Should women be promoted because they’re women?

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Over the last decade, I have had the privilege of mentoring about 15 women and about five men in entrepreneurship. It’s a fulfilling activity; I’m a big believer in mentoring, as my mentors changed my life. I like to pay it forward. However, with my female mentees I am often faced with anxiety when one of them is overlooked for a promotion. Gender worries surface. Did a woman not get a promotion because of her sex? It’s a reality we all deal with.

Recently, however, I was faced with an unusual situation: two of my male mentees were overlooked and a woman received a partnership offer. In most tech companies, there are very few partnership positions. The candidates, male or female, have to work very hard and show great talent, year after year, to be considered for a partnership promotion. I had to look at the problem impartially: were these men denied a promotion because of ability or because their company wanted to promote a woman?

I investigated and checked with insiders and concluded that yes, the men were more qualified than the woman. It seemed clear that one of them should have been promoted and not the woman. I’m a female technologist and entrepreneur in what is largely a male world.  I want to see women succeed, but the success must be deserved, not the product of political correctness! We do women, companies and the world no favors by lowering the bar based on gender.

I had to explain to my two mentees that they had a point and that I shared their frustration. They were relieved that a woman agreed with their position but they were equally angry. I suggested that they document the reasons why they felt they each deserved this promotion and make their cases to HR. Most likely, the decision will remain, but eyes will be opened in the company.

In Provoke, I talk about the Culture of Disruption, or CofD. Part of being a member of CofD is having the courage and wisdom to observe and question what is happening around you. The key is to be productive and constructive in this process. Don’t write irate letters or indignant emails, or pollute the company environment. Bring up issues of fairness to management, but focus rationally on why the company would benefit from your vision, execution and capabilities. As I tell my mentees, you get few chances for people to really listen. Don’t blow it.

I believe in the extraordinary power of women in the tech world. We need more women CEOs, women on boards and women solving problems. However, I want us to rise because we work smarter and harder—and because we show more courage in disrupting the status quo. My motto is “may the best person win,” not “may the best woman win.”  If that person happens to be a woman, so much the better!

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