I listened to a captivating podcast the other day about women in leadership roles. It was a rebroadcast of a TedTalk that I’d heard a while back and it reminded me of the things I used to tell myself. Here’s a sample of the things I’d say almost every time I found success:
I’m successful because I’m just lucky, opportunities just present themselves to me.
You know, I was in the right place at the right time. 🙂
I wouldn’t be here if others hadn’t helped me get here, I’m just following their lead.
Or the most insidious of all: One of these days people are going to realize I’m not actually good at this and I’m going to get fired. I’m not really a leader, I just have everyone fooled somehow.
Here’s the Ted Talk broadcast from Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg (you can also access the audio version on TedTalks Podcast Station – I highly recommend accessing it through Stitcher):
When asked the question: “Why are you successful today?” what thoughts come to mind?
Is your success greatly attributed to you and or to others? It’s rare for many women to assign success solely to themselves. Perhaps we’re just that fair to include others’ in our success, or perhaps we’re selling ourselves short.
“Women must balance being perceived as both likeable (feminine enough) and competent (masculine enough) in order to be perceived as effective leaders; and, they tend to have to work harder to be perceived as qualified, effective, or competent as men (Eagly & Carli, 2007). That harder work is also often accompanied by a disproportionate responsibility for childcare and home life.” – Journal of Leadership Education, Summer 2015 (source below)
In the first six months of a new job, I’ve always said my priority is to prove to people that I’m not stupid. The next six months are proving I’m competent to do my job and the following year is convincing them I’m excellent. After that, things start to settle back into normal and I can do my job without feeling the steely eyes of doubt every time I stand up to speak in front of a room full of people. That’s also the time when promotions begin to happen and doors open.
Can we just acknowledge how crazy this is?
It’s only looking back now that I see the beauty of my first leadership position.
My first manager in the company was a woman. She showed me how you can be compassionate yet firm, setting high expectations for yourself and demanding the same of your people. I led immediately from her example and dug deeper with my new bosses as I promoted. When I was hired to manage a group of people, these two immediate supervisors were both women, both in highly sought-after leadership roles. Each of them were managing five to six managers who each had teams of between nine and twelve employees. They showed me it’s okay to be a strong and determined leader while also knowing each and every employees’ names and their children’s names.
I learned early on that those who’d never worked with me pretty plainly doubted me. I’d often thought it was my bubbly and gregarious nature (really, smiling at work confuses a surprisingly large number of people), my youth, or lack of experience. Over time I learned that some of it was my audacity to lead from a place of confidence. Who was I do think I could do this? Somehow how I presented myself did not match the visual of a strong leader. I’d worked hard for this position and I was good at it, I made no apologies for reaching management before those more experienced than me.
It took time. However, with consistency, good leadership, and kindness, we were thick as thieves. Pride myself on managing integrated teams who support one another and are strong enough to work independently toward shared goals and it turns out, and it turns out, people like that.
Does She Deserve This?
Women are often criticized in the workplace for being “bossy” – this, according to Sheryl Sandberg, should be considered a dirty word. Young women growing up are often rewarded for being agreeable and young men socially rewarded for being strong-minded and directive.
How often do we criticize women in positions of power and does it parallel with the scrutiny we give male leaders? How often do we critique a woman’s outfit on the street? Do we instinctively compete with her or do link our arm in hers and support her?
So what are we to do? We can teach young women and girls to think differently about their own success. We can re-train our brains to embrace success. We can ask ourselves the challenging questions about our own biases.
What Can We Do?
We need to eliminate the Impostor Syndrome and begin taking credit for our achievements. It is not impolite to graciously accept praise. While it is important to express gratitude for success and recognize others who have helped us along the way, it is equally as important to understand luck is not a factor in success.
Like Seneca said in ancient times: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Preparation. Hard work. Ingenuity. This is what we need to remember. Success does not fall in your lap, women know they’re doing and know how to succeed. Ancient Romans knew this, how did we forget it?
This is a popular subject of academics today; how to increase the number of women in leadership roles and in traditionally male-dominated work roles. However, in a recent study published in the Journal of Leadership Education, researchers note that while there is significant conversation around gender roles in the workplace and differences between male and female learners, there is very little conversation about the fact that most educators (and by proxy let’s assume companies/leadership) avoid the topic like a hot potato. Nobody wants to be the one to wade into treacherous waters and potentially offend someone. It’s a sensitive issue most people would prefer to avoid.
However, what we can do is drag this out into the light. Authors Robin J. Ely, Herminia Ibarra, and Deborah M. Kolb note that:
“…aspiring women leaders have less social support for learning how to credibly claim a leader identity…”
So let’s be that support and have this conversation. If you’re a leader, how can you help?
Change Your Brain
It’s critical to right-mind ourselves here. It’s not easy to change perceptions, so let’s address the pattern of thought. It’s never easy to look at your own thoughts and determine whether they’re correct. It’s 2015, people, it’s high time we start an open and frank discussion about gender in the workplace.
- Be open to discourse and change
- Teach young girls to lead
- See the leader for his or her actions, judge the implemented plans & not the leader’s gender
Finally, as a leader, check yourself. How much work did you do to get where you are? Opened doors, connections, or support to the side, what did you do to get to where you are? Embrace the strength it took to get to where you are (or maybe you’re still working to get where you want to be) and utilize it to your advantage.
One of my favorite popularized phrases we used at the University was simple and poignant:
“They hired you for a reason.”
They saw something they needed and liked. You’re meant to be here, now go do it. Girl, you’re not bossy, you’re a leader with vision.
I’m reading her book right now, I’ve also purchased “Lean Out” by Dawn Foster – I saw it displayed at Changing Hands and had to have it.