Institutional Sexism? Here’s My 2 Cents on How We Start to Overcome That

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By Laurie Ruettimann

I was sitting in the back of a conference room at a Human Resources technology conference last week, zoning out and reading a review on Jackson Galaxy’s new cat book, when the conference chairperson looked out to the crowd and asked, “Where is Laurie Ruettimann?”

Out of what felt like nowhere, I was handed a mic.

She asked, “Why don’t we have more women in the HR technology start-up community?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s simple. Institutional sexism.”

Just what are we talking about, anyway?

Many in the crowd didn’t like my answer — and I went on to explain that I didn’t give a rip if anyone liked my answer — because, while it is my opinion, it also happens to be true.

What is institutional sexism?

It’s a set of rules — both overt and implied — that discriminate against women and afford better opportunities to men. Institutional sexism shows itself in very simple ways.

  • At work, companies create job requirements and reward employees for a set of skills and abilities that only men seem to possess.
  • In our criminal justice system, it’s requiring rape victims to jump through countless hurdles to prove that they said no and didn’t really mean yes — even just for a moment.
  • And in the HR technology start-up community that is rooted in Silicon Valley and London, institutional sexism rears its ugly head when men who look and fit the “part” are entrusted with millions of dollars while women have to bend over backwards to prove that they can manage a checkbook, won’t get pregnant during the launch of a company and will work long hours and stick with an idea long after the first round of funding hits the books.

Time to start creating a crop of candidates

I am not saying that institutional sexism is performed by pedophiles, rapists or misogynistic fear-mongers. There are plenty of good men and women who default back to sexist and weird cultural behaviors even when their intentions are good.

And when it comes to solving institutional sexism, I am certainly not advocating for a quota system where we give opportunities and extensive government funding to unqualified women who own businesses. That’s stupid.

But far too often, I hear that there is only “one person” with the correct set of attributes to save a company or lead a team or bring a start-up organization to the next level. ONE PERSON. And it’s always a man.

Well, if there’s only one person — which is highly unlikely if you can do some basic math and look at the global population — it’s time for us to start creating a crop of candidates with the required knowledge, skills and abilities to lead a future generation of knowledge workers.

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So what I suggested at this conference is that successful men and women need to start down the path of mentoring girls. I could also add minorities and persons with disabilities in the mix, too.

A young woman at the conference said, “Institutional sexism? Whatever. Who does Laurie Ruettimann think she is?”

An obvious gap in Silicon Valley

Right. Exactly. Who is this woman in the back of the room to speak for all of womankind? My friends kindly tried to tell her who the F I is … but I can speak for myself.

For starters, I’m Laurie F***ing Ruettimann. I am not speaking for womankind. I am a woman who benefited from other women who fought corporate battles and said politically incorrect things at work, in the boardroom and at HR conferences. I don’t play the victim or the gender card. I work hard and deliver excellent results.

And oh yeah. I was the only one in that entire room — man or woman — who was asked to weigh in on the very obvious gender gap in the Silicon Valley HR technology start-up community.

That should show you something about how to start to overcome institutional sexism. Possess a wicked combination of confidence and competence. And don’t let anyone — a woman or a man — tell you that your ideas on gender equality are invalid.

Start there.

This originally appeared on Laurie Ruettimann’s blog, The Cynical Girl.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


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