is not necessary nor strong enough; if she argues multiple things, she runs the risk of the weakest one being the focus.

The risk here is obvious: she could lose a political battle and suffer more. But, I feel from context that she wants to solve this problem rather than tolerate it meekly, and that the workplace is toxic enough that having to leave is less a risk than leaving from most places.

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    Thank you--I think this is a great answer and I've forwarded it to her. I really appreciate it. Feb 1 at 19:52
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    That's great advise. If the CEO is on her side and committed to battling organizational sexism they will undoubtly make the connection themselves. If not, nothing will help and she should get out and take her clear talent elsewhere.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 3 at 7:37
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    As a sidenote, even sexism aside, if forwarding the comment that a manager is expecting "70 hours a week for 3 years" for a promotion doesn't raise all kinds of red flags in leadership this place is toxic beyond repair.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 3 at 7:40
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Most of what you described sounds like typical startup behavior and not sexism, at least nothing actionable.

Your case is a bit weak.

  • People can have their time estimates second guessed regardless of gender
  • could the chargebacks to her team be because she runs a hybrid team?

There is no clear cut case of discrimination against her.

ETA: There are many other possibilities. Simple jealousy of her relationship with the CEO, "Tall poppy syndrome", clashes in personalities.. She's already been promoted several times, so there's no obvious barrier to advancement. These are the arguments that any company would make against the charge, and all of those are reasonable defenses

There does seem to be a few hints that she is not a good fit for the job, and that she may be being forced out.

Unless she can prove that the actions are being taken only due to her sex, she has no case

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    Given that she has a good relationship with the CEO and she receives very high ratings, I don't think she's being forced out or a bad fit (she's received a few promotions and raises in about a year). While I agree that anyone can have their estimates challenged, she's been proven time and again that they're realistic and accurate. Feb 1 at 19:00
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    @JosiahHaswell Again, there are many other possibilities. Simple jealousy of her relationship with the CEO, "Tall poppy syndrome", clashes in personalities.. She's already been promoted several times, so there's no obvious barrier to advancement. These are the arguments that any company would make Feb 1 at 21:29
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    Thank you for this sensible answer, wise and balanced as usual. Feb 2 at 20:00
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    +1 I don't think the situation would get any better by raising sexism card explicitly. Just discuss openly about the issues that need to be fixed. If you raise issues and start guessing the root reasons for those issues, people often get very defensive if they don't fully agree with the reasons even if they would otherwise understand the issue and were willing to fix the problem. Feb 3 at 14:48
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While discrimination in the workplace can manifest in indirect ways and would still be a problem, nothing you've mentioned leads me to believe that the events stem from your friend being a woman.

That being said, of course understand that I can only read the information as you presented it. Overall, I'm not saying management isn't making mistakes here (they are, and I would avoid them if I knew this during the interview process), but this doesn't seem to inherently suggest sexism.

To summarize the below feedback to your points; I disagree that this proves sexism. However, I cannot conclusively disprove sexism here either. The company is clearly making management mistakes with your friend. However, I am not able to judge whether that is purely because of bad management, or some underlying discriminatory reason. All I can remark is that you failed to point out any concrete instance where your friend's gender was the driving factor (but as mentioned before, sexism isn't always overt).


Her time-estimates are second-guessed or told they're wrong (we work together on them and I think they're optimistic). Her estimates have always (rare, I know) been proven to be accurate

I could tell you the same thing about companies I've worked at and I am male. Different managers, especially those who do not have the skillset of their direct reports; tend to wrongly estimate effort and time to delivery.

In official staffing documents, part-time contractors are counted towards her team whereas they are not counted towards other teams

You didn't really mention how this is a negative effect to begin with. However, in my experience as a consultant, whether I am treated similar to an employee or not varies based on the client. Some teams barely register that I'm not an internal employee, whereas other companies made it very clear that I'm not part of their internal employees.

Given there's no clear indication of how this is negative, this just seems like an inconsistency in the administration of the company, rather than a slight targeted at your friend.

Despite having a cross-functional team that interacts with many other teams and (very large) customers her meeting-schedule is gainsaid frequently

Again, nothing I haven't dealt with in my own experiences. I'm not saying management isn't making mistakes here, but this doesn't inherently suggest sexism.

Her team receives very high ratings by the organization, yet how and where she spends her time are questioned constantly

Having things questioned is not solely a matter of not being valued, and not specifically because of a discriminatory reason.

That being said, we hit upon the same issue here that I cannot conclusively prove nor disprove sexism. Could this be an indirect part of a larger sexist culture at the workplace? Definitely possible. Does your example concretely highlight this? Not in my opinion.

