HR & Management

This female CEO keeps getting mistaken for head of marketing – and she's not the only one

5 min read

06 August 2015

Ever been mistaken for the kitchen help or secretary while you're actually running the company? It seems to be a common occurrence – as evidenced by Twizoo co-founder Madeline Parra.

Madeline Parra, CEO of Future 50 company Twizoo, has been quite outspoken about the way she’s been treated in the corporate world. She revealed that an alarming number of male technology investors ask what could be interpreted as sexist questions.

Speaking at the 2015 Super Women in Tech event, Parra said: “I’ve probably met with 25 VCs. I’ve never met one woman in that whole process and when you look back at it, I think it’s kind of crazy.”

She added: “There have been scenarios where the first thing the VC would ask me is why my nails were painted pink. Is it relevant to them investing in Twizoo? Do they ask why a male founder has a green tie on? Probably not.”

Many of the VCs that Parra has met automatically assume that she doesn’t understand the technology behind her app because she is a woman. 

“They almost just assume that you aren’t technical and you don’t know much about the business,” she said.

In fact, Parra has a math degree, and she wrote the algorithm her company is founded on – codes and all. However, virtually all of the VCs she met started off by assuming she was the head of marketing. “I would say probably 90-95 per cent of them assume that I don’t do anything technical with the company,” she said. 

She’s far from the only female executive to have been mistaken to be in a different role within the company. 

The story Mellody Hobson now uses in keynote speeches in quite shocking. She is the chairman of the board of directors for Dreamworks Animation and is the wife of Star Wars creator George Lucas. In 2006, while helping politician Harold Ford attend a press lunch, a receptionist mistook her for the kitchen help.

Hobson now uses the story to bring awareness to racial discrimination and how it really shouldn’t be so “weird” to see a black woman chairing the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. 

Watch Hobson’s amazing TED talk:

In much the same way, Sandra Bruce found herself to be a “tea runner” at company meetings. Bruce became CEO of Presence Health at age 29.

She recalled that early on, when attending meetings, she was shocked that there were so few women at the table.

“I’ll never forget my first meeting,” she said. “I’d been put on a committee and was pouring myself a cup of coffee when someone else asked for coffee too. So I poured that cup, and then another cup of coffee.”

As the meeting went on, the attendees kept asking her for things. She later realised that they thought she was an assistant.  

Sue Noffke, the UK’s leading female fund manager, had the same type of experience.

“When I started as an analyst 20 years ago, I was more of an anomaly,” she said. “I can remember going to an analysts’ results presentation for an insurance broker and the chief executive stood up and said, ‘Good morning gentlemen’ and then looked around and saw me and added, ‘and lady’. Everyone turned and stared – it was a bit intimidating and unnecessary.

“On another occasion we were preparing for a meeting with a chief executive – a more mature South African man this time – and I was pouring the tea, as is the junior analyst’s responsibility. Presuming I was a PA, he was not expecting me to lead off the questioning. I am not sure who was more embarrassed.”

According to “Embodying Women’s Work” by Gatrell, MP Diane Abbott was mistaken for a cleaner when she was first elected to parliament.