Successful female execs reveal their experiences of sexual harassment and how they were treated differently when they pretended to be a man


Last month Andrea Myles, chief executive of the China Australia Millennial Project, revealed that she’d changed her name from “Andrea” to “Andrew” and her photo to a stock image of a man on LinkedIn as a sort of social experiment to see if it would end a barrage of inappropriate messages she was receiving from men.

The saddest part was that it worked.

Business Insider wondered whether other female executives had experienced similar issues and tried similar tactics.

We received a surprising number of responses, which in turn raised two important issues.

The first was the number of women who had experienced sexual harassment.

And that, yes, others found that by concealing their gender they were able to get ahead.

Jodie Fox, co-founder of Shoes of Prey, was once hit on at a business meeting with a potential investor.

She recalls the first thing he said to her was “you look amazing” as he looked her up and down.

“As women we just know that approaches are a given that we have to actively and carefully diffuse,” she told Business Insider.

“In my case I have had a few inappropriate approaches, but on the whole, the approaches I do receive are mostly respectful in the way they approach, respectful of my answer and then are OK to continue the business relationship.”

SuppliedPhoto: Jodie Fox.

Natalie Goldman, CEO of FlexCareers recalls early on in her career an incident that has stuck with her to this day.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am 6-foot-1 and I have very long legs.

“I went in for a meeting with my boss and I was wearing a skirt… nothing particularly out there, quite professional looking,” she says.

“He said to me, ‘I find your legs very distracting. You’re going to have to do something about that I can’t work when you dress like that.’

“At the time I didn’t know what to say.”

Showpo co-founder Jane Lu said that in her former job in the corporate world, sexual harassment was commonplace and there was no support for those seeking to stop it.

“[I] was given the advice by managers that I respected and looked up to that there was nothing I could do about it,” said Jane.

These are just some of the women who have experienced harassment.

There were others who even masked their identity to avoid gender bias.

Here are their stories.

Fleur Brown, founder of Launch Group and co-founder of TEDxSydney

SuppliedFleur Brown.

When my former business partner and I started our business 14 years ago, it still felt relatively unusual to be female entrepreneurs.

Patronising assumptions were constantly made about the business such as: we worked from home, had no staff and simply ran events. These all seemed to be based around female stereotypes – particularly as we had a huge office in a prestigious location from the get-go, plenty of staff and quite a serious business focus.

It irritated me to no end and I used to reverse the questions on people and ask them whether they had an office or staff.

Cashflow is always a challenge when you are running a business in the early stages and I found it confronting to keep church and state separation between driving and delivering new business and getting the invoices issued and paid. Collecting money felt cringeworthy. I had book-keepers and accountants in on the action from the beginning, but inevitably, I found myself playing a hands on role at times.

On one occasion, I needed to respond to a few emails from a difficult payer and accidentally did this from my accounts system under my then male book-keepers email address.

To my surprise I got a swift and affirmative response — after days of chasing invoices.

This alerted me to a potential issue – despite being the head of the business, my book-keeper got far greater respect and attention for his efforts. Was it because he was male?

I experimented with this further by creating a male email address for these sorts of correspondence from that point and found that yes, under a male name, my emails got much swifter attention and better results.

Maybe it was because I stopped defaulting to ‘nice’ behaviour under this name. Maybe it was because book-keepers and accountants sound like they mean business. Maybe it was because it was a different gender. Whatever it was, it worked.

I think men have often (traditionally) been a little more assertive around money matters and simply through confidence have managed to generate better outcomes at times. This is less and less the case and I try to infuse that confidence in myself and my female staff as much as possible.

Alexandra Tselios, CEO and founder The Big Smoke

Alexandra TseliosAlexandra Tselios.

When I first started my company I was green to the industry and had literally no contacts. I used to try to reach out to various people within the industry, including possible VC firms, and I was pretty much always knocked back when emailing or filling in contact forms using my name Alexandra.

I discovered though that by saying my name is ‘Alex’ I had a great rate of reply.

At the time it didn’t make me feel bad about myself at all, it was just a barrier to overcome and I did. It is unfortunate that the knee-jerk reaction of meeting a ‘founder’ is that it must be the next Mark Zuckerberg, so having me come in must have been dreadfully disappointing. Unfortunately for them, I haven’t gone away and continue to find myself sitting at board meetings when I am the only female.

Fortunately though, as I have progressed my career and built my business, it’s no longer really an issue.

It definitely tests one’s resilience and determination.

Gender discrimination is not right and it is pleasing to see that we are talking more openly about the various barriers women face in order to create better opportunities for future generations.

However, there is no quick fix so it is really important to remember that life is full of barriers and challenges and you need to find ways to overcome these so your achievements and success aren’t limited by unfair practices.

Taryn Williams, CEO and founder and Wink Models

SuppliedTarryn Williams

Going from model to business owner at the age of 21 meant that from a very early age I did experience issues based on my gender and looks.

Whilst I have never pretended to be male, I have certainly had many situations where I would send a male colleague to certain meetings or events as I knew he would have a different experience and spare me the worry of being asked to do meetings just because I was a young lady.

Having been in business now for 11 years I have learnt to avoid ‘long lunch’ meetings or situations that can blur the line between work and play, to ensure that all of my professional relationships stay strictly professional.

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