Her team is staffed exclusively by other women and LGBTQ+ folks,

Is the staffing an undeniably intentional "sorting" of employees to avoid "women and LGBTQ+ folks" in other parts of the company? That may be a case of discriminatory behavior; but it would be so towards the "women and LGBTQ+ folks" themselves, not specifically your friend as their lead.

and she was told that it was not a "high business priority" despite being very explicitly treated as such in project and revenue planning

Bad management; but nothing particular to sexism.

The company hired a somewhat mediocre male contractor (as full-time) as a senior engineer and at approximately the same time promoted a high-functioning female engineer to the same position, yet they paid the (now full-time) male contractor substantially more than the existing female engineer despite my friend's best efforts to get them the same salaries or similar packages.

Putting gender aside; contractors always tend to make more than internal employees.

Contractors have different taxation rates in their income compared to employees (as most contractors count as their own company), and they also live in a work regiment where there is less financial security. A contractor can be booted out of a company with less effort and cost to the company. This is one of the reasons why companies hire contractors, especially when they do not intend to employ them long term.

While this may not matter in your culture specifically, contractors also tend to not get paid leave and paid sick leave even when employees do.

To offset all of these considerations, contractors charge more by the hour in order to recoup the financial "losses" that they incur by not being a full time internal employee.

It's impossible to compare salaries of contractors and internal employees, as the surplus a contractor charges can be highly contextual based on (a) how urgently they needed a contract (b) how long they expect to be employed (c) how likely it is for the contract to be stopped at any time and (d) the business value of the work they deliver.

Internal employees and contractors are apples and oranges here.

Her manager, the director of engineering, told her that she would need to "work 70 hours a week for 3 years" to expect a promotion

Telling your friend this is sign of a bad workplace culture but not inherently sexism. Telling only the women this, and not the men (or telling the men otherwise) would be sexism.

despite the explicit company guidance that people are not expected to perform or rewarded for constant heroics

This sounds more like a matter of the company trying to put up a facade of "we don't crunch you for hours" to improve their image; while in reality still doing precisely that.

Not a great workplace culture, but not inherently sexist.

She was informed that she should not comment on or be concerned with the (mis)-treatment of another female employee because the other employee was not in her organization

Unless male employees were allowed to comment or be concerned with it, this is not sexism (towards your friend, not the other female employee).

Given that the other female employee is working for a different organization; this seems more like a rule to not comment on other companies that this company works with, so as not to create a dent in the working relationship these companies have.

Again, not particularly a positive management style; but I fail to see the sexism towards your friend.

Her manager informed her that his style was that of a "benevolent dictator," which we, in this context, interpreted as her not having any leeway to question his style

Management style aside; is this somehow different for the male direct reports of this manager? Unless that is the case, I fail to see sexism here, just an unproductive manager attitude.

She's given ambitious goals and when she accomplishes them is frequently informed that they weren't the correct goals or that things that fell below the cut-line (by agreement of the organization at the time, including her management) that they were "critical" and that they "slipped"

Not uniquely the female experience. Maybe (quite likely) disproportionately so; but we hit the same point of this being bad management, but it being unclear whether the underlying root cause is discriminatory in nature, or just a matter of (gender-blind) bad management.

Despite having executive experience and better qualifications than her manager, she was hired in under him

There is not enough information here to make a judgment call. The way you present it is similar to established cases of workplace sexism, but there are potential caveats. I cannot judge conclusively either way.

For example, if she was hired for her practical experience. The hierarchy in a company is not indicative of practical expertise when the core business is not management in and of itself.
As a software developer, I have worked under several managers/leads who had been either a mediocre developer or had never even been a developer; but who steered their careers towards management instead.

Another example is that employees who excel at their field tend to struggle more with career advancements that change their day to day skills. Why would a company benefit from having their A-list engineer promoted to being a fledgling manager where their non-engineering skills are either unproven or not as excellent as their engineering skills?

You could call this the curse of excellence. When you are so good at your job that there is no second and you are irreplaceable; then you tend to not be allowed to move to another place specifically because you are irreplaceable.

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    Thank you--this is really fantastic answer. The issue in my mind with the contractor/headcount point is that, from the company's perspective, she was given more resources than she actually has, while other teams are indicated to have fewer resources than they actually have. Feb 2 at 19:39
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Is this sexism?

It's hard to tell.

Most of what you write could easily be attributed to a typical startup, perhaps ineptitude by management, or perhaps just a management style that you don't like.

It might also demonstrate a lack of confidence in your friend's abilities.

If so, how should I handle it?

You shouldn't handle it at all. Your friend needs to decide if she wishes to handle it or not.

