At one point in my career, I was a vice president in a Fortune 500 company that had $2 billion in annual revenues. I successfully managed a department of 150 people, consistently delivering projects ahead of schedule and under budget.
When asked by the CEO to describe me, can you guess what my boss said?
He said I was a “soft and round Aunt Polly.”
Wow, that stung.
I can’t deny that I’m a woman. That I’m blonde. And that I’m overweight.
But why would my boss describe me by my appearance and sex instead of my accomplishments?
Because I’ve hit the trifecta of stereotypes. Tilt, tilt, tilt for being a dumb, fat broad.
It’s 2019, and gender stereotypes still exist that make it challenging for business women to be seen as both a good leader and a good woman.
That really troubles me.
What about you?
Is that the kind of workplace culture we want for our children and grandchildren?
For the women and men who want their kids and grandkids to have a different experience, now’s the time to partner up for change.
Provided both sexes are willing to modify a few workplace practices, together we can change how leadership is defined and practiced. Together, we can put an end to the stereotypes that limit the potential and passion of too many.
9 ways to say good-bye to gender stereotypes
Here are nine actions you can take to bring equity and gender-balanced inclusiveness to your leadership practices.
1. Be mindful of gender stereotypes that influence your thinking about which sex is better suited for certain kinds of work.
Social conditioning nudges people to think about leadership in terms of masculine traits, a practice that puts women and feminine attributes at a disadvantage.
If you find yourself thinking that men make the better bosses because they’re good at taking charge and women the better assistants because they’re the best at taking care, stop. If you always ask the women in your meetings to take the notes or plan parties, stop. If you question the leadership potential of a kind-hearted man, stop. If you describe assertive women as shrill, stop.
Stereotypes push us to apply a specified set of expectations to a whole group of people, whether they apply or not. When we do that, we ignore individual attributes and deny people their potential.
2. Check for inconsistencies in how you select a man or a woman for a job or evaluate their promotion readiness.
Research tells us that women are judged on their past performance, men on their future potential. Why not evaluate all candidates on both their past performance and future potential?
3. Assure that all voices are heard equally in the meetings you conduct.
If the men keep interrupting the women, call them out. If the women remain silent, call them into the discussion. If anyone co-opts an idea that someone presented earlier, assure that proper attribution is given.
4. Monitor how you pay your people.
If you supervise others, look for—and correct—any wage disparities that exists between sexes, ethnicities, etc., holding the same positions.
5. Sponsor both women and men and be proactive about it.
For anyone who has the audacity to insinuate that an inappropriate relationship exists in a mixed sex sponsorship, call out their boorish and stereotypical thinking.
6. Let go of the incorrect myth that power always corrupts.
There are those who use the power of their position for personal gain, but don’t confuse power with the selfish person using it. Power reveals what a person already was.
7. Avoid the “parent” trap.
When a man becomes a parent, it’s assumed he’ll be more dedicated to his work because he has a family to support. When a woman becomes a parent, it’s assumed she’ll be less dedicated to her work because she has a family. Be on the lookout for these incorrect assumptions. Along the same lines, don’t penalize either moms or dads for using family leave time.
8. Don’t confuse physical presence with true inclusion.
Just because there’s a woman or a minority on a team doesn’t mean there’s an inclusive, participative environment with meaningful engagement. Ask yourself some tough questions about whether your leadership practices are reflective of real participation or just window dressing presence.
9. Be willing to be vulnerable so your biases can be detected and managed.
While we all work hard to not be biased, we still are. Create mechanisms so that the presence of biases, gender and otherwise, can be safely and nonjudgmentally identified and eliminated.
Seeing someone else’s biases is much easier than seeing our own. That means using tact, grit, kindness, persistance, and grace are essential for achieving progress, openness, and inclusion.
Psychologists once believed that only bigoted people used stereotypes. Now the study of unconscious bias is revealing the unsettling truth: We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us. ~Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and author
As you head out to work tomorrow, remember the shining eyes and hopeful faces of your children. Build the kind of place where you would want them to work.
