31: Maryam Banikarim
global chief marketing officer

photos by Kiele Twarowski

Maryam and I talked compartmentalizing gender, political correctness, corporate feminism, and learning about riot grrrl from her daughter almost thirty years later.

Maryam Banikarim is the global chief marketing officer at Hyatt Hotels Corporation. 

Kiele Twarowski is an artist based in Savannah, GA. She is currently attending the Savannah College of Art and Design pursuing a B.F.A. in photography.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 11, 2017. 

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood. 


MARYAM: I grew up in Iran. I wasn’t conscious of being a girl versus being a boy. I just sort of was. I think [my daughter] Natasha is much more conscious of it, so I wonder if it's a generational thing.


SOPHIA: Was there a point in which you became more conscious of your gender, or do you experience it the same way now?


MARYAM: I grew up in a family where the women were really strong, so I never had the sense that I wasn’t able to do anything. I had great role models like my grandmother. She's in her late eighties or nineties, and even in Iran she was a teacher, incredibly full of energy, and in control of a lot of things. My mom worked, even in Iran when I was younger. It never appeared to me that things weren’t possible because of my gender, so I didn't really feel barriers in that way.

When I moved to the states I was in junior high, and I remember being so affected by the American ideal of the cheerleader. I became a cheerleader for like one semester, but both this other girl and I were in AP Calculus together, and the calculus class would come to games and cheer us on. So I had this contradictory, oddball experience, but I never really thought about it. I mean, I'm conscious of [my gender], and if I wanted to go to a foreign country or into war zones, I recognize that there's a difference between being a woman and a man, but I sort of compartmentalize that. I want to do what I want to do, and I'm not that worried about it. 


SOPHIA: What struggles have you seen your daughter face, or predict her to face, that weren't a part of your life growing up? You said she seems to be much more conscious of gender than you are.


MARYAM: She definitely considers herself a feminist. I never thought about that word until I got to Barnard [College]. It wasn't even in the lexicon in [the town where I grew up,] Lafayette [California]. She's really into riot grrrl and Kathleen Hanna, and I didn't even know that movement existed until [my daughter] Natasha gave me her book when we were on vacation in August. I read that book and I thought to myself, "Wow, that was happening in my era, and I had no idea it was going on." But she grew up in New York, and she's much more aware and creative, so she's more focused on that kind of thing than I was.

Maryam's daughter, Natasha Lerner, hosting a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood

For sure I’m often the only woman who’s from Iran in the room. But I’m not focused on that, because that’s a whole narrative that would slow you down or put you in a box.

SOPHIA: People talk about your career as though you're always on the go, really ambitious, not afraid of asking for things, super fearless…and from this conversation so far, that genuinely seems to be the way that you are and perceive yourself. It also seems to come naturally to you. 

Do you feel that women are naturally less self-confident or self-promoting, or do you feel like that's something they're more socialized to do? Having been in the corporate world so long, I feel like your self-confidence must not always be shared by the women you work with.


MARYAM: I remember [psychologist] Carol Gilligan saying how adolescence is the moment when girls begin to doubt themselves, and I see that in my own home. I was fortunate because I sort of lived in my own bubble and didn’t fall into that. But my daughter Natasha said that she thinks that that was a defense mechanism. And maybe that’s true. 

I heard L.A. Reid speak once, and he said, "I chose not to see the obstacles." And for me, it was like a choice. Of course they were there. I'm often the only woman in the room. For sure I'm often the only woman who's from Iran in the room. But I'm not focused on that, because that's a whole narrative that would slow you down or put you in a box. It's not that you're not conscious of it; I just don't focus on it. I focus on the task at hand. 


SOPHIA: I’m sure that other people in the room may think your race and gender are more significant than you do. Do you deal with that by ignoring it as well?


MARYAM: I don't know, that’s a question that you'd have to ask somebody else in the room. But there are times when somebody will say something [pejorative]. I remember in high school some kid called me Khomeini, but I just moved past it. What choice did I have? But again, I was fortunate because I moved here in the middle of the hostage crisis, but I didn't have an accent and I was very good at matriculating. I spoke French because we had lived in Paris, and any time there was an exchange student from any country, they would be brought over to me as if we were all one and the same. [laughs] I’m sure I was an Other, but I didn't really perceive myself that way.


SOPHIA: This is such an obvious question, but you’ve achieved great career success while also being a mother. Could you talk about surprising successes and difficulties? 


MARYAM: I talk all the time about how there's two words we’re taught that should be banished from the lexicon. One is "balance," and the other is "fair," because neither of them really exist. It's a juggle. Being a working mom is a juggle. And you never feel like you're doing anything right, but you sort of move past that, too, because what choice do you have? I love working, and I like being able to have an impact, and I think my children see different things as a result of that. But it's hard. I tell people all the time that you have to explain that it's hard because otherwise people are surprised, and then it's really disturbing. I've been fortunate to have worked with people consistently over time, so you have an incredible sense of trust in each other, and everybody has everybody's back, whether that's a man or a woman.

You can do parenting in a lot of different ways, and [my husband and I] tend to be involved. So as a result, there's not a lot of spare time to do other things. Like people ask me what my hobbies are, and there's not a lot of room for hobbies if you have a job that's consuming in addition to a family that you're spending time with.

