Who Gets To Decide What’s Fair?

By Sallie Krawcheck

Lately, it seems like everywhere I turn, we’re talking about the issue of fairness — and how people’s ideas about “fairness” aren’t always … well … fair. 

It’s been brought to the forefront in the national conversation about student loan forgiveness, for one. Now, one might think that the most empathetic group in this scenario would be those who know what it’s like to have struggled under the crushing weight of student loan debt themselves. 

Not so — in fact, research seems to suggest that the opposite happens: that people who have struggled through something are more likely to have less empathy, to expect others to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and tough it out. Just like they did. 

So the argument being made is that canceling loan balances isn’t “fair” to people who have already paid theirs off. If borrowers suffered in the past, it’s only “fair” that current borrowers do as well. Call it the “back in my day” effect. Or the “in the snow, uphill both ways” effect. (And not for nothing, but women are more likely to benefit from the new policy than men, and women of color even more so.)

Of course the timing is going to sting for people who’ve already paid off their loans. But it’s important to remember, debt isn’t a zero-sum game.

If you’re struggling with the issue of fairness yourself here, one additional perspective I would suggest is this essay from Anne Helen Petersen. I always find her to be thought-provoking, but this one really stood out — maybe because we think and talk about wealth so often over here. 

But that’s not “it” on the topic of fairness. 

It bubbled up again last week when I saw Reid Hoffman (he of Masters of Scale fame) share this Forbes article on what takes down men vs women CEOs

The article (which coincidentally was published just a week before the Wing, one of the poster children for girlboss feminism, abruptly closed its doors) explained how women are often removed from CEO roles for less severe infractions than men are. Think things like not having diverse enough teams, or being perceived as too tough, or stealing another woman’s chicken recipe. (Yeah, that’s a real thing that happened.) In other words, women leaders are required to meet those feels-almost-impossible, often gendered expectations (be nurturing, create harmony, don’t claim someone else’s chicken recipe) while also building an aggressive growth business. Men only have to worry about the latter.

It also pointed out how takedown profiles of CEOs in the press often take notably different tones for women vs men. For men, the takedowns are more likely to be published after the fact, looking backward at his actions. (See: Adam Neumann of WeWork.) Women CEOs, however, tend to get the proactive spin* — their takedowns get published early, riling people up and becoming catalysts for their eventual removal. (See: Steph Korey of Away.) In those articles, male CEOs get post-mortems for serious legal and even criminal activity, while women CEOs are criticized for things like “communication and leadership styles” and “falling short on cultural and mission-based promises.” 

Most of us, it would seem, just expect more from women leaders. Does that feel fair? And does that feel fair when we know that the hurdles are already higher for women to get to those leadership positions in the first place? 

Which is a perfect segue into the third topic we’ve been thinking a lot about lately, along with the rest of the internet: “quiet quitting.” I can’t help but think that “quiet quitting” — a new phrase for the old idea of doing your job, no more, no less — could be a reaction to these double standards. Play by the rules — go to college, take on debt — and you could get buried by it. You might struggle, survive, make it up the corporate ladder — only to bash your head against the glass ceiling.* Or maybe you’re extra lucky, and you make it up the ladder, actually become CEO — and then you’re ousted for behavior that’s celebrated — or at least tolerated — in your brother.

Or you might see it happen to your older sister. You might work harder than your friends, but stay stuck in a junior-level role as they climb. 

However you come to it, now you’re thinking hustling 24/7 might not be worth it after all. So you “quiet quit.”

These are choices we each have to make for ourselves. I spent most of my career working my tail off in the most male of businesses, knowing — by a simple glance at the c-suite — that the odds were stacked against me. The hard work eventually paid off for me.

And then it didn’t. And then it did. And then it didn’t. And then it did again. 

One choice that I think is always the right choice, no matter who you are, is to show other women some grace. To support even women who had it easier than I did, who may not have had to “pay their dues” to the extent that I did — even women whom I may not even particularly like. I can confidently say I’ve never regretted that.

Sallie Krawcheck Signature


Back in the summer of 2020, I remember one of our venture investors, who primarily invests in women CEOs, told me that they were getting calls every few days from journalists looking to write negative articles on their women CEOs, in what was almost a feeding frenzy.

Marilyn Loden, the woman who coined the phrase “glass ceiling” back in 1978, passed away over the weekend. We’ll keep working on breaking it, Marilyn.

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Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck is the Founder & CEO of Ellevest.