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Ever have one of those days at work when you feel like you just can’t win?
Like you left the job interview last week feeling proud that you’d finally done a good job at presenting your accomplishments. Today you learn you didn’t get the job because you’re “too aggressive.”
Like you counter-offered a higher starting salary—only to see the job offer be rescinded because that’s “not how team players work.”
Like you stepped up as you’ve been advised and took credit for your good work. You made your case and asked to be paid fairly. And got shot down.
What’s going on???
Those on the receiving end of your interactions tapped into their gender bias and concluded you were acting too masculine. Men, not women, talk about their accomplishments and expect to be paid at or above market.
Because of gender norms and bias, we expect leaders to be assertive, forceful, competitive, demanding, task-oriented, and self-assured—all actions society associates with masculinity.
Women, on the other hand, are expected to be modest, friendly, warm, supportive, and unselfish.
So, when a woman speaks confidently about her abilities or negotiates for more money for herself, she’s messing with people’s minds. Men are the ones who take charge, not women. Women take care.
Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology and management at Northwestern, says that leadership paradigms make it hard for a woman to be both a good leader and a good woman. So true and so awful.
Leadership practices need to change so that both men and women take care and take care.
That day is still in the future, which means we have to deal with gender biases today.
Dealing with the disconnect means women need to continue self-promoting and negotiating—keeping one foot in femininity and the other is masculinity.
3 ways good women leaders bridge the gender gap
Here’s how that works:
- Start a conversation with your boss by asking how things are going for them (feminine) and then segue into about one of your recent work accomplishments (masculine). As you share your achievement, include a few details about how the team, company, department, the boss, etc., benefited by what you did. Demonstrating the advantages to others offsets your self-assurance with the cultural expectation of modesty.
- Thoughtfully flex when using your pronouns. Especially “I” and “we.” Don’t shy away from using “I” when outlining your actions in successfully managing a sales project to positive results (masculine). Sprinkle the conversation with a few “we” remarks as you describe how the team contributed (feminine). Using both pronouns balances competitiveness externally with unselfishness.
- Tactfully saying “no” or disagreeing (masculine), and gracefully offer an alternate solution or position (feminine). Offering help shows friendliness alongside assertive confidence.
Feeling a little annoyed about having to take the added step?
That’s OK, but try to look at from the perspective of laying the groundwork to level the leadership playing field as worth the extra effort. Women are the strangers in a strange land that unconsciously (sometimes consciously, too) favors the masculine.
This means—until the day arrives when a woman can be assertive and a man compassionate without raising eyebrows—that we need to be “double agent” while working behind the scenes to change the rules of the game.
Being too masculine stops us in our tracks: he’s assertive, she’s pushy. Relying only on the feminine derails us, too: she doesn’t have what it takes.
Women get caught up in negative stereotypes about women, too. We can be quick to point a finger. Who does she think she is?! What a pushy broad!
Ingrained biases die hard, however, we have to police ourselves so we can advance the cause.
That means valuing masculine attributes the same as the feminine ones.
When that happens, a woman who self-promotes and negotiates for herself isn’t doing something unusual, she’s simply doing business as usual.
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When I was growing up, my mom told me I needed to be a good girl in life and doing that meant following a few simple rules. One of those rules was to never talk about myself or money. Never, ever. She said good girls just don’t do the self-promotion thing because talking about what you’ve accomplished is bragging and talking about money is impolite.
I listened to my mom, so do other women. 61% of women in a study said they would prefer to discuss the details of their own death than to talk about money.
In another study, 76% of executive women said it was difficult for them to draw attention to their accomplishments.
Brothers hear their moms say these things to their sisters but not to them, so they carry these socially approved notions—OK for boys to do it, not OK for girls—with them into the workplace.
Some women don’t ask for the raise or higher starting salary and receive neither. Other women do talk about their accomplishments and are branded as selfish, non-team players. Business women are caught in the crossfire between social conditioning, stereotypes, unconscious bias, and leadership norms.
One element of that nasty crossfire is the double standard—women who behave in a manner more expected of a man are criticized when men aren’t. Women should care for others and not themselves. That man understands his worth.
