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Episode #93: Gender Equality Progress and Opportunity, with Sepi Saidi

Grad Conn

March 9, 2021  •  23 min read

Part 2 of our discussion with the amazing Sepi Saidi, founder and CEO at SEPI Inc. We pick up where we left off, starting with an honest look at our progress so far with respect to gender equality. Then we deconstruct the word “feminism” and explore what it really means. Finally, it’s a couple of detours into moon landings and alien invasions. In other words, just a typical day on The CXM Experience.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
It’s the CXM Experience. And we’re back today with Sepi Saidi. We’re talking about women in the workplace. If you listened to yesterday’s show, I’m sure you cannot wait for us to get into it. So let’s do that. Without further ado, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And here’s Sepi on our discussion around women in the workplace.

Let’s talk about today. Is it getting better or not? Or where is it getting better? Where do we need to keep improving? I’ll tell you a couple of my own stories. My youngest daughter is marine biologist and a coral geneticist, specifically, at Penn State. And in her incoming PhD class, which she started about a year and a half ago, it was 16 people, and they were all women, which I thought was really cool. And that’s in biology. That’s not just marine biology. It’s the whole biology department. I thought that was kind of interesting.

And then my oldest daughter is a music director on Broadway. So right now, she’s doing some awesome TV work and some other things. But basically, when theater comes back which, knock on wood, will be sometime in the next year. She’s done all sorts of amazing things, conducting from the pit, and been in Broadway and seen her name, and been on tours and all that kind of stuff. But it’s a bit of an unusual career. And not a lot of women in that field, in that particular part of theatre. And theatre itself actually can be quite rough for women. But there she is, right?

And there are other examples. There’s some stuff I’m seeing, like Star Trek Discovery, the TV show, the entire bridge will be female by the end of the season, which is kind of interesting. And I don’t know if you’re watching For All Mankind.

Sepi Saidi 
I haven’t.

Grad 
Oh, such a great show. For All Mankind is an alternate history of the future. It basically supposes, what if the Russians had gotten to the moon before the Americans. What if the Russians had landed on the moon first. And that almost nearly happened. The Russians had a G1 booster that was on the launch pad. And it exploded, and killed tons of people, took out the launch facility. And then they had a second one, and it went as well. And then they gave up. But both of those rockets would have gotten to the moon before Apollo 11.

Which has actually been very controversial because Apollo 10… and I’m getting a little bit geeky here, hang on a second. You love this because you’re an engineer. But Apollo 10 could have landed on the moon. Right? There’s a lot still controversy today about the decision not to land Apollo 10. They were on their way down to the surface, they could have easily landed. And they gave the Russians a real window. The Russians could have totally landed first. And the Russians had a booster on the pad. So anyway, this show goes, imagine that this thing didn’t blow up, and it got to the moon, and the space race continues. And they’re in like Apollo 25, Apollo 26, at this point. So they never stopped going to the moon. And there building moon bases.

And what’s very interesting is that, in this alternate history, the ERA gets passed. The Equal Rights Amendment for people who may be a little bit younger. Which is bizarre that that never happened. Teddy Kennedy becomes president, makes sure the ERA gets passed. And a lot of astronauts are actually women. And they’re actually talking today that the first mission to Mars, and increasingly what we’re sending up to the International Space Station, will be increasingly more and more women. Or in some cases, just 100% women. Because women actually are very well adapted to space. There are some physical things. One of the reasons my youngest daughter is such a great scuba diver is women scuba divers use less oxygen. Same thing in space, and oxygen is obviously in short supply. So the more you can extend it, the better. And center of balance tends to be better with women. So they’re better in a zero gravity environment.

But the most important thing is not those physical things. What they have found is that women astronauts are more resilient to the pressures of space. And there’s some pretty significant risks, right? And there’s a lot of stuff going on, and they tend to be more resilient. And we’ve all heard this before. It’s just one of the reasons why I always find it odd that women are so discriminated against in so many ways, because we all know that women can often be way more resilient than men in many ways. And most of us know women who are incredibly resilient. So wouldn’t that be amazing in the workplace?

