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.

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Valerie’s Story: How Intention and Power Tool #3 Landed a Big Promotion

Sometimes feedback on the tangible results of leadership training is hard to come by because they may be indirect or hard to attribute to the training itself. This true story, however, is different. There is a direct line between what I taught and what happened. Read my Q and A with Valerie Brown and cheer her with me.

valerie brownGloria Feldt: Valerie, I was thrilled when you called to tell me you got the promotion to Senior Vice President. You reminded me that you declared that as your goal when you took my 9 Leadership Power Tools Workshop last year. What was your career path leading up to this point?

Valerie Brown: I’ve been at Alliance Bernstein for more than seven years, but prior to that I worked for a number of companies in different departments. Early in my career I worked as a product manager in the pharmaceutical industry. But with all the money being made with the internet at the time, I had to wonder if I was in the right seat to maximize my earning power and the contribution that I thought I could make. So I proactively sought out an opportunity in finance. I was interested in understanding not just how you build a business but also how you finance it and how you invest capital. That led me to my first experience in investing, which was at a venture capital fund.

Later in my career, I worked in corporate development at Bristol Myers Squibb which allowed me to get to know one of the senior partners at Goldman Sachs.  I asked him for career advice, and he suggested that I consider equity research. So, I started studying for my CFA and learning about the investment management industry. Out of the blue, I received a call from a head hunter representing Alliance Bernstein.  I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do and I was prepared.

G: I’m interested in how intentional you were, especially with a career that many women don’t even think of.

V: In financial services you have a very clear and precise measure of your accomplishment and I wanted that. And generally it’s highly compensated.

But when I first entered the financial services sector I was shocked. I remember going in for my first line of interviews at Alliance Bernstein and they were walking me around the office to meet with different people and I was thinking “where on earth are the women?” Every office was occupied by a man.

G: What do you attribute that to?

V: I attribute that to a recruitment process that was not intentional when it came to diversity, and a tendency to attract and recruit people who were similar to the people who already worked there. And that wasn’t just based on gender, but also on personality type. And for a while that model works. It works until it doesn’t anymore, because there is homogeneity in the thinking and as a result they weren’t getting enough true debate around ideas and investment decisions.

G: How did the 9 Leadership Power Tools workshop influence you and your own career?

V: There was something in the title that made me think, “this is what I need.” I had been thinking about my career and wondering how I was going to get out of the mid level and into the executive level — how I could be more intentional about this.

So I came to your workshop. You asked us to articulate clearly what we wanted to do, and I said I would like to be promoted to senior vice president at my firm. I remember you announcing one of the power tools, #3 – “use what you’ve got.” So I thought about what I had: A) I can perform at a high level, and B) I was leading an employee affinity group at the time, the Black Employee Resource Group. I saw an opportunity to use that as a platform for greater visibility, to differentiate myself, to really demonstrate leadership, and to interact across business units. I worked with colleagues from different parts of the firm to organize programs of broad interest that also gave me visibility to senior executives and partners. Using what was already available to me helped me push through. No one said “no” to me, and I got a lot of positive reinforcement for my career. I was doing something additional to just doing my job, and that made me a candidate for the promotion.

G: You focused the group on revenue generation and bringing in business. How did you decide to take that tactic? What had the group been doing before that?

V: The group had been focused on employee engagement. But we were seeing falling attendance. It was at a time where the firm was doing massive restructuring. Investment performance wasn’t good, colleagues were being let go and people were fearing for their jobs. No one was showing up because they were demoralized or disengaged. It made sense for a lot of reasons to shift our focus to help the firm drive performance or attract and retain clients. We then started engaging with different groups within the firm. Working with a cross-functional group of people brought a lot of feedback and ultimately helped us come up with a topic of relevance. We decided to focus on revenue generation almost out of necessity. What we were doing before that wasn’t working.

G: You were also using the power tool “carpe the chaos.” You found opportunity in the chaos.

V: Absolutely, and I was very conscious of that as well. Grabbing the things that were being neglected helped because people would look and say “Wow! Look at all the things Valerie got done even with all this chaos!” It’s so important to manage your emotions. The emotional reaction is to be scared and tentative and keep your head down, and that’s not helpful at all!

G: How would you say these power tools helped you?

V: The power tools are helpful for getting you to take responsibility for what you want. It helped me to literally write down “I want to be promoted to Senior Vice President.” At the workshop I shared that agenda with the group. Being clear about what you want and then using the tools to figure out how to get there, where to start, what you can do to help yourself get there–it works.

And asking is really important. I went to my manager and said “I would really like to be promoted to senior vice president. What do I need to do to get there?” He gave me helpful feedback, and I was then able to focus my energy in the right places. The last thing you want to do is exert and direct effort toward something you don’t need to be doing.

G: And my last anecdote is to point out that you took the time to tell me about your promotion and to credit my workshop with helping you get the promotion. Attention to those details of communication says so much about your character. You allowed me to feel part of your success. I thank you for that, and for sharing your story.