Another element is how people evaluate us is by our accomplishments, successes, abilities, and potential. If business women aren’t providing that narrative, people draw unflattering or incomplete conclusions about our abilities or fail to give us credit for them.
And yet another is a lack of critical thinking and curiosity. Paola Sapienza, professor Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, points out that “men tend to overstate how well they do relative to women. And the people who are making the decisions after hearing everyone speak tended to take most people’s statements at face value. You’d think that people would discount what men say somewhat and inflate what women say about themselves. But in reality, they didn’t do that.”
The bottom line impacts of all these elements?
- Bosses criticize women for playing against social expectations of being modest when they ask for a raise.
- Bosses bypass women for opportunities because it’s assumed they have no achievements because they haven’t talked about them.
Business women can circumvent the crossfire and begin to change social norms about women talking about their accomplishments by doing four things.
4 ways for women to bypass the barriers to effective self-promotion
First, women have to get right with their own reservations about talking about their accomplishments and give themselves permission to do so.
From all those years of “good girl” messaging, I thought talking about my achievements was bragging, and I didn’t want to be that icky person who was always talking up what they’ve done and how wonderful they are. I had to learn a couple of things before I could get past that line of thinking.
- Bragging and self-promotion are two totally different actions. One is a social turn-off; the other is a leadership skill.
- Bragging is “me-focused.” I landed the big account; I was the one who convinced the boss to change his mind, I did all the work on that project.
- Self-promotion is me-sharing-how-I-can-serve-you; it’s “we-focused,” and it’s a valuable leadership skill.
Second, women accept that talking about their successes and skills is a just another part of being an effective leader. It’s also a way for women to change the social norms that say women who talk about their performance are being immodest.
“Self-promotion is a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well.” ~Clay Shirky, NYU professor
Until people begin “discounting what men say and inflating what women say about themselves,” women telling their story isn’t optional; it’s mandatory.
I had a hard time getting my mom’s voice out of my head when it came to talking about myself. Then I learned about the smorgasbord of opportunities in which I could share my expertise and accomplishments and not come across as the braggart beating his chest.
Consider these avenues of action. You can:
- Write an article for the company newsletter or blog in which you share a story about a skill and a success it brought you and how others might benefit from doing the same.
- Teach a workshop to share a skill. Be a mentor.
- Send short emails or texts to the boss about a successful outcome, just want to let you know that blah-blah good happened.
- Speak up in meetings.
An important part of getting good with this skill is learning to take the praise when it’s offered and not attribute the positive outcomes to luck.
Third, women frame the story they tell about themselves to include both their performance and their potential.
- The business world evaluates men on potential, women on performance. Until there are enough women in senior positions to change that orientation, business women have to own closing the gap.
- Because most people don’t make the automatic leap we hope they will, we have to do it for them and say things like, with help from my talented team, I made our department the highest performing one in the company. I’d like the opportunity to do the same with the northeast division.
A study conducted by Catalyst, an international nonprofit focused on advancing women, found that women who consistently made their achievements known did better than women who didn’t.
This both/and approach is a way to bridge existing social expectations and ultimately change social norms. In interviews, meetings, and other venues, we bridge social bias by talking with grace about our past performance, future potential, and how the organization benefits by what we do.
Fourth, women support other women who are learning to get comfortable with self-promotion.
This support is crucial—it helps to make it OK for women to talk about themselves and their accomplishments and not feel like they are doing something wrong when they’re really doing something right.
This support can take lots of forms.
- It may mean gently reminding a male colleague how men receive accolades (and promotions and raises) when they talk about themselves, so let’s be fair and do the same for women.
- It may mean coaching a female colleague to get go of her fear and talk to her boss about her achievements while asking for a raise.
- It may mean asking a colleague to support us as we bravely apply for the job we really, really want, even if a few performance gaps exist.
Take the leap with knocking knees and courage
Despite what our moms may have taught us, we have to learn to be fearless and go for it because self-promotion matters.
So do we.