Maryam's grandmother

Maryam's mother

Maryam's mother

SOPHIA: I’ve interviewed some women who are involved in Wages for Housework and related movements, who believe that most conversations about women in highest level jobs are much less important than those concerning poor and working class women. In response to that, in your experience, what gendered concerns have you observed in the corporate world that merit serious attention?


MARYAM: I sit on the management team, and when I travel globally, in Dubai for example, women are really interested in meeting me because they don't have a lot of role models with senior jobs. So doing that makes me recognize how far my mantle extends. We all stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us, and we recognize that. So I always try to spend some time doing a sort of Q&A when I meet these women, to be straightforward about what it's like, to let them ask whatever questions they have, and also to hear their concerns.


SOPHIA: What do their questions and concerns tend to be?


MARYAM: They're just super excited to meet you because they don't have immediate role models like you, right? I think their actual concerns are the same [as those of most women]. Having female role models was one of the reasons why it was so great to go to Barnard, because it gives you the possibility [of imagining yourself like them]. We’ve all read the research that shows that when boys begin to ask questions, girls recede, and when you're in a room where there's more women, there's just less of that happening. In the classroom and at work, there are times when people say things that you recognize are a little off-color, but I sort of just park them and move on, because if you make an issue of everything, in some places it becomes difficult to just focus on the job. There's a lot of noise, so I decide to focus on the job. Sometimes that works because you work with people who aren't focused on your gender, and sometimes you work with people who are focused on your gender, and then you need to go find a situation where that's not an issue, because you can't change that person. I can speak up, but that doesn’t necessarily change people. 


SOPHIA: The impact of role models seems to be very significant in your life, and it also seems that it’s important for you to be one.


MARYAM: I don’t really think about it that way, except for when I’m having these conversations. I ask myself, "what do I want from the next phase of my life?" And I envision that in a person regardless of their gender, because if you can't see it to some degree, you can't be it.

My daughter is interested in music, and she's focused on Debbie Harry, but she also likes David Bowie. She was buying patches to put on her backpack, and it's hard to find a lot of women. There's not as many, and it’s harder for them [to be represented] in lots of categories. She's very focused on that. She sees that immediately. And she sees it also in terms of color. [She asks,] “What’s the ethnicity in the stickers I'm buying?” She's so much more conscious of that than I was. But she's growing up in an era where there's Women's Marches and Black Lives Matter, and she grew up in the city, where you really didn't see color. That's one of the beauties of New York. I always used to joke that New York is the great equalizer, because everybody played on the playground. It wasn't like the suburbs where people dropped people off. Everyone played in the playground, regardless of who they were.


SOPHIA: If you believe that corporate feminism exists, do you feel that—


MARYAM: What is corporate feminism?


SOPHIA: Many women who consider themselves to be feminists believe that Lean In-type feminism is only concerned with women who are basically one-percenters. Most women aren’t fortunate enough to be in positions where they can worry about gender distribution among millionaires, and just trying harder or “leaning in” or whatever doesn’t really do anything to address the structural barriers that perpetuate gender discrimination in the first place. In their opinion, speaking only for women at the top is not caring for all women, which feminists ought to be. The term is very divisive. Do you feel like it permeates female culture in the corporate world?


MARYAM: I think Sheryl Sandberg did a good thing in exposing these issues. She has a platform, and it's always better to bring something to the forefront than to do nothing, so good for her. I've never read the book; I heard her give the speech that lead to the book. But while listening to the speech, I remember thinking, "It's really easy to say 'lean in' to somebody who has a pretty privileged existence, which we do, and she does. It's much harder to tell the woman who's flipping burgers at McDonald's to lean in. How is she supposed to relate to that?" There is a reality to that, and she's definitely speaking to a subsection to the population. But you could argue that at least she's doing something. So it's a double-edged sword. What should she do? Nothing? At least she's taking some stand and helping at least one subset. Is she covering the whole gambit? I don't think so. But if [Sandberg] helps anybody, that's better than nobody. If you become so focused on doing the politically correct thing, you're paralyzed and then you do nothing. I think action is better than inaction. It's really easy to constantly criticize. If everybody did their part, we'd be in a much better place. What's the point of tearing each other down in that process? I recognize that yes, it's impossible for many of us to be home at six o'clock to have dinner with our kids or whatever she prescribes, which I'm sure is not 100% her reality, either. And she has endless amounts of [household] help, so again, not most people's reality. But at least she's trying to use her mantle for good. So in that sense, you have to say, that's something.

If you become so focused on doing the politically correct thing, you’re paralyzed and then you do nothing.

SOPHIA: It's definitely difficult to handle the demand that seemingly every type of identity ought to be represented in every single piece of art, because that's impossible.


MARYAM: Yes. And do you have to be of [the same] class to be able to speak for people? Which is another debate. We went to India, and Natasha bought some pants, and she was like, "I don't know if I should wear them, because what if I'm appropriating that culture?" I think there is a level of overthink, but maybe that's valid! Everyone has to deal with their own situation, because you can't solve everything.


SOPHIA: When you’re really trying to do good or prevent pain, simultaneously having to be ok with people being made uncomfortable by your decisions is hard.


MARYAM: It becomes incredibly difficult to move forward.


SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


MARYAM: I think a lot of it is supporting each other in whatever way or form that happens. I believe in the idea of paying it forward. I just think in the end we're sort of in it all together. I don't think it's a man/woman thing. I think it's feeling like you're in it together, and that being willing to help and speak up makes a difference.

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