Who wrote these words?
The moment I emerged from my mother’s womb…my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy! And my brainy, personable, and good-looking siblings were not. My parents would love us equally, and our teachers would give us similar grades. But at every turn my sisters would be told — more through signals than words — that success for them would be “marrying well.” I was meanwhile hearing that the world’s opportunities were there for me to seize.
So my floor became my sisters’ ceiling.
a) John Stuart Mill, 19th century feminist crusader
b) Mark Twain, “avid supporter” of women’s suffrage
c) Warren Buffett, American Capitalist
It wouldn’t be any fun asking the question if the answer weren’t “c.”
In an opinion piece for the May 20th issue of Fortune Magazine, Buffett makes the case that working women are the key to our country’s economic health. He makes such a strong argument in such a mild Nebraska manner that I am forced to acknowledge that oligarchs are people too, and sometimes spectacular ones. It doesn’t hurt that he gave away “the great bulk of his fortune.” He is working to level playing fields, starting with his own kids.
I should pause to acknowledge some bias. My mother grew up down the block from Buffett’s house in Omaha. My uncle and Peter Buffett played together, walked to school together, and drove to school together when school became Stanford. When quizzed, my grandmother reports that the family had no affectations and that the children were modest and well-behaved. She is not one to give such compliments lightly.
She confirmed Buffett’s opinion of his social skills: “I remember Warren being at a party and he would just go sit in a corner. Then as he got more notoriety and importance his personality started to bloom then.”
My grandmother remembered things like Buffett driving himself around, no chauffeur, nothing extravagant. “Very, very nice people. They were great neighbors.”
So in my ledger, this man’s stock just keeps climbing.
Turning from hagiography to the heart of the Fortune Magazine piece: Warren Buffett is schooling the Powers That Be that it is time to let the girls have the ball.
He writes: “America has forged [economic] success while utilizing, in large part, only half of the country’s talent. For most of our history, women — whatever their abilities — have been relegated to the sidelines. Only in recent years have we begun to correct that problem.”
And what a pervasive problem it is. Buffett wryly proves that sex discrimination kept women off the Supreme Court: the odds that every justice until Sandra Day O’Connor would be male by chance, without discrimination, are “more than 8 billion to one,” he writes. The excuse provided, when one was required, was that there were “no qualified [female] candidates.” That’s just what law firms still say when asked where the female equity partners are. Same goes for tenured professors, managers in finance companies, top executives in major corporations, directors on corporate boards…alright, this is getting boring.
So where are all those qualified female candidates? Some of them are jumping up and down outside the boardroom, pounding on the door and still being ignored. But others have absorbed some of the sexism that pervades the very air. Even women who are qualified by every external measure can doubt themselves because that is what they have been taught to do.
Few men get this. If a woman has amassed all the accolades, the degrees and business successes and early promotions, why would she doubt her merit?
Buffett’s answer: “brainwashing.” He believes this is what happened to his late friend, Katharine Graham, CEO of the Washington Post. Despite her intelligence and talent and regardless of her achievements, he writes, “her self-doubt remained, a testament to how deeply a message of unworthiness can be implanted in even a brilliant mind.”
As happened with Buffett’s sisters, the message women get isn’t always explicit. It doesn’t have to be. It is barely metaphorical to say it is in the air we breathe.
So there are women with some work to do puffing up their own egos. But Buffett reserves his primary message for the people who are really controlling the workplaces that drive our economy:
Fellow males, get onboard. The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be. We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.
Thus spake the Oracle.
Now to a difficult point. I can’t let my warm and fuzzy feelings for Buffett obscure the fact that his empire, Berkshire Hathaway, is a major shareholder in corporations that exploit workers, torture non-human animals, destroy the environment — and discriminate against female employees. ConocoPhillips, Phillips 66, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo – there are sins to lay at all their corporate feet. Buffett is saying right, important things. But his money is doing wrong things.
But no one is perfect and women need all the champions we can get. So Mr. Buffett: thank you for your essay. And thanks for being a great neighbor.
Photo: Aaron Friedman/flickr