Anyway, that’s a long bit of background. But there’s two things here, which is one, I’ve wanted to talk about For All Mankind for a while. So I think it just came out without me be able to stop. Sorry, my bad. But one is, is it getting better? Are the role models improving? Do we feel we’re on a good trajectory? Let’s talk about that. And number two, what’s the path to making sure that we do celebrate some of the advantages of the different genders? Because there are disadvantages and advantages. And so how do we make sure that we leverage those, especially for women?

Sepi Saidi  
Thank you for telling me about something to watch. So now, I will do it. I think the fact that we are in 2021, and we’re still asking ourselves this question, are things getting better? Is something for us to have to pause and think. Is this really where we need to be?

Grad 
That’s a good point.

Sepi Saidi 
And it’s, it’s a real question we all ask. I think what… the fact that ERA hasn’t passed, I think there’s a real big opportunity for us to get there. We really are not where we need to be. I was reading, and I highly recommend, Melinda Gate’s book called Moment of Lift, and she talks about her work with the vaccinations and so forth. And she was talking about a fact that I didn’t know — I believe I may not get the date, right. But I believe in the 1960s, when birth control pills were discovered, women could not get them if they were not married. Single women were not allowed to take birth control pills. If you think about that impact, think about the impact of being able to manage your family, or a female’s ability to manage her life. If she’s getting pregnant, somebody has to take care of the child. For her to have access to higher education… and by the way, still there were many public schools in the United States that women could not go to, just because they didn’t accept women in probably early 60s.

Grad
Oh, yeah, women couldn’t have bank accounts.

Sepi Said
i
Bank accounts. Exactly.

Grad
Couldn’t have a bank account. It was crazy.

Sepi Saidi
Exactly. I think what we really need to think about when today when we hear about, okay, women want everything, or women want to take over the world, or women want to take men’s rights away. It’s just not at all about that. It’s about looking throughout the history and looking at the disservice that we have made to half of the population. And the fact that they were not able to achieve their high potential. To live their lives the way… by freedom of choice. To be able to have a bank account, to have a career. Many careers didn’t accept women. They would put in an ad they want a man. I would say when we think about how much block we have had on women’s life and career… to think today, only 50 years, 60 years later. So only 60 years later, where we are today. Clearly, it’s not where we need to be. We still have a long ways to go to where we need to go. If we hear in the news, and I’m not trying to get political. But last week in the news, it’s coming out the New York Governor that he doesn’t know you’re not supposed to make these comments to young women.

Grad
Yeah, sure he didn’t.

Sepi Saidi
I just think that there’s sensitive stuff still happening to this day. That you think that women should have that self-respect, be able to expect that same professional respect, same human respect, same human ability to where they need to be. I think I’m going a long ways to answer your question. But yes, it’s better. I would say yes, it is better. But is it really where we need to be? I would say no. We really have a long ways to go. Hopefully it will happen sooner. I don’t think it’s going to happen in another 500 years or 200 years. I think it’s hitting a tipping point which makes me extremely optimistic.

The fact that women feel heard that they can come out and make a comment about something that bothered them at work, and they’re being heard. That’s a big step. And the fact that I think we’re talking about this right now is a big step. I would say that change is going to happen much faster moving forward. It makes me very optimistic. And I always say that the quickest way this happens is when men champion women, because men are in positions of authority and leadership, they have more of that. There are more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies that are male than women. There are more men in positions of leadership. When they become passionate about this equality and really take this to heart that we need to do more, then change happens much faster. And I’m really optimistic about that.

