How to Keep Women from Leadership Parity

I led a women’s executive leadership workshop on “Women, Power, and Authentic Leadership” recently. A business school professor presented just before me, so I arrived early to observe her segment.

ladders wcf avisShe’s a highly skilled communicator who presented terrific content. Her elegant attire and direct but modulated self-presentation perfectly mirror how women are advised to look and speak to succeed in the business world. I know she’s passionate about advancing women in leadership and I was eager to garner some tips from her.

During the Q and A, Sarah, I’ll call her, was asked how to handle male colleagues’ informal gatherings—golfing, going out for drinks or afternoon coffee.  Sarah acknowledged that these groupings are where relationships are formed and business decisions often made, and that when women are excluded, it can mean they also lose out on promotions. At a minimum, it keeps them from being recognized as full partners on the work team.

She gave the example of several men in her department who go for coffee every afternoon and never invite her, despite officing in the same hallway. She rolled her eyes and said, “Whatever. I don’t let it bother me. Occasionally, if I have something I want to discuss, I’ll invite myself along. They never reject me—they just don’t think about including me. I don’t think they have ill will. It’s more like they don’t quite know what to do with me.”

I cringed, wishing she had let it bother her and had done something to change the dynamic. Because the first way to keep women from leadership parity is to keep them excluded from the informal relationship web.  

I made a mental note to share with participants my friend Nathalie Molina Nino’s technique.  She worked globally almost exclusively with men senior to herself in age and position.  When she was excluded from the men’s golf games, she didn’t learn to play golf as many women are counseled to do. (Not that there is anything wrong with golf; some women play for business relationship building because they like the game. I myself would have failed golf in college had there not been a written test.)

if yu don't know your own valueInstead, Nathalie staked her position on the team by doing something she enjoyed and inviting the others in. Before business travel, she researched restaurants, cuisine, and wines of the area. She planned a memorable dinner and invited all the men.  This positioned her as a leader, not a follower begging to be let into the cool kids’ circle. She became the cool kid everyone wanted to be with. Sharing meals, and a little excellent wine, opened lines of communication; the men then felt more comfortable working with her as an equal in other settings as well.

The second burning question from a participant was whether she should join the women’s workplace affinity group at her company. Sarah advised against it, saying it pigeonholes you as a “woman professional” instead of merely a “professional.”

No one countered that advice, whether from intentional complicity, that pesky niceness that women are socialized to exhibit, or lack of awareness that she had implied women are less valuable than men.

And here, Sarah had just excused the men in her department for going off together as an all-male group for coffee! Men have been doing this forever and been applauded for it.  This is in fact how most business gets done.

Again I cringed. During the break I told Sarah that I would be giving a different point of view because I didn’t want her to be surprised. She was most gracious about it and I intend to continue the conversation with her since as a professor in the business school her influence can be widespread. The second way to keep women from leadership parity is to avoid joining with other women in order to advance us all. 

I asked the participants to think through why employee affinity groups were formed in and what their purpose is—mutual support and to make up for the disadvantage of being a member of a group that has been traditionally less privileged or discriminated against. No one says LGBTQ people shouldn’t join affinity groups  — and look at the progress they’ve made in bringing equal treatment to their colleagues in the workplace in a relatively short time.

I shared Valerie Brown’s story of using her role as chair of the African American affinity group in her company to differentiate herself and get the promotion she sought. She set the group’s agenda around how demonstrating their value to the company by bringing in business and making sure they got credit for it.

We are what we are, and we are at our best when we can be authentically ourselves. Declining to join a women’s network out of fear of being pigeonholed as a women is as ludicrous as men declining to wear pants because it might pigeonhole them as men.

Why would women so undervalue themselves that they would decline to join with their sisters to help each other, and themselves, out? Because the third and most effective way to keep women from leadership parity is to undervalue ourselves even though the rest of the world recognizes their leadership value, not raise our hands, not stand out as women to leverage the unassailable data that women in leadership are good for the business bottom line.

To learn practical leadership Power Tools that help you overcome these three ways to keep women from leadership parity, and to advance your own career while improving your company’s business results, enroll now in my next signature online certificate course, “9 Practical Women’s Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career .”  Early bird rate through Sept. 16; corporate and group discounts are available for two or more from one organization.

PS. Next week I’ll tackle how to overcome the implicit bias that infects how both men and women think about gender and leadership and is the cause of these three ways to hold women back.


