Penelope Trunk Says Startups Shouldn’t Hire Women Because We’re Too Emotional

Technology startups should not hire women because their crying jags and fit-throwing at the office is too much of a distraction, according to Brazen Careerist and business writer Penelope Trunk, writing for business site Oh, you know us ladies and our hormones. It’s a wonder we get anything done when we’re weeping all the time.

Drawing on examples from her own life, Trunk argues that “diversity” may be an ideal that businesses in general strive for — studies have shown that a diversity of opinions and ideas is very healthy for a company — but that startups are so pressurized and intense that less diversity makes things run more smoothly. Since a hell of a lot of startups are run by men, Trunk advises the guys not to bring women on board because they will be “emotional” and “difficult.”The crux of Penelope Trunk’s argument is pretty galling:

“If you want to know why you shouldn’t do a startup with women (if you’re a man), read on.

It’s a distraction.

I have done three startups and each time it has been with a male co-founder. And each time, the fact that I am female has been a distraction to us. It has been a source of friction. When I was young, people thought my co-founder and I were a couple. (This is not surprising. The majority of male-female co-founder situations for a funded startup have a sex component.)

The problem is that men and women are different at work, and the intensity of a startup magnifies these differences ten-fold. In my last company, Brazen Careerist, I had two male co-founders. Sometimes I’d cry. Or throw a fit. And the guys would say I was so difficult. I am a woman who has been in tech startups for 15 years. I thought, if anyone can deal with men, it’s me. And still, I was too emotional for these guys. You know what? Most women cry at work. And most guys throw a fit.

I don’t blame the guys. We tried hard to get along. We had to. If we couldn’t get along we’d have to shut down the company. That’s how high the stakes are at the beginning of a startup. This is all drama that you don’t need in the beginning stages of a company.

Startups need speed and focus — not diversity.”

A lot of feminist bloggers will probably write this piece off as nothing more than link-baiting. That certainly may be the case: Penelope is talented at attracting attention to writing through controversy. (She’s written in the past about having had two abortions and going through a divorce, to give just two examples.) I’ve been a long-time Penelope Trunk admirer because I appreciate her spunk, her no-nonsense advice, and her candor. But even I can’t get behind this one. And it’s not because I disagree with her that most women cry at work when we are stressed or frustrated (a quick survey of Frisky co-workers finds that all of us have cried at work at some point) and that the crying itself can be disruptive to one’s peers. Both of those things are true.

But what pisses me off is what Penelope is doing normalizing men’s reactions at work in stressful environments as “acceptable,” while saying that what women do when we’re stressed or frustrated is bad. This particular piece makes it sound like women are the only ones who express some kind of emotion — and that couldn’t be further from the truth. And Penelope, who says repeatedly in her piece that she’s worked with mostly men (not surprisingly in the mostly male-dominated startup world), should know men’s emotional outbursts at work — and they do have them — are no picnic either.

A few years ago I had a male manager who was popular in the office and seemed like a chill, funny, down-to-earth kind of guy. And he was, most of the time. But when he was frustrated or angry, it was like Jekyll and Hyde. He would scream at me and others, shout curses, slam his phone down, and even punch his desk. He would be annoyed at his own bosses and take that frustration out on his minions (and, I guess, his desk and phone). This did not happen once. It happened several times a week. He would always calm down five minutes later and even crack jokes about his temper; I soon learned not to take it (too) personally if he lashed out at me because his behavior was so toddler-like. But obviously I hated working in an environment like that. I hated it. Many times at that job, I would run into the bathroom stall and tear up. Once, I spoke with one of his bosses about my manager’s bad behavior and the manager promised to do something about it. Nothing changed. In fact, my manager was as popular in the office as ever. I suspect the boss never spoke to my manager at all, likely because he didn’t see it as a big deal. Eventually I quit that job and nursed work-related PTSD for months to come.

Compare that with a different story: I have an ex-boyfriend who runs a successful tech startup (with mostly men working for him). He told me once that he had a senior woman on staff who did not get along with junior woman on staff and the two women seemed to find ways to antagonize each other. He finally called them both into his office to tell them to cut it out. On came the waterworks. I can still hear the disgust in his voice when he recounted this story to me and said, “They were crying,” as though it were the most ridiculous response he’d ever heard. Mind you, this incident happened once.

These are just two examples, of course, but I think they’re really illustrative of the sexism in office environments. Both behaviors are inappropriate in a professional environment, but the way the women behaved — perhaps because it is seen as “weaker” — evinced more disgust. A man’s emotional outburst at the office is perhaps seen as a sign of his passion for the job or how stressful his job is. A woman’s emotional outburst at the office, according to people who think like Penelope Trunk, is seen as nothing but “disruptive.”

Well, I can assure you that manager I had was disruptive. It was so disruptive it caused me to leave my job. I hear from friends still at the company that he still behaves that way. I wonder if he realizes how goddamn lucky he is to get away with this crap.

A salvageable point in Penelope Trunk’s argument might have been to say that repeated emotional outbursts in the office are inappropriate. I don’t disagree with her that it’s a bad news for a woman to cry or “throw a fit.” I would just amend that statement to include men and their unprofessional office behavior, too.