An Open Letter to Penelope Trunk. Sincerely, the Women

Penelope, please go back to giving good business advice, and spare us the sensationalism.

I began reading Penelope Trunk’s posts after I heard about her much-criticized tweet wherein she expressed her real-time relief that she was having a miscarriage. And though it is complicated, I understood her reasons for feeling that way when she wrote about the miscarriage and tweet at length in The Guardian. Trunk has often caused fury when her words have been taken out of context, but increasingly, the sensational quotes are an accurate barometer of her actual meaning. As a personal blogger, there is nothing wrong with this, but as a purported business expert, it’s disappointing that she often capitalizes on her substantial online presence to fan stereotypes and give irresponsible advice.

Inc. magazine calls Trunk “arguably the world’s most influential guidance counselor.” Trunk does have a refreshingly honest voice and not a small amount of bravery for writing so frankly about her sex life, her Asperger’s Syndrome and her work experiences. I enjoy her stories and her sometimes off-center personal musings. Heather Armstrong’s comedic and compelling voice on Dooce makes me laugh out loud for the same reasons. But, while levity makes career advice palatable, sensational post topics that, in turn, disparage women, encourage them to have plastic surgery or instruct them to use their twenties to find a husband and thirties to have children, are a very poor use of Trunk’s considerable influence.

I see some of my own work experiences mirrored in several of Trunk’s posts, like Why Problem Employees Don’t Get Fired and How to Use Cold Water as a Productivity Tool. I also learned a little from posts like 5 Things to Do When You’re Unemployed. Hint: It’s Not Job Hunting, How to Face Cash-flow Issues in a Start-Up, 7 Things to Consider Before Launching a Start-Up, and How to Get Good Ideas for Start-Ups.

These are helpful, relatable pieces. Are they link magnets? Perhaps not, but these show her human side and help people benefit from her experience. I like that she is unflinching when she talks about her own mistakes (lost an opportunity to write a column for Wired? Ouch!) and honest when she recounts her lessons learned. These are her strengths as a woman who gives advice on careers with some personal gems thrown in.

Unfortunately, she goes over the edge with posts like Why Women Should Lie Even More Than They Do, Forget the Job Hunt. Have a Baby Instead, How to Pick the People You Work With, and most recently, Male Founders: Want to Kill Your Start-Up’s Chances? Hire a Woman (which was subsequently renamed Are Start-ups Better as Single-Gender Affairs? Hat tip/Desiree Vargas Wrigley). In these pieces, Trunk is single-minded, imperative, and extremely biased.

As standalone posts, they do not support the image of Trunk as a business expert qualified to give advice to any generation of management, employees or job hunters. If I hadn’t read some of her other posts, these would have driven me away immediately. As well as earning her significant backlash from commenters and other bloggers, her BNET business expert colleagues also weighed in with their own disagreement with some of her views. Are opposing points of view, controversy and frank discussions good? Sometimes, but not at the expense of your credibility.

Why Women Should Lie Even More Than They Do. I cringed when Trunk advocated that prospective employees should lie about their height, age and previous salary in a job interview. What? When would I be asked about my height in a job interview, and how would I possibly lie about it? My age can be easily checked by the legal documents I need to supply to accept the job. Salary can also be verified, although I admit to a heavy bias against companies who demand to know your salary history and requirements as a condition of looking at your resume. Has Trunk never heard of background checks? Regardless, lying about these things can only bite you later, as Trunk’s BNET colleague Suzanne Lucas points out, as well as lose your coworkers’ trust and respect. I can see absolutely no benefit to taking that advice, and telling women to artificially inflate their previous salary “because the men do it.”

Forget the Job Hunt. Have a Baby Instead. Trunk also says that if you are unemployed, you might as well have a baby since you are out of the workplace anyway. Instead of spending time finding another job, then leaving to have a baby, just use that time you are already out of work. Of course this only works if you can afford to have said baby without the income you had before, you still have health insurance, and you actually want a baby right then. Having one out of “convenience” might not be the best idea. In addition, trying to find and then excel at a new job while taking care of a newborn can be difficult. Granted, you have an “excuse” to be out of work, which is another point I think she is making, but it’s a very questionable – not to mention impractical – course of action.

