We Wish We Could Say We Heart Warren Buffett

at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.Warren Buffett published an essay the other day about America’s future success, and about how great progress will be made due to women contributing their talent to the marketplace. The essay is compelling, it makes some great points and it brings attention to the lack of women in leadership positions.

Which is why we wish we could say we love Buffett for it, we really do. We appreciate that Buffett recognized that, “The moment I emerged from my mother’s womb … my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy!” But we found some real problems in his argument:

  • This guy had opportunities to change his own corporate environment—and didn’t.

Buffett is the fourth richest person in the world and has been called one of the world’s most influential people. So it’s a good thing he’s publicly supporting gender equality in the workplace. But Buffett’s words sound a bit like a PR move—which would make sense coming a couple months after his corporation, Berkshire Hathaway, was called one of the least diverse companies in the United States (diversity referring to not just gender but race, age, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, HIV/AIDS status, medical status and mental and physical ability). Berkshire got a score of 5/100 in the study, which can be compared with Citigroup’s 100/100 and Coca-Cola’s 95/100.

According to the study,

Berkshire does not have a policy regarding the consideration of diversity in identifying nominees for director. In identifying director nominees, the Governance Committee does not seek diversity, however defined.

As one of the most powerful people in the world, he certainly would have had opportunities to expel sexism—at least in his own company.

Berkshire Hathaway held its annual shareholders meeting recently, at which they asked investors to elect Meryl Witmer to the board. That makes her the third woman on the board—out of 13 people. Clearly a step in the right direction, but hardly a reason to call the group an example of gender equality in a corporation.

  • He forgot to mention that women had to fight hard for the rights they/we now have.

Buffett argues that women been given more rights over time. He says, “… in 1920, the U.S. softened its discrimination against women via the 19th Amendment, which gave them the right to vote.” Then later he says, “So my floor became my sisters’ ceiling—and nobody thought much about ripping up that pattern until a few decades ago.”

Buffett could be forgetting something. Men in government didn’t wake up one morning and spontaneously decide to give women the right to vote—women fought nearly a century for that right. And certainly the fight to break through the glass ceiling didn’t only begin “a few decades ago”: There have been examples of women pushing their way into male-dominated roles for centuries.

  • His main argument for gender equality is the financial benefit men would get out of it.

True, the world is missing out on some great lady-potential, Buffett admits. But really, men, support women in your company because it’ll make you rich! Buffett says:

If obvious benefits flow from helping the male component of the workforce achieve its potential, why in the world wouldn’t you want to include its counterpart?

Fellow males, get onboard. The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be. We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50 percent of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100 percent can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.

  • His example of Kay Graham is used in an inappropriate way.

Buffett name-drops Katherine Graham, who led The Washington Post for more than 20 years (through the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the exposing of the Watergate scandal in the early ’70s), but only to mention she was “brainwashed” by people in her life into believing she wasn’t good enough because of her gender.

Are we talking about the same woman? Buffett claims that Graham, the woman who stepped up as publisher of The Washington Post when her husband committed suicide, the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company and the first woman director of the Associated Press, “could never quite still the voice inside her that said, ‘Men know more about running a business than you ever will.'” Says who? There were men who said Graham helped them understand that women could hold positions of power. Self-doubt did not define Graham; even if she was riddled with it, what really matters was that she succeeded as a leader in a male-dominated profession.

Buffett suggests that Graham’s family was to blame in trying to “convince her that her feelings of inadequacy were justified.” In fact, her mother is billed first in the list of those who “brainwashed” Graham into feeling unworthy instead of blaming the real culprit—a patriarchal society.

So we’re glad Buffett’s onboard with getting women an equal spot in the workplace. But as of right now, we’re not convinced the billionaire is committed to the effort. Maybe if he wants to put his money where his mouth is, he could donate to Ms. and suggest that all his male employees and board members subscribe. (We’re not joking.)

Photo of Warren Buffett courtesy of Flickr user Fortune Live Media under Creative Commons 2.0


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.