And what you were saying about your daughters. In the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, math, we still don’t see as many women entering the field. But again, I am very optimistic. I want to speak up about this, I want to get everybody’s attention and to also support women and encourage them to say, don’t doubt yourself, you can do it. Because there are not a ton of role models out there doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be able to do anything you want to do so. So things are moving in the right direction. And I’m very optimistic.

Grad
I do think that when media changes it does… you made the comment a second ago, when media changes that does help people see themselves. And so when you see yourself, then it suddenly becomes easy to imagine that you could do that.

Sepi Saidi
So true.

Grad
You know, the craziest thing, I think, is that women got the right to vote just over 100 years ago, it was 1920.

Sepi Saidi
And they had to fight for it.

Grad
Fought for 100 years to get there. The suffrage movement started in 1840. It’s amazing. So let me close out, because you’ve been very generous with your time. Let me wrap this up with one last thing. By the way, I’m super excited about what you and Diane are planning on doing. I am going to listen to that every… every whatever interval you do it on, week, month, or daily. But let’s end with a piece of advice, right? Let’s say you’re talking to someone who is relatively young, let’s say she’s 12, or 13. So let’s say you’re talking to a class of middle schoolers. And you want to make an impression on them. And you want to give them some piece of advice that’ll have an impact on them, that they’ll remember. And that’ll help them.

You mentioned at the very beginning, part of your mission was to help make things go more smoothly than it may have gone for you and Diane as you broke new snow on this, right? What would you say to those middle schoolers that would get them to think about things differently, would have that impact, would make them come back to you years later, and say Sepi, you came to my class. I don’t know if you remember and you were talking to us. And you made this comment. And I thought about it. And I ended up going into engineering, or I ended up going into science, or I ended up going into whatever field they wanted to go into. And I’ve had this really amazing life. And if you hadn’t inspired me that way, I wouldn’t have done it. I’ve given you some time to think about it. What would you say?

Sepi Saidi
So actually, I would say the same thing to the middle schoolers as I would tell to any woman at any part of their life, because a lot of women struggle with this. And it’s embrace yourself, your own personal brand, who you are, as a female with your own desires, with your own personal ambitions. And just be brave about it. Be brave about it and own it. Don’t try to be somebody you used to look at in social media, don’t try to be somebody who’s on the cover of a magazine. Truly embrace your own personal brand and be proud of it and make it better. That is something that is so important for everybody, but especially for women. There’s so much pressure on there for how you look, and your size, and your hair color, and you’re on and on. But if they could just really, and I would probably say to them a bunch of times in different ways to see if they could get it, to just own yourself and value it and embrace it. And you will be incredibly powerful and you’ll be incredibly happy and incredibly successful. And that’s a life journey for a lot of people, and that self-worth, knowing that self-worth. Embracing yourself, it’s incredible. I think that would be my real push. I would say do that. And it has taken me a long time. Personally, I will say, for me it has been a life journey to truly get to a place of just being genuinely embracing yourself.

Grad
Wow. Okay, I love that. I mean, that’s inspiring for anybody. I do think that would make a big impression on the middle schoolers. Alright, well, we’re gonna have the chance to hear you say that kind of stuff in your… do you have a name for the podcast yet? Have you been tossing around the idea out?

Sepi Saidi
We’re kind of brainstorming. Diane and I got together last Sunday and we tried to shortlist that. But we’re trying to find a word that has emotions in it. So we were having happiness as part of one of our… something that had to do with happiness. Something that has emotion. She has the list. I think pretty soon I think she’s gonna come to you. She was going to run it by you.

Grad
Oh, yeah. Oh, great. Okay, cool. That’s an honor. Are you familiar with the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan? There’s some really… especially the beginning of that book where she talks about the person at home, lying in bed thinking is this all there is? I’ve always loved that image. The idea of is this really… this is my life? I’ve always thought that was a powerful idea and a very powerful way to start the book. And there might be some inspiration in that book. She had a way with words. As you’re thinking about titles, thank you. “Is this all there is” would be a really interesting name.