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There’s plenty of data that shows the positive effects that result from the growing presence of women in the business world.
There’s a couple reasons why women have proven to be a positive boost for business:
- They’re half the population, which is a tremendous floodgate of talent.
- Women tend to have a different take on things, which has proven valuable. For example, women are generally more sociable and tend to excel in a group dynamic that enables them to flourish, which helps others in the group.
- Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, according to research by McKinsey & Co.
Making the case for more women in technology
I worry, though, that similar progress in gender diversity isn’t being made in technology, a male-dominated sector. Here’s a couple reasons why I’m worried.
Women are receiving fewer STEM degrees. Over the past decade, number of women securing STEM bachelor degrees has been declining. The biggest decline was in computer science. In 2004, women received 23 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded. In 2014 that fell to 18 percent.
Dealing with the presence of unconscious bias. Some people have an implicit bias that girls and women are not as good as boys and men in math and science.
It’s more than identity politics. A 2015 lawsuit exposed Silicon Valley’s “brogrammer” culture and how challenging that environment can be for women, which is bad for business. Why is it bad? Women are the lead adopters of technology, according to Intel researcher Genevieve Bell. Dow Jones found that successful startups have more women in senior positions than unsuccessful ones.
As more women lead businesses, the boys’ club will need to adapt. More women are starting companies, and they’re doing well. This may lead women business leaders to wonder why most of their tech divisions are dominated by men. Women can help build a more collaborative environment, which will help the old boys’ network to adapt.
On the bright side, educators see the importance of emphasizing STEM for girls. Sierra College has been holding its annual Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) event to encourage high school girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).
Employers are facing an ultra-connected, multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and global business world. That world needs all the talent, perspective, and insight that women offer. Encouraging girls and women to be themselves within the STEM and STEAM space is the smart thing to do.
Today’s guest contributor is Nicole McMackin, president of Irvine Technology Corporation, a firm specializing in information technology solutions and staffing. Nicole grew up in Southern California and is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. She sits on numerous boards, including the CHOC Children’s Families in Need, Orange County Board of Education Executive Committee, Tilly’s Life Center Board, University of California at Irvine Chancellor’s CEO Roundtable, and Young President’s Organization. She is an Honoree at the YWCA.
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It was five minutes after the time we were supposed to meet, and I was worried because I was still sitting alone in the coffee shop. Had I gotten the date, time, or place wrong for our meetup? A frantic scroll through sent messages confirmed I was in the right place, right day, and right time.
Ten minutes ticked by. Still sitting alone. Wishing I wasn’t such a “good girl” about always being on time,
Might she have been in an accident? Taken ill? Dealing with a work emergency? Concerned, I called her.
She apologized, saying she’d forgotten about our get-together. Said she’d gotten busy on another project and that our appointment had totally slipped her mind. She didn’t offer to reschedule. The call ended pleasantly.
She’d forgotten about our meeting. That stung. It had been her idea to meet—she said she wanted to get to know me.
Feeling a little hurt, I finished my latte and watched others as they huddled over their coffees at the small tables, engaged in conversation with people who remembered and showed up, whispered the little voice in my head. My personal pity party was under way.
My little voice pointed out that I obviously didn’t matter enough to be remembered. *ugh* A low, slow simmer of anger bubbled up and mixed with my hurt. Together, those feelings lingered throughout the rest of the day.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. ~Lao Tzu
Come the next morning, I wasn’t hurt or angry anymore.
Instead, I was fixated on wondering what her forgetting said about me. Did she forget because she discovered I wasn’t important? Did she forget because she’d regretted her spontaneity in suggesting that we get together? Did she not mention rescheduling because she’d decided I wasn’t interesting enough to meet with? Where had I fallen short?
These ridiculous, self-defeating thoughts continued to lurk in my head over the next several days.
Just give it a rest, will you? Implored my little voice (funny how it changes sides, isn’t it?). You’re giving this non-issue too much air time. She was busy. This isn’t about you. My little voice bounces between critic and coach. Fortunately, the coach was back.
