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One More Reason Women Are Undecided?

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I frequently hear from former students -- usually bright, idealistic twenty-somethings -- long after they've exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work. Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfaction. Raised to believe they could have it all, they're suddenly undecided. Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass. One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it "the other problem that has no name." All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman, we'll call her Susie, who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate. Great, right? But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad now working in New York, who was so miserable at her job that she was thinking of calling it quits. Why? Constant sexist remarks. A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be. The final straw? One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email addressed to "Dear Gentlemen" even though there were several women on the chain and left her off it completely -- though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe. But when you've been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell. Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company. She reveled in the responsibility and the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state. But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who'd been hired by her company for the gig was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right? Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

"It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game," Susie wrote. "As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility..." And yet, she wondered: How do these women feel when they're smart, work hard and then see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent?

"I just wonder," she wrote, "that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?"

Sigh. One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege? More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were -- and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women's work. Shouldn't it be everyone's work?

Hillary Clinton -- one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender -- would likely agree. Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday's New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, "I could see some eyes glazing over." But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don't espouse women's rights because it's a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant! Which leads us back to Susie. Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?