Sepi Saidi
That would be really a good one for the podcast. You’re right. And also, I have to say that another thing that could be very good for all of us, for men and women, to go back when you said Feminine Mystique, you brought me to this point, to go back and embrace feminism, again. The concept. And to hear it as a force behind our commitment to more equality in workplace, in society, at home. And not physical equality, but equality in other ways. Embracing feminism and calling ourselves feminists, which I do, would be a very important thing.

Grad
I consider myself a feminist. What’s fascinating about that word is it has become politically charged, and it got owned. And it’s a very interesting marketing case study, actually, in a way. I was in… I think I can talk about this. I was in an interesting diversity program, a training program at Microsoft. And we were being challenged very heavily by the moderators of the of the group, doing lots of great work with us. And I was in a group, it was mostly marketing people from across the company. It was very evenly balanced from a gender standpoint. Microsoft’s pretty good from a general geographic diversity standpoint, people from all over the world are working there. It felt like a pretty good, well-mixed group, and pretty progressive. I mean, most of us, I guess, in that particular room, all of us lived in Seattle, which I would consider the Canada of the United States. Very progressive. I moved from Canada to Seattle and it didn’t feel like that big a shift. And then things changed.

But the moderator said… we were in these groups. And my group was maybe almost all women. I think, it was just myself and then five women. And the moderator said… we’re all looking at each other. And she was talking, so everyone’s head was turned to the side. We we’re just listening. And she said, I want to just ask everyone a question. How many people here consider themselves a feminist? I thought, Oh, yeah, I put my hand up. Then I turned around to look at the group because I think I was on the outside edge of the circle, assuming that the other five women would all have their hands up. Nobody had their hands up. And I’m like, Did she say Who doesn’t like feminism? Did I just become that person, right? And so my hand is… I sort of put it down. Did I misunderstand the question?

But she asked it again. She said, let me ask one more time, because she could see that… and I’m looking around, there are almost no hands up. And she said, Who here is a feminist? And I did hear that correctly. I put my hand back up again. Still there. And I’m going What is going on here? This is super weird for me. And they were like, you know, hands like this, folded across their fronts, and they weren’t putting their hands up. And then the moderator said, Who knows what the definition of feminism is? And since I was like the only person with my hand up, she comes over to me and says, Do you know the definition of feminism? I said, Yes, it means that everybody’s equal. And she says, right, feminism is a principle of everyone being equal. And so she turns to the group and she said, so most of you didn’t put your hands up. Including the five women in this group. Are you saying that you don’t agree with the principle that everyone should be equal? And they’re like, No. And she says okay. I’ve defined feminism for you now, this is the correct definition. If I define feminism for now as everyone been equal, now, may I ask the question again, who here in the room is a feminist. Of course everyone has their hand up, because nobody in the room didn’t think everyone should be equal.

For me, it was such a crystallizing moment in terms of the power of words and, and how the word feminism, which actually was really out of fashion around the 90s. In the 90s it was super out of fashion, I think it was really out of fashion, it started coming back. And some actors have embraced it. The word has, I think, rehabilitated quite a bit. But it’s not fully there. But I do love that you want to own that. And I think I’d go for it. But just make sure people understand what it means.

Sepi Saidi
I want to do a shameless plug for myself. I did a TEDx talk on this topic, called Why Feminism Can Advance Women in the Workplace.

Grad
Okay, okay, I’ve got to look that up.

Sepi Saidi
Look it up. So I’m kind of going through what feminism means and why I’m embracing it. And I share with the audience just quickly the story that… I want to see the reaction your face when I say this story. We talked about low point in your career. Two years ago, I was named for the business journal in Raleigh, Triangle Business Journal. They named me business “person,” not woman, business person of the year. And I went to a function two days later, and this gentleman who was — it was at a restaurant — this gentleman with his wife and another couple, waved me over… this story is in my TEDx talk. I went over there. And the man turned to the group and said, here’s the cover girl. Here’s the cover girl. And I kind of looked at him. And he said, Yes, she was on a cover of a magazine or something. And she didn’t even have to take her clothes off.