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Shay’s Story: Struggling to Be Taken Seriously at Work

It’s been quiet here with the holidays taking people’s attention. And I’d just about run out of 9 Ways stories to tell. Then in the “what you need is there if you can see it” mode, Shay Pausa’s story landed in my inbox. Shay has a video production company, ChiKiiTV, and in full disclosure is currently making a new speaking reel for me. Trust me, if you have video production needs, hire her. She wrote to share how her experiences and feelings as a woman in the workforce matched my findings in No Excuses. Here’s Shay’s story:

Truthfully, I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist yet as I read your book and watch your presentations, I know that I am and always have been. I struggled from the time I entered the business world at 17 years old to be taken as seriously as my male co-workers. I made attempts to be unattractive so that my superiors would see that I was a smart, assertive hard worker. I was passed over for promotions and opportunities repeatedly. I was even once was told by the hiring manager that though I was the heir apparent, the executive team could not “picture” me in the job. They hired a man with 5 years less experience from outside the company. But I did not give up and I stayed at that company until I got the promotions. At a certain point, I brought up my concern that I was not being given deserved promotions based on my sex and age. I got the next one. What they feared even more than a smart woman who can call a spade a spade was a lawsuit.

As I worked my way up the corporate ladder, I found that my success was dependent not so much on the results I produced. but in demonstrating that I could act like a man. I never took a full maternity leave because though I had the legal right, I knew it would hurt my career. I took calls and had my laptop within 3 hours of giving birth. I had to work harder than my male counterparts just to keep my job. I felt I had to sacrifice being feminine to compete. And yet through it all, I believed that if I wanted it to be different, I was going to have to make a difference. I imagined that when I was the CEO of a publicly held company, I would change the culture and the unspoken rules. The laws were not my problem. I wanted real parity, the kind not forced because of law but accepted because it is true. Women bring skill sets to the workplace that produce results. These are natural skills and talents that make a difference.

I know that my experience is not uncommon. And I know that companies are not getting the most out of their employee base if the women in those companies feel as I did. Women are keeping and getting more jobs right now because we’re cheaper labor in a tough economy. And we’ll be the ones who turn the economy around but I fear if there is not a real change in core belief that women are equally valuable in producing profit, we won’t see those board room or management statistics change in any significant way anytime soon.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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Listen NowWomen’s Relationship to Power
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Women have a very complicated relationship to power.  Is it possible that women keep themselves back from parity? My guest, Gloria Feldt, has studied this topic and it is the subject of her newest book, No Excuses:9 Ways Women Can Change the Way We Think About Power.
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Putting Your Purse Where Your Principles Are

Swanee Hunt sings the Mother Goose ditty, “The king was in the counting house counting out his money; the queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey,” to describe the gendered roles about money she learned at the knee of her Texas oil magnate father. Her sister, Helen LaKelly Hunt, talks about how her father brought her husband into his business because in the 1950’s it never occurred to him to hire his daughters.

How they went from that beginning to seed and lead the Women Moving Millions campaign which has thus far raised $176 million in $1 million+ gifts for women’s funds and organizations across the country reflects a journey often taken by women of wealth who want to use their money for worthy purposes. Indeed, while well-heeled men often go into politics or start businesses, women are more likely to start social movements or fund charities.

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Moving Millions is a new twist on this common theme. “We’re not funding charity,” declares Chris Grumm, president of the Women’s Funding Network, the funding collaborative that has provided the structure through which the Women Moving Millions funds have been raised and distributed, “We’re funding change.” She says that networks and collaboration represent the ways women work, including how they feel most comfortable doing philanthropy.

Grumm points out that many of the organizations that receive these funds are advocacy organizations or do both service and advocacy.

Helen Hunt adds, “We see ourselves transforming gender roles as we’re transforming the amount of money going to women and girls. We’re funding women’s voice in society. Women are the strategic way to fund in the future.”

But empowering women through nonprofit organizations isn’t the only way women to day are leading strategically with their purses.

Philanthropy to Business
Michelle Robson is one philanthropist and community leader who turned businesswoman to solve a systemic problem that affected her personally. Robson, who lives in Phoenix AZ, suffered in silence with a variety of severe health problems for over a year after a hysterectomy, yet found that despite her more than ample resources she couldn’t get the information and proper care that she needed. A big part of the problem was that she felt helpless within the medical system and had to learn for herself how to question medical professionals, find sources of accurate and complete information, evaluate alternatives for her unique circumstance, and advocate for her own needs. Her experience fueled a passion for making sure other women can get unbiased information about health; she put her purse where her principles are to the tune of investing $8 million to start up the women’ s health information website  She’s put together a team of leading medical experts along with media and technology experts to help her expand her vision of “improving women’s health one woman at a time.”

Nor has Robson been reluctant to take on the powerful to make sure women’s health isn’t subject to censorship. During National Women’s Health Week last week, she withdrew her funding and sponsorship from the Women’s Health Expo & Conference being organized by the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth, and Families after Governor Jan Brewer exclude the preventive health information provided by Planned Parenthood Arizona and condom information and distribution by a county health department HIV/AIDS program. “Women’s health shouldn’t be a political football,” she says.

