Lesbians Who Tech Summit SF // Kathy Levinson

Posted by:

Kathy Levinson, the former COO of eTrade, a online investment banking firm, has always been at the forefront of social change. During her tenure at Charles Schwab she pushed for domestic partners to have the same health care benefits and at the beginning of her time at eTrade, formerly Trade Plus she battled sexism with grit and confidence. She now is working with Golden Seeds, an investing group that invests in woman owned or founded companies.

Levinson begins her talk with some personal background, beginning in financial services in the late 70’s. She says she believed in the theory that “if you just worked hard, people would recognize it and you’d be rewarded for it.” However, she realized that when you are female and a lesbian you already have two strikes against you as a human. Levinson says the key to success is owning those two strikes before other people can use them against you. She recounts a moment when both her and her wife were at the gym at the same time; her wife leaving, her arriving. Her wife approached her to say something and then departed. The guy working out next to her turns and says, “your buddy is really buff.” At that moment she realized she had just landed herself a “teachable moment.” She turned to the guy and said, “that’s not my buddy, that’s my wife.” The guy dropped his weights and they landed on his feet and his jaw dropped, and Levinson quickly realized it was probably the first time a woman had ever said that to him. She notes that while it is very exhausting to be out all the time, we have the opportunity to be out 24/7 whether it is at the gym, the coffee shop, the library, etc.. It is vital that we take those opportunities to be out because they will never come again. She encourages us to take those opportunities because we change the world one guy at the gym at time.

She moves on to remind us that women still only make .77 cents to the mans dollar. When Levinson was working at Charles Schwab she discovered that a man who had the same job as her was getting paid 30% more than she was. She says she was faced with two choices, quit, or demand more money from the boss and if they fired her she would find a new job. Fortunately, she decided on a different option, she worked hard to become irreplaceable and then asked the boss for a raise for 30%. She realized that in this situation she needed to stand up for herself and the women that came after her. Likewise, after some intercompany changes, she found herself working in the same department as her partner. The head of human resources called both of them into their office and told them that they can’t work in the same department if they are married. Levinson laughed and said that they weren’t married, and the HR chief pressed on and said that they knew what they meant. Levinson flipped the manual to the health insurance policy and asked them where the domestic partner health insurance policy was. Charles Schwab became one of the first companies to have a policy for health insurance for domestic partners.

Shortly thereafter, a rumor started that Levinson was sleeping with the CEO which was why she was being promoted within the company. She found herself confused as everyone knew she was a lesbian based off of the health insurance ordeal and they all knew her partner. She quickly realized that with health insurance, homophobia was in play, and now with her rising the ladder, sexism was in play. Not long after, Levinson got pregnant and rumors begun being circulated again that the CEO was the baby daddy as they couldn’t figure out how lesbians could get pregnant. During her pregnancy she asked for maternity leave and the higher ups said, “ Lesbians don’t get pregnant and do the mommy thing. If we had known that we wouldn’t have invested so much money in you.”

Reflecting on her experiences thus far in life she said that her life mission has been educating those in a position of power about how to create welcoming environments for all people. She says that she wants to create change in a way that always gets her invited back, and continuing to work with people. She closes by changing a buddha quote to fit her talk, “Be the OUT you wish to see in the world.”