Startup by Doree Shafrir
Rating: 4.5 stars
This book was equal parts incredible and infuriating. There were so many times when I wanted to throw it at a wall because of how perfectly Shafrir captured the environment of casual sexism that still exists today, especially at startups. I haven’t worked at a startup, but I know several women who have. I worked at a at a large management consulting firm for two years out of college and my best friend worked as an I-banker in NYC for those two years. We all frequently shared workplace horror stories. A disturbingly high amount focused on the “bro-culture” and sexism that men didn’t ever seem to notice.
At my office we had a manager that the women called (only amongst ourselves) the “sexual harassment manager.” He was younger than most other managers, single with no kids, so he would frequently party with the younger consulting staff. We were only a year or two out of college, and my company had a heavy drinking culture with beer in the office and frequent happy hours (that lasted until one or two in the morning) on their dime. This manager, let’s call him Justin, would always get drunk and hit on any female associates or consultants he saw. I am not exaggerating when I say almost every woman at the office had a Justin story. He cornered them in the office kitchen after a late night game of slap cup. He grinded way too hard on them at a club. He even slept with a few despite being their boss. Then he would be embarrassed around them for a couple of days and try to avoid working with them.
At one of these events Justin was drunk as usual and tried to kiss me. Then he kept trying get me to go back to his place. I kept trying to shoo him off, but when I reached out to the older male consultant there for help I was told not to overact. “That’s just Justin.” The next day at the office he was awkward around me, and I could barely look him in the eye even though I did nothing wrong. He even pulled me off a financial model that required working closely with him and gave it to another associate.
I thought about reporting him, but every male consultant just told us it was normal, sometimes guys get too drunk. One even said we should only be offended if he hadn’t drunkenly hit on us. To this day I regret not going to HR. Even if I had, though, I doubt anything would have happened. He was a top performer and promoted to sexual harassment partner after I left, plus rumored to be sleeping with an associate 10 years younger than him.
The office cultures described in this book unfortunately exist, and Shafrir does an amazing job describing just insane they can be. While it can be hard to believe that Isabel doesn’t understand what sexual harassment is, the lines between work and personal lives are increasingly blurred. It can be hard to tell in those environments what is and isn’t appropriate, especially when men higher up want to normalize some of these questionable behaviors.
I also wasn’t surprised that Dan leaves all the childcare to his wife, who also works full time. He fully believes that his work is more important than hers, and he frequently stays late without thinking to even check if her job needs her to stay late as well. He only grudgingly agrees to stay at home with the kids so she can attend work events or stay late at the office, and then expects praise for just being a dad. Katya’s boyfriend also thought his career was more important than hers, even when he didn’t have a job and was living at her apartment rent free (and annoying her roommate in the process).
This book contains a great description of millennial and startup culture, plus the subtle sexism that we still can’t seem to shake. There is a passage near the end of the book where a group of men discuss how much harder it is to be male in today’s society, and I wanted to scream. There are people that believe this. Shafrir expertly touched several nerves in this book, and I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.