How to Pick the People You Work With. As a founder of a start-up, Trunk could certainly dictate who she works with, but her advice for choosing whom to work with includes: people who are attractive, but not more attractive than you (it’s important not to look ugly); women who are happy, but don’t smile too much; people who swear, but are not trashy; and people you admire. Also, you should not work with fat people because you’re likely to become fat, and fat people can’t think as clearly as thin people under pressure. And women, especially, (not men) should not be grouchy. I’m not sure what happened to simply choosing people who are qualified for the job. Maybe you need to be qualified, attractive (but not too), happy (but don’t smile), not grouchy, not fat, swear a little and be admirable.

As a mother, understandably Trunk devotes time to talking about children and career. Although fundamentally I agree with Trunk that relationships and family are important and careers can (ideally) be built at any stage of life, I don’t think women need to be told stridently and repeatedly, that there is a rigid schedule they need to adhere to (as she does here, here, here and here). Constantly stating that women should be married before thirty, and trying for children in their early thirties (because she says there is a high probability they will miscarry at least once) before hitting the dreaded thirty-five (after which she cites the even higher probability of having a special needs child) is not only inappropriate, but discounts women who do not want to be married and the growing number of women who do not want children at all. Trunk clings so narrowly to her own experiences and beliefs she can’t see or address other situations.

Male Founders: Want to Kill Your Start-Up’s Chances? Hire a Woman/Are Start-Ups Better as Single-Gender Affairs? This is the most recent post that sparked widespread rage amongst businesswomen. Trunk told male start-up founders that they absolutely should not “do a start-up with women” because diversity disrupted their focus and progress. As evidence, she cites an interview with one author and his one book, along with the fact that she, herself, was so emotional and difficult to work with, in order to state categorically that all women are liabilities during the high-pressure, early stages of a start-up.

But what about the many examples cited by her readers that she is wrong? Several wrote in that their start-ups benefited from having women in the group, and that qualifications are all that matter. Trunk herself was integral to starting three successful companies. Despite her self-admitted occasional outbursts and crying, she describes developing the start-up idea and securing funding at crucial points in the process, as well as putting in the time and effort to make Brazen Careerist successful.

If no start-ups included women at the beginning, or had women founders or co-founders, we would never have had these female-inspired companies or many others where women play an important role. If she is saying that women-run start-ups should only hire women, that goes against her advice to stay away from workplaces dominated by women, and that women should only run start-ups with men, although men shouldn’t run one with a woman. So where do women belong in the world of start-ups? Nowhere?

This is a huge opportunity (and a lot of respect) lost. Instead of calling out the fact that outbursts of any kind by either men or women aren’t appropriate (as Jessica Wakeman also points out), Trunk focuses on women as the problem. I have worked with many female and male managers with all kinds of temperaments – women who would never have an unprofessional outburst and men who acted like whining teenagers. Casting all women in the same emotional, unprofessional light while exempting men is nothing short of silly.

Trunk could have taken this opportunity to talk about where she went wrong and how others could learn from that, as she has done to better effect in other posts. To me, an “influential career guide” would not take this stance, fuel this stereotype and discourage women in this way. The saddest thing this post does, is to fan the flames of women’s insecurities and tell the rest of the world via hugely influential business and tech blogs that women don’t belong in start-ups.

Wrigley writes,

“As a 5 month pregnant CEO and co-founder of a funded start-up, I blew off her comments as inflammatory press intended simply to make me visit BNET. But … I realized that what Penelope has really done is simply put pen to paper for that little voice in the back of our mind (aka the Lizard Brain) that keeps us all from achieving our goals and our true purpose.

… The reality is that the journey of an entrepreneur is hard, it’s time consuming, it’s stressful, and it’s the most incredible experience of one’s life. It is the act of creating something out of nothing that provides value. Why would anyone deny women that opportunity? And why, Penelope, would you feed that little voice in people’s heads when it’s already so powerful?”

The idea that people might actually internalize and act on some of this advice in a time when jobs are hard to come by, when people need inspiration, and a person’s reputation in business is critical, is disturbing. It’s dangerous to hold Trunk up as a career guide when some of the advice she gives is not only irresponsible, but morally or legally questionable (lying in an interview, hiring people based on appearance). It all serves to undercut her legitimacy.

Perhaps I just prefer the infrequent, quieter, warmer posts (the post about how she mentors the two boys in her town who wanted to start a company is excellent). Or, perhaps I just don’t like to see a woman digging her own professional grave. Linkbait today, gone tomorrow.

Image: elliottng, eschipul

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.