Welcome to The Woman’s Report and thank you for visiting our inaugural edition. I thought a few words about my professional experience would serve as a good jumping off point for our Career & Business section, so here goes . . .
When I graduated college, I wasn’t thinking about equality. As a matter of fact, I never thought about equality. If someone had asked me, I would have said it’s done, there’s nothing to worry about. Sometime in the 1970s protests happened, bras were burned, and equality was achieved. Thank you, Gloria Steinem.
As proof, girls of my generation were raised on a steady diet of TV shows that featured strong, successful women: Murphy Brown, Clair Huxtable, and Elyse Keaton of Family Ties. There they were, successful female professionals, surrounded by people who loved, supported, and respected them; who were proud of their success. This was the life that awaited us.
Then I went to work and was met with a very different reality. So, I did what I suspect a lot of us did. I thought I was the problem. I thought I just had to prove myself. In an effort to be taken seriously, I worked hard. I tried (and failed) to act like the men who were attaining the success I so badly wanted. I wanted to be recognized for my talent and ability, not for being a woman. Instead of seeing my femininity as a strength, I began to see it as something I had to minimize. If only it was that easy.
As Newton’s Third Law teaches us, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The success I achieved through my hard work and dedication somehow caused co-workers to become opponents, friends to become adversaries. Judgment and jealousy were in abundant supply. My life bore little resemblance to that of the women I grew up watching on TV. Instead of receiving respect and admiration for my achievements, as I watched so many men receive, I received scorn. I felt like an outcast.
Then my twins were born and I was on the receiving end of a new kind of judgment, a societal cruelty reserved exclusively for working mothers. I was regularly asked questions like, “When are you going to quit your job? Don’t you want to raise your own children? How can you stand being away from them? Don’t you miss them?” A friend’s husband actually said, “My wife decided to put our child first and stay home.” The message was clear: a good mother stays home with her children and only a selfish mother goes back to work.
Conversely, this was not my husband’s experience after our children were born. No one asked him when he was going to quit his job to stay home with the children. No one asked him if he missed them while he was at work. Actually, his star was burnished by becoming a father.
At this point in my career, I had been with the same company for about 5 years. I had been promoted many times and made significant contributions to its growth and success. I thought I had proven myself, but once my children were born, some assumed I would no longer be able to handle the hours or the travel. My dedication to the job was questioned, and my children were used as an excuse to exclude me from after-work activities.
People often say that it’s lonely at the top, and I accept that when it comes to leadership. Professional power has its price for both women and men; but the price women pay is much higher, especially once they become mothers. In my experience, the world didn’t want to hear me roar, it wanted me to sit down and be quiet. As a mother, I was expected to go about the business of taking care of my family, smiling the whole time (enter Facebook, but that’s another article). I was not supposed to return to work, and definitely not with the same passion I had for my job before the twins were born.
I suspect I am not alone in this experience and that it’s just one of the reasons why women drop out of the workforce at such a staggering rate, resulting in our dismal representation in leadership positions. According to a 2016 McKinsey & Company study published by LeanIn.org, women occupy less than 30% of VP positions and less than 20% of C-Suite positions. This needs to change.
So, what can we do about this? How can we change it? There are a lot of great ideas out there and we need to be doing all of them, from holding companies accountable to changing laws. In the meantime, here are some practical tips you can implement today.
- Realize it’s not you. You are not imaging how difficult it is, as a woman, to achieve the successes you see men around you achieving. Don’t waste time blaming yourself.
- Build a trusted group of advisers. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown calls this a “kitchen cabinet”; a group of people dedicated to helping you achieve your goals and nothing else. Choose carefully and do not invite anyone into the group who may be in competition with you or have ulterior motives.
- Find a mentor in your industry, not necessarily in your company. Chose a person who has achieved a level of success you aspire to achieve yourself. This person can help you succeed in your current role, help you see the big picture, and help you prepare for what’s next. Then make sure you make the most of the relationship and recognize that your mentor is busy, don’t waste his or her time.
- Do not think that being overly nice and trying to appear non-threatening will make others like you. If you are smart, talented, and ambitious some people are not going to like you and that’s okay. Don’t need to be liked. It’s much more important to be respected and trusted.
- Don’t give away your power. Someone told me this a long time ago and I didn’t get it. Basically it means do not get defensive. Once you do, you’ve given your power to you opponent. If you already have, retreat, regroup, and get back to center. And most importantly, never do it again.
- Lead by example and hold your peers accountable in the same way you do your subordinates. Do not allow peers to call out problems without presenting possible solutions. If you are brave and consistent, you’ll raise the bar for discussion and become the leader of your peer group.
- If you’re a working mom, the most important job you fill is that of childcare provider. Beyond the obvious (safe, healthy, fun, etc.) make sure you find the person or daycare that gives you the support and flexibility you need to meet your goals. Write your optimal job description for this role and use it when interviewing prospects.
- And last but not least, be mindful of your own attitudes when dealing with other women at work. You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself when you start to monitor your own thoughts and behaviors.
Women have been fighting for equality for long before the first bra was burned and we have made a lot of progress. But if we are going to achieve true equality we need to dig in our heals, work together and courageously confront inequality every time we see it, whether it is in our communities, our companies, or ourselves.