The coach voice was right. The woman said had she’d gotten busy and forgot. Accept it, believe it, and move on, urged the coach. Quit making something personal that isn’t personal at all.
I was giving entirely too much power to a stranger. I had no control over the woman forgetting. I did, however, have complete control over how I responded to her forgetting.
I called her and suggested we reschedule. She readily agreed.
When we met, she thanked me for reaching out. She said she couldn’t bring herself to call me because she was embarrassed and ashamed for having behaved badly. She said she thought she was a better person than that but, obviously, she wasn’t.
Isn’t it fascinating how both of us had turned the focus back onto our self-perceived failings and short-comings and made something personal that wasn’t?
Always on the lookout for teachable moments, I found seven of them in this situation:
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Get the facts, test assumptions, and clarify, clarify, clarify before deciding you have the answer, know the reason, etc.
- Not everything is about you, so don’t unnecessarily give your power away.
- Consider the situation from the perspective of the other person, seek first to understand.
- Don’t conflate the behavior with the person. There are times when all good people behave badly.
- Self-worth comes from the inside out, not the outside in. Don’t be so quick to sell yourself short.
- Talk it out.
- Forgive, let go, move on.
We’re all human. That means we construct our view of reality through our personal filters, experiences, values, and beliefs. That, in turn, means we need to be eternally vigilant to not make everything about us. Because most of the time, it isn’t.
When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” -Miguel Ruiz
When we get out of our own way, that’s when success, true connection, and growth happens. Thank you, little coach voice.
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I’m often interviewed and asked about successful women in the workplace and my views on being one of the few to break the glass ceiling in the technology sector.
My response has always been that I never saw a glass ceiling, so I didn’t give myself an excuse not to break through it.
What research reveals
However, various articles and statistics about women in leadership roles in the United States do prove that there is a disparity of women leaders in the workplace. Currently, the Fortune 500 is led by 32 female CEOs, a record high.
In a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, 34 percent of respondents surveyed believe that male executives are better than women executives at assuming risk. Moreover, when asked about specific industries women could support, a significant portion felt that men would do a better job leading technology, finance, and oil and gas companies, whereas women would be strongest at running retail and food companies.
Although that survey is full of traditional stereotyping of women, you still need to ask yourself: “Why aren’t more women promoted into the CEO position, but rather held back?”
Historically, it seems that women do not have the consistent high-ranking executive sponsorship who campaign for their advancement. Why is this?
As a sex, women represent more than half the population, a group that’s more than ready to prove themselves in senior levels in the workplace and to have the opportunity to earn equal pay for the same job.
Although women can keep up with the rigorous pace and workload at the office, maybe they can’t keep up with the social politics of the perceived “Good Old Boys Club.”
Because of the lack of women in leadership roles combined with the desire for career progression, women’s perceived need of survival overtakes their personality or natural disposition to be a leader.
Typically, in these scenarios, women play down their strengths in an attempt to over-compensate for not being equal or the same to men. Throughout my career, I’ve heard more commentary about a woman’s disposition in a meeting or board room than I ever heard about a man’s.
Women are left in a quandary, discussed, judged, and evaluated every time they open their mouths. They’re are considered harsh and manlike if they speak up to their peers or a weak follower if they don’t.
Recent studies show that a diversified executive team will produce up to 34 percent more revenue to a corporation than an executive team filled with the same sex.
Corporations and stockholders are beginning to recognize the need for more sex and gender balance within companies, which is leading them to adapt policies that deviate from the perceived “Good Old Boys” norms and create an environment that’s friendlier to all minorities.
A call to action
With the backing of corporate stockholders, women now have an opportunity to take accountability and remain true to themselves while engaging with their male peers.
Women will only succeed if they demonstrate the will and power to not act like a man, but to leverage their natural gifts of honesty, teamwork, compassion, and persuasion.
About today’s guest contributor
Nicole McMackin is president of Irvine Technology Corporation, a firm that specializes in information technology solutions and staffing. She has an established career in sales and management, emphasizing account ownership within Fortune 300 organizations.
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