Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images Women in the workplace -– it’s a hot topic in the business universe right now. For that, you can thank Sheryl Sandberg’s girl-power-infused book “Lean In,” or the ever-increasing number of female executives taking charge of major corporations, like Yahoo’s (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer or IBM’s (IBM) Ginni Rometty.
Just recently, Warren Buffett weighed in on women in business in a column for “Fortune” magazine. In it, the beloved Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) (BRK.B) chairman and Oracle of Omaha detailed his faith in the power of women in business.
Behold the Woman Behind the Curtain
Buffett writes in his signature simple and eloquent way. But he didn’t pull punches about the uneven playing field women have faced — and still face — as they make their way in the world.
The deck is stacked against women starting at a very early age, Buffett says, going on to register his distaste for the “brainwashing” that many highly talented women are forced to experience: “The moment I emerged from my mother’s womb,” he writes, “my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy! … at every turn my sisters would be told … that success for them would be ‘marrying well.’ I was meanwhile hearing that the world’s opportunities were there for me to seize.”
Buffett equated the strange double standard being placed on women as a “fun-house mirror.” He even saw its twisted side effects in the insecurities of his friend Katharine Graham, the powerful CEO of the Washington Post. Thankfully, however, he realizes this mirror is cracking, and that his daughter would “laugh and smash it” if one was put in front of her.
A key to equality could be found, Buffett says, if women realize men are equally insecurity-ridden, not unlike the Wizard of Oz. “Pull the curtain aside,” he says, “and you’ll often discover they are not supermen after all. (Just ask their wives!)”
More Odes to Women
Buffett is hardly the only heavy-hitter in the business world who has piped up to give women their due credit. From the sublime to surreal, here are a few other notables who have gone on the record in to praise the fairer sex for their across-the-board talents.
Peter Lynch, the mutual fund wunderkind of Vanguard in the ’90s, has always spoken candidly about how his wife’s investing prowess surpassed his own.
In interviews and his memoir/investing handbook “One Up on Wall Street,” the hedge fund manager explains that Carolyn Lynch’s affinity for L’Eggs pantyhose (owned by Hanes) landed him a 10-bagger:
This company came up with a product. They rack-jobbed it, they had all the sizes, all the fits, [and] never advertised price.” Lynch said. “They just advertised ‘This fits. You’ll enjoy it.’ And [Hanes] was a huge success and it became my biggest position … It might have been a thirty bagger instead of a ten bagger, if it hadn’t been bought out.
It’s hard to believe Lynch would have had the wherewithal to discover Hanes on his own. His L’Eggs story is proof that women can provide a different, fresh perspective to the business landscape, and that could benefit any kind of company, not just a mutual fund business.
Microsoft (MSFT) chairman Bill Gates has become well known for being a thoughtful philanthropist, thanks to partnering with his wife on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates’ true colors appeared, however, in a bold comment he made while visiting Saudi Arabia.
The country is notorious for severely limiting opportunities for women, and once, when Gates was invited to speak there, he found himself in a room in which 80 percent of the audience was male. The women were all bedecked in veils and seated on the other side of the room, divided from the men by a partition.
During a question-and-answer segment, a man asked Gates whether becoming one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology was a realistic aspiration for Saudi Arabia.
“Well,” Gates said, “if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top 10.”
The women erupted into applause, and Gates, of course, was right. Only by utilizing every available member of its society can a country, or business, ever hope to achieve its full potential.
It may have taken a while for social media company Facebook (FB) to build a female presence on its board of directors, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s blunt reasoning for it could be seen as a unique statement on gender equality.
When cornered by a New Yorker writer who asked why there were no women on the company’s five-person board, the notoriously awkward Zuckerberg replied as follows:
We have a very small board. I’m going to find people who are helpful, and I don’t particularly care what gender they are. I’m not filling the board with check boxes.
While lacking (or completely void of) social graces, Zuckerberg’s comment might actually be a perfect example of the progress being made toward gender equality. Equal opportunities for women might not come in with a bang, or even be all that exciting. It might just mean that if you’re qualified, smart, and capable, you’ll get the job, no matter what gender you are.
Here’s where the whole “in praise of women” concept starts to verge into the surreal. Billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is reportedly considering picking Brittney Griner, a star in women’s college basketball and now a rookie for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, for the 2013 NBA draft.
At 6 foot 8 inches tall, Griner has the height and wingspan of most men in the NBA. She’s the second-leading women’s scorer in the history of women’s Division I, and is also apparently gung-ho about the prospect, having tweeted “Let’s do it” to Cuban after the news of his potential draft plan broke.
The move may look like a big step for women, but many wonder whether it’s not simply a publicity stunt by Cuban. This is the same guy who’s made a reality television career from crushing the dreams of would-be entrepreneurs.
When asked about his consideration of Griner, the Mavericks owner said, “You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it’s not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it.”
Stunt or not, it shows some respect that Mark Cuban is at least ready to offer Griner a chance. If she does appear in the NBA — and if she’s followed by more women, proving that she’s not just a sideshow there — it will be an even more promising sign for progress.
You Go, Girl!
You can’t ignore the power women have on the business world, and it’s only going to grow from here. It’s high time the members of this supposedly male-centric realm took notice, and with greats like Buffett, Lynch, and Gates speaking up, maybe more of them will.
Motley Fool contributor Caroline Bennett has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.