You might want to ask her why she continues to work there if it's as bad as you feel.

If she feels strongly enough, she should discuss it with a lawyer before taking any action. She needs to decide if her "7-8 figure exit" is worth putting up with what you view as "sexism" or not. She needs to weigh the risks involved against whatever outcome she would hope to achieve.

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  • Bad title--I didn't notice it before I posted and I can't seem to edit it. It was corrected in the body. I have absolute confidence in my friend as does the CEO and most of the organization. She continues to work there because of a likely 7-8 figure exit. I think the management style is manifestly poor, but my suspicion is that a lot of the worst aspects are on the basis of her gender. Feb 1 at 20:25
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    I mean, most discrimination doesn't really rise to the legal standard, and discrimination is hard to prove (I agree with the answers to this effect). I asked the question for several reasons, one of which is to get perspectives for my own benefit (and that of my organization). Given the space and the cut of the company, I think that even the accusation of sexism would result in a lot of upheaval, which is why I'm not asking for legal advice or recommending it to her (if someone more familiar saw something, I would recommend a lawyer--they haven't) Feb 1 at 20:37
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    @JosiahHaswell, When you wrote "7-8 figure exit", did you mean to say that she would lose about "7-8 figure" if she quits the job now ? Feb 2 at 3:40
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    how should I handle it? You shouldn't handle it at all. Your friend needs to decide Obviously, the OP is possibly the friend herself and not a different person, and this could be a slip. Feb 2 at 12:46
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    @Job_September_2020 the company is very near IPO and she has vested equity (they continue to award more). While there are disconnects between how VCs value companies vs. the public. I'm not sure how much equity she currently has or what it's estimated to be worth, but this is a reason she gave for not wanting to leave (she also loves her team and the work) Feb 2 at 19:42
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Clearly this is a toxic workplace. Whatever the underlying motivation, she is being treated badly. I don't think we can answer the question "Is this sexism", though. Before trying to answer that, I would focus on what she wants to do with the answer. The possibilities I've outlined below are not mutually exclusive.

If she thinks she might want legal redress, even if she's not sure, I think she should talk to an attorney. Some of the things you describe sound suspiciously like sexism, or bullying, or something illegal. An initial consultation with an attorney is often free, and might give her clarity on the situation and the confidence to deal with it even if she decides not to pursue a legal route. I imagine the attorney will advise her to keep a careful record.

If she wants to stay in her role, but with better working conditions, it might be best to talk to HR about the problems, focusing on the facts rather than trying to establish a motivation for why she's being treated this way. It sounds like the manager is sexist, but he could just dislike her personally. If the HR folks are halfway decent, the possibility of sexism will occur to them anyway, and they will investigate to protect the company from legal action. She might want to talk to an attorney even before talking to HR, especially if she is concerned that sexism is systemic in the company, not just an issue with this one manager.

She may want to find out if others are experiencing similar problems. If she decides to talk to colleagues about this (discreet ly of course), again I suggest that she focus on the problems rather than the motivation. Let others infer as they see fit.

She may want to stay in the role and simply "weather the storm", at least for now, and hope that her skills and value to the company will win out over the haters. How she might go about that would be a different question, but perhaps one that we can offer advice on. But if she takes this route, it may be best to focus on the behaviour of this manager rather than his motivation (sexism or something else).

By suggesting that she not focus on the sexism aspect initially, I am not suggesting that it doesn't matter or that she ignore it. I'm not trying to diminish what she's experienced or to suggest that she put up with it. I'm just trying to focus on how best to bring about the outcome that she wants.

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IMHO, each one of these incidents taken alone can pass as normal way of doing business at some companies, but considered together definitely raise a concern.

Big question about the equity, it is usually catch 22 - the carrot dangled in front of the employees to keep them at their place and subservient.

From my experience, there are plethora of ways to retract / negate the equity value to almost 0, if needed.

My suggestion would be:

  1. Start building the case, gathering and documenting incidents, reactions, facts.

  2. Checking the equity contract and see what and when the "Big Pay Day" is scheduled to come - validating that there is actual value in it and not "virtual"

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Despite having executive experience and better qualifications than her manager, she was hired in under him

From what I read from your post, I think it appear clearer than the manager is purposely hinder her because he feals that she threaten his position. He might also surf on some "sexism" stuff in order to hinder her more, but from what I read, that wouldn't be the root of the problem.

Now the problem is, if she wants to report his manager how to do it ?

There are question for that on the workplace, for instance : How to report manager for misconduct?

However, considering the fact that this is a startup, and the manager of the manager is the CTO, it might defitively put her at risk politically, it's up to her wheter she wants to do that move or not.

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