Sepi Saidi
Oh, my God.

Sepi Saidi
I was stunned.

Grad
This is the hard part, right? Because afterwards you always think about the 50 amazing things you should say.

Sepi Saidi
Yeah, 150.

Grad
Did you react at all?

Sepi Saidi
No. I was just stunned. I walked away. And then I said, I should have said this. I had 100 things to say. But I opened my TEDx talk with this story, and then I conclude at the end. I leave the end alone, but I hope you like it if you look at it.

Grad
Who is that person?

Sepi Saidi
Oh, can I say his name?

Grad
Why not?

Sepi Saidi
That’s a good question. Why shouldn’t I?

Grad
Why not? Why can’t you say his name? I think we should say his name.

Sepi Saidi
You think?

Sepi Saidi
I think we should say his name because you know what? He should apologize for that ridiculous comment. And we should shame the shit out of him for that thing. That’s ridiculous. What’s his name?

Sepi Saidi
I don’t know…

Grad
Maybe not now. Okay. Well, then I’ll give you a thought. Take it for whatever it’s worth. Free advice…

Sepi Saidi
That’s such a good point.

Grad
That’s an amazing story. I do think you do need to, at some point, close the circle on that.

Sepi Saidi
Maybe I say it on the podcast with Diane.

Grad
Say it on your podcast with Diane. I think that would be amazing.

Grad
If he’s listening right now, he probably isn’t. But if he’s listening right now. Dude, it’s coming for you. Okay.

Sepi Saidi
I think I will.

Sepi Saidi
Yeah. And I’m gonna say it. You gave me a good tip.

Grad
Okay. And I would say, I do think one practice that helps a lot, is to use non-gendered pronouns. It’s actually not that hard to do. And I find it actually a good mental construct because it takes you out of thinking about genders and takes you into thinking about human beings and people. And, you know, it’s pretty difficult to tell us apart gender-wise when we look at the skeleton. There are a couple of little things, but it’s not that easy to tell genders just from the skeletons.

I have this saying, which is… because I’m a big science fiction fan, right? I always say that humans are always making a big deal out of all of our differences, right? Gender differences and racial differences and language. Fences and all this kind of stuff. And I have for a long time felt that what humanity needs is a good old-fashioned alien invasion. Because it will really bring us together? I mean, I don’t want us to lose. Okay, but a good old-fashioned alien invasion. Because what we would find is that the aliens would find all of us equally tasty. And they would not differentiate, they would just say they all look the same to me. And I think that we have to really get past some of this.

Sepi Saidi
You know, in Farsi, we don’t have “he” or “she” in Farsi, there’s no “he” or “she.”

Sepi Saidi
Really? I didn’t know that. That’s cool.

Sepi Saidi
You have boy or girl, but you say “او” which goes for either one. Fantastic. Yeah, so even today sometimes I confuse them.

Grad
That’s a great fact. I’m going to keep that one in my back pocket. I love that. Okay. Well, this has been super fun. I actually have to go do PT for my knees. So I’m going to have to take off now. But Sepi, thank you very much. Hopefully this was helpful as you think of doing your own show. And I’m really excited about that. And we’re here to support you in any way that you and Diane need. And if you want to come back on again, you’re welcome anytime because we can continue this discussion forever. But I’m gonna say goodbye for now. Did you have anything you want to close with?

Sepi Saidi
I just want to say thank you. I really enjoyed it. And I love the podcast. Thank you so much. You’re doing a great job.

Grad
All right, thanks, Sepi. All right. Well, for the CXM Experience, that was super fun. What a fantastic way to start the week. I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, and I’ll see you next time.

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Grad Conn

Chief Experience Officer, Sprinklr

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