It’s time to talk about women in leadership. If you know me, you know that I couldn’t pass up the chance to use this platform to opine about it.
In a pitch meeting last week, one of the people in the room walked out before the meeting began when he realized I (and not my male boss) was the one doing the pitch. Not only did this set the tone for the other people (who stayed), but it also got into my subconscious and lowered my confidence as I led the meeting.
This is a flagrant example, but women in leadership positions experience similar, sometimes smaller, reactions every day due to unconscious bias; that is, that women are less capable than men.
A recent Washington Post article gave me some background:
Joan Williams, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and longtime expert on women and work, calls it the "prove-it-again" syndrome. In the book "What Works for Women at Work," Williams and co-author Rachel Dempsey write that women are "are forced to prove their competence over and over."
Williams’ and Dempsey’s comments hit home for me. Over and over, I am questioned about my role at the company where I serve as president:
• "Who makes the decisions, though? You?"
• "OK, fine, but who is in charge?"
• And my favorite: "How does your husband feel about your job?"
He feels great, by the way, but that’s not the point.
The point is that even in 2019, women in leadership positions still seems to be a head-scratcher. Perhaps the reason is that while women earn the majority of degrees, they are still underrepresented in top positions, making up just 6 percent of chief executive officers at Fortune 500 companies.
Organizations in our own community seek to help change the narrative for working women. For example, Lead(h)er’s Strike a Match mentorship program has proven to help women in the workforce ascend to new heights in their careers. In the last three years, more than 300 women have requested to have a mentor from Lead(h)er.
Women Lead Change (WLC)’s EPIC Corporate Challenge encourages Iowa businesses to formally commit to grow and retain women at all levels of company leadership. Studies show that mentorship, sponsorship and networking are key ways to help level the playing field for women.
But it’s not just Lead(h)er or WLC’s job to help women in the workforce; it’s all of ours.
It starts with mentally checking our biases. I’d like to suggest that we start a different dialogue with women leaders when we run across them in the wild. Ask:
1. How’s business for you so far this year?
2. Did the flood have an effect on your business?
3. Are you having trouble retaining your talent?
These questions are simply questions for leaders — all leaders — not specific to men or women. When we frame conversations about leadership in this way, we take away the lens that women in leadership are somehow less competent because they are rarer than men in the same positions.
Other solutions include making sure women are better represented as conference speakers, board members and sponsors. A recent KPMG study found that women are sidelined from business deals because they golf less; maybe more golf invites are the answer, too.
At the end of the day, I recognize that my complaint about a man walking out of my pitch meeting may seem whiny. After all, I am a white person with an executive position in a company. Imagine what happens to women without those labels? Their battle becomes more uphill; they may not get to the pitch meeting at all.
You probably haven’t physically walked out of a meeting recently — thank you for that. Let’s come to a place where we are walking with women leaders instead of walking out on them.