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.
She’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.)
Instead, 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.