A Conversation with Magdalena Yesil, author of Power UP: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy

There’s much in the news these days about sexism, harassment, and even sexual abuse in Silicon Valley. Is the situation for women as bad as all that?

The problems that these women are describing are real—I’ve witnessed this behavior. There is locker room talk, demeaning comments, and worse—but that doesn’t mean that as a woman you can’t rise above it. You can, and you can bring your colleagues with you.


How do you rise above a company culture of misogyny?

The book is full of ways, but one particular effective strategy is to find someone in your workplace of the opposite gender who will amplify your success and advocate for your promotions—someone who truly believes that you have a lot to contribute, and who supports you. In the book I call it a work husband, but I’m not coining that phrase. The fact is that there may be a lot of jerks in your office, but they aren’t all jerks. Find one of the good guys and bring him around to your side by showing that you work hard and are fun to work with. When he believes that, he can be a force for change within a company culture that devalues women.


The book has lots of strategies for navigating a male-dominated workplace, even down to the way we dress. But why should women have to make all the adjustments?

Everyone has annoying things that they have to put up with to have a job, and adjustments they need to make. A long commute, a dress code. On the hottest day of the year, if a salesman is selling to a bank, he needs to wear a suit and a tie. He would rather wear something comfortable, but he needs to worry about how he’s going to present himself to the other side. So it’s not just women who need to adjust. The more that we as women think the cards are stacked against us, the more resentful and bitter we will get. We then become less fun to work with, and our effectiveness in our companies goes down.


What about changing the company culture so that these adjustments are no longer necessary?

Yes, change the company culture, by all means—but that takes time, and meanwhile, all the bad press is turning women away from the industry. To change the culture, we need more female managers, and male managers who think the way we do. We need venture capitalists and investors to hold companies to certain levels of ethics. That’s an issue for us in the Valley: We’re very focused on return on capital, we’re not as focused on building sustainable companies.


How can an investor know what kind of company culture a founder will create?

Much of the game is played after the investment is made. Most investors end up taking board seats, thus they have a very direct say in how the CEO is going to run the company. I do think that us investors have not taken that responsibility as seriously as we should. The board members often feel that the CEO is doing a great job if the numbers look great, The company ethics are often a much lower priority than the return on capital. Ultimately, that’s not good business—as companies like Uber and SoFi can attest.


Has your gender had an impact on your career?

Absolutely. I have always made my gender a plus, not a minus. For many years I worked in an environment that was almost exclusively men, so my gender allowed me to stand out and get noticed, and allowed me certain opportunities that others didn’t have. For example, I got invited to a business dinner because they wanted a little variety in the group. Once I had a seat at the table, I made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.


Isn’t it wrong to “use” your gender like that?

No! Businesspeople of both genders use everything they have: intelligence, charisma, strength, connections, beauty. The key is to stay professional. Getting invited to dinner is one thing, going to bed with a colleague is quite another. In my belief, that’s a line that women in the workplace must not cross. If you’re doing crossing the line in hopes of a promotion or some financial reward, then you’re being unethical. If you’re doing it because you are in love, I have sympathy but there is a high likelihood that it is going to backfire. When men make headlines for leaving their companies after a sexual scandal, you can bet that there are a string of women who’ve had to leave quietly. It almost never ends well.


Do you think working conditions for women in Silicon Valley have gotten worse, improved, or stayed the same since you started in the 1980s?

Worse and better simultaneously. Better because we’re talking about these topics, women are being bold and coming forward. Worse because there has been unprecedented wealth creation, and with that comes bad behavior. When someone becomes a billionaire overnight, their self-image and their ego gets inflated and their behavior usually suffers because of it.


What do you make of the backlash against the women’s movement in Silicon Valley right now?

I think it’s to be expected. People are fed up with political correctness, worrying about every word they use and walking on eggshells. It doesn’t ultimately help the women’s movement to make the environment uncomfortable for men. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do to better the cause for women  is to reach across the gender divide and bring men along to share the values we have: promoting equal pay, women’s right to advance, eliminating sexual discrimination and harassment.  These measures create sustainable companies and spell success for all in the long term. This next phase of the women’s movement cannot be fought by women alone; it will take us all!

I recently was asked to moderate a panel titled Female Leaders Panel. I told the organizer that I would moderate the panel on the condition that they drop the word Female from the title of the session. I made the point that the fact they are female is not the point, the fact they are leaders is!

For me, utopia is when leaders, male or female, are known for their and success, not their gender. Where men and women compete head to head, and are defined by their accomplishments.