When hiring, be gender neutral and look for the best athletes

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I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the middle of November 2000. Thanksgiving was still a week in the distance but seemingly closer as the enthusiasm for the long weekend began to build, a waystation into a final push to year-end. I dreaded that time of year because, for me and the other senior managers at Lehman Brothers, Thanksgiving wasn’t about being with friends and family, it was about figuring out how we were going to divide up the bonus pool.

My two colleagues and I had to pay nearly eight hundred people, a responsibility we each took very seriously. The negotiations between us would take days but had to be completed by the Monday after Thanksgiving.

I remember it as if it were just an hour ago, the conversation so infuriating that I could barely contain the outward expression of my anger. Actually, I don’t think I did since it was the beginning of the end of my relationship with this person, a shame really because he was one of the people I reported to.

“Hey Steve,” he started harmlessly enough. “I saw your comp numbers,” vernacular for what I was paying to who. “Why are you paying Katie (an alias) so much? She’s pregnant. She’s not going anywhere.”

I took a few seconds to respond, careful to hold back on what I really wanted to say. After all, this guy would have input into my compensation. “I’m paying her that much because it’s what she deserves.” I couldn’t leave it there. “Let me ask you a question,” I inquired between near gritted teeth. “You have three daughters. Do you want them treated like you want me to treat Katie?”

Daughters, wives, sisters, mothers. The discriminators and abusers should think about their loved ones and how they would react if they were paid less than their male counterparts. Or how they would feel if it were them being shortchanged.

One of my daughters works in the entertainment industry, where the lack of respect for women is exercised with religious zeal. At 5.1 inches and 105 pounds she is strong enough to emit the message of don’t mess with me. The other works in private equity and has been treated fairly by the firms she has worked at; she too has no problem standing up for her rights. But look at virtually any private equity website – go to the Our People or Team page – and the faces of women are about as common as a 150 pound offensive tackle in the NFL.

I don’t know why I am still surprised by any of this any more than I continue to be shocked and sickened by the identification of a new Lauer or Weinstein or Moonves. The offenses, sexual abuse, versus unfair compensation are by no means similar but rather symptomatic of the same cultural issues that continue.

Didn’t these men have mothers? Daughters? Wives? Yes, yes and yes – they do. I checked. Two of them have sisters. By discriminating against women, by creating or supporting corporate cultures in this manner, these men are tacitly conspiring to have those they love treated the same way. As courtesy is contagious, so is abuse and discrimination. It is a cancer.

So here is my solution. Teach your daughters to be strong, instill in them self-respect. Tell them they are entitled to what they deserve, entitled to what they worked for, not some Stone Age view of what others can get away with paying them. Tell them to stand up for what they believe. And set the example for them to do it.

And a tip to the bosses out there. When hiring someone, be gender neutral. Hire the best athletes.

I joined Lehman when the firm was being written off by the rest of Wall Street (they were early by 11 years). I replaced almost the entire sales force, most anyone that was good had already left. Half my new hires were women; I hadn’t consciously targeted symmetry. In fact, I was being selfish because I just wanted to win. The better my team did, the better the firm did and the more money I made. I didn’t have quotas for women or for men, it just turned out to be an even mix at that point in time. Lehman’s rank in the various institutional sales surveys went from 15 to 1, not because I had more women than the competition but because I had the best athletes.

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