I have been working in technology for over 20 years, a male dominated industry. I was inspired to join this field after working as an Administrative Assistant for Deloitte’s consulting arm. I watched a couple confident, smart and ambitious women “run the show” and I wanted to be JUST like them. So at 22 I went back to college and made it happen. I worked full-time and studied all the way through graduate school. I was just turning 30 when I finally got my MBA. I was overwhelmed balancing work and school but never lost my determination. And now lets invoke some Beyonce …
Until recently, I have never engaged in specific conversation about the challenges women have in the work place. I was surrounded by strong confident women growing up. My mother has run a successful business most of her life and I never heard her talk how being a woman was holding her back. She made things happen with little help from anyone really.
Last year I bought the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook. I flipped through it trying to find some relevance to me or my career. Much of the book’s focus is on career women with children and I don’t have children, so I ended up setting it aside.
My current employer is making a real effort to ensure women have a voice and are understood which is so unbelievably cool. As part of this initiative we have a book club and kicked it off with Lean In. So I picked it off the shelf for another try and like the spiritual warriors say - life provides you what you need when you need it.
The book opens up describing the leadership ambition gap. I rarely lack ambition (which can be annoying) and don’t recall being afraid to go out and get what I wanted. I always knew that if I didn’t support myself, no one else would. I have had many jobs, always seeking out the best opportunities and never afraid to make a change. All of these opportunities were amazing learning experiences, even those where I know I failed. Gwen now reminds us to get up and DO SOMETHING!
The book continues with the chapter Success and Likability. Here’s where it really hits home. She describes an experiment conducted by a Columbia Business School professor and a New York University professor to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They told the same story about a successful entrepreneur to two different groups of students. One group heard a story about Heidi’s success, the other about Howard. Long story short, the students found both Heidi and Henry equally competent and indicated mutual respect. However, Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Gender being the single difference. I can even begin to tell you how relatable this is to me.
Sheryl proceeds to acknowledge how often she has seen this played out. When a woman is confident, assertive and succeeding at her job, both male AND female coworkers begin the trash talk. “She’s not well liked by her peers”, “she’s too aggressive”, or she “can’t be trusted”. I read this by the pool a couple weekends ago and was so pissed I had to put it down. I realized just then - oh my god - this isn’t just happening to ME! I had to find my meditation practice immediately and now enters Madonna.
I found out early in my career that it wasn’t as important to be honest and forthright if you were sacrificing being likable. If you are a woman with an opinion, being likable is a daily challenge. Your confidence can be easily misunderstood even when you are working so hard to be relatable. When I started leading people, I realized there is a very fine balance to all of this and you have to have some thick skin. Finding the balance of speaking your truth in a way where you remain likable a consistent act of learning and re-learning.
HAIM reminds me . .
Don’t stop, no, I’ll never give up
And I’ll never look back, just hold your head up
I think my favorite chapter was Seek and Speak Your Truth. As I mentioned above, speaking the truth isn’t always well received. I’ve worked in different industries over the years and I’ve witnessed the tech companies moving away from hierarchical mentalities. This creates an environment to be open and honest. I see this in my daily interactions with leadership, they want to hear my concerns and encourage them to be unfiltered.
These types of culture changes take time though and not everyone is comfortable with open and direct conversations. I loved the example Sheryl gives of an individual in a company meeting telling her in front of everyone how she was wrong when she solicited feedback. She took this feedback, in this forum, with appreciation and respect for the individual who stood up and spoke his truth. Reading how she received this feedback was nothing short of amazing to me.
Direct and honest feedback is mission critical if you lead people. If you are not honest with those that rely on your feedback to grow professionally, it not only hurts the individual but the team. I mean look what not being honest did to our favorite woman in pink …
Even though I don’t have children, the chapter “Make your Partner a Real Partner” really resonated with me. When first starting out in my career I was married to an alcoholic. His disease made it impossible for me to focus. There was no trust and I had to travel, leaving my beloved Great Dane for him to care for. I was a mess and my career suffered and stalled. Hearing TLC in spin class this week inspired this musical contribution …
Life is so different now that I have a good reliable man in my life. Any success I’ve had in the last 10 years I owe a great deal of to him. He has allowed me to focus, travel and not worry and more importantly has been a tried and true sounding board.
The final chapters of the book encourage women to engage in the conversation about gender bias and find the support we need. But Sheryl also points out to not use this as an excuse that limits accountability and professional growth. I definitely have areas where I can improve my communication style and I continue to refine it every day. I seek out feedback and help from my peers and staff every week. I broke down in grateful tears this week after another woman gave me honest heartfelt feedback. Feedback is an amazing way to bond with those you work with everyday.
In the final chapter, Sheryl hit on something very near and dear to me. We women need to support one another. We can be so nasty and jealous. Finding positive female support systems is not easy but over the years I have worked for women who have promoted and mentored me. I have focused on paying it forward. I have the strongest, smartest women around me today it’s humbling. We don’t compete with one another, we lift each other up and help each other out. As a leader, I find ways for the women around me to receive well deserved recognition and continue to build their brand. Remembering what Madeleine Albright once said "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women." Gwen Stefani also keeps us in check…
I love these thoughts by Cchimamanda Ngozi Adichie.