Business to Philanthropy

Jackie Zehner and Lilly Ledbetter

Thanks to advances women have made in the last four decades, younger women like Jacki Zehner have made it in the formerly boys-only world of finance. She was the youngest woman, and first female trader, to be invited into the partnership of Goldman Sachs. After leaving the firm in 2002, she became a Founding Partner of Circle Financial Group, a private wealth management operation. Zehner is now a frequent media commentator on women’s leadership and success in the workplace, and their relationship to wealth, investing, and social change. She’s a venture capital investor in women-owned startup firms through the angel investor group Golden Seeds. Her Purse Pundit Blog shares her knowledge and her enthusiasm for both the business and philanthropic worlds and is a contributor the Women Moving Millions campaign.

All these women exemplify leadership through the power of their purses and why so many women feel the urgency of women’s economic power to achieving full equality not just for themselves but also to rebalance the economy and the culture as a whole.

As Helen Hunt observed at a Women Moving Millions briefing for media recently, “Something isn’t working in the world.” To which her sister responded in that sweet-tart Texas voice, “That’s because it wasn’t Lehmann Sisters. But a new form is arising.”

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Was Wooly Bully a Woman?

The recent New York Times article entitled “Backlash: Women Bullying Women” instantly reminded me of the 1960’s song, “Wooly Bully”*. Its logic was garbled and its presentation just plain silly, but it was nevertheless so entertainingly in tune with the culture of the day that it became a big hit.

Though the piece began by acknowledging that men are the majority (60%!) of workplace bulliers, that fact was quickly dismissed. Why wasn’t it the headline? Because it’s so obvious. It’s not a “man bites dog” story.

Instead, the reporter zeroed in on the finding that of women who do bully, 70% choose other women as their targets. Then the article proceeded to analyze this through the lens of a recurring cultural narrative, far too often embraced by even the New York Times despite evidence to the contrary, that women can’t get along, that women don’t support other women, that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to fostering workplace advancement.

These stories overlook important dynamics:

  • Men still determine the workplace culture in most instances, because they hold the majority of top power positions. We’re still in the midst of an unfinished revolution after all.
  • Though women now hold about half of management and professional positions, they tend to be the junior partners and when it comes to the top positions with the most clout, women lag far behind men: for example, still just 15% of Fortune 500 top officers and board members. So plain and simple, the men at the top have more choices of whom to bully.
  • Bullies will always pick on those with less power. And since more women work in the lower echelons of power (who still holds the majority of administrative assistant jobs, for example?), women who are more likely to hold the lower-status management positions are not likely to bully someone with more power, but rather to pick on someone closer to their own size if they are the bullying kind.
  • People who are oppressed tend to oppress others. That is the behavior they have learned from the dominant culture.
  • One highly effective way the prevailing culture can keep women in their traditional place, and men can keep their traditional power, is to belittle women; that is, to keep these stories of the lack of female cooperation perpetually bubbling like warm yeast sponge.

So what’s the big story that women, who are less powerful already than men, are more likely to bully other women if indeed they bully someone? It’s a statistical artifact.

This doesn’t make it right, nor am I in any way condoning bullying, but a look at these factors does begin to point us to where we need to go to correct the problem.

And, wait, there’s more to consider: studies of management decision making groups have found that where there are more women, there is actually better behavior, better decisions, and less corruption.

In “Women Matter,” a study published in 2007 by McKinsey &Co., the management consultants, asserts that companies employing at least 30% female executives–not just a token woman here or there–perform better than all-male outfits. Female managers are more likely than men to make collaborative decisions, to behave as role models and to consider the ethical consequences of their acts, McKinsey’s study found. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to make decisions on their own and then order the troops to carry them out.

Now tell me, why isn’t this the story grabbing the New York Times headlines? Because it is revolutionary, whereas the “women bully women” story is just titillating–like female Jello wrestling, or “The L-Word”.

Cultural myths, whether true or not, are hard to change. That’s why when I speak to women’s professional and leadership groups, I tell them they have the responsibility to create a new narrative. I encourage them to act with what I call Sister Courage.

Sister Courage applies movement building principles to making positive change in the workplace, and it has three parts. First, be a sister proactively–ask for help when you need it and reach out to other women when they need you. Second, have courage to talk about the workplace problems that need to be addressed; this can be done in professional and appropriately assertive ways by marshalling facts and offering proposals. Passive aggression gets you nowhere. And finally, join together for greater influence using the Sister Courage techniques of movement building that I teach. This behavior is how to make the workplace more conducive to productivity and humanity and to lessen the probability that anyone, male or female, will become either the perpetrator or the recipient of bullying.

And that’s no bull.

*Here for your viewing pleasure in all their silly glory, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs singing “Wooly Bully”.

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Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.