You might think it odd to have a man talk about gender equality – of more realistically – gender inequality. Even if I told you I were a feminist it would still be a little weird to think a man could possibly understand what it’s like to be a high aspiration woman in what is still a male dominated hierarchy. You’d be right. I couldn’t possibly understand. It isn’t possible for any man to experience and feel what continues to happen to women day in and day out when it comes to challenges associated with career ambitions or aspirations.
What I can share though is what I have seen and experienced. The glass is unfortunately still more than half empty when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. I’ve touched it, felt it and been angered by it. What I hope to provide is a solution that may be a little different from what you’ve heard before.
I’ve had the good fortune of being involved with many exciting challenges in my career. I owe many of my opportunities to circumstance; being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. I also know that on at least some of those occasions, I owe my having access to the opportunities to being a man.
I understood this from a relatively young age. In the 12th grade I ran for the position of President with the Student Council. I had never held a student office before and, although I was popular, I worked many evenings and weekends and never really got too involved with school activities. I knew winning the election would be tough but I also knew I had an advantage. I ran my campaign much like the other 3 candidates. Most of them were popular too and had hands-on experience on council. I put up posters and handed out cards. When it came to the candidate speeches though I added a twist. Like everyone else, I promised to listen to concerns (right jab) and take action (right jab). I promised fun events (right jab), then, I ended it with a knockout left hook… I was clear about the fact that I was the only male candidate. There is no question in my mind that, at that time, that garnered me nearly 50% of the vote – with the remaining 50% to be distributed among the other 3 female candidates.
Was it the right thing to do? Probably not. Would it still work today? Probably. Here’s the funny thing though. I don’t think it would work nearly as well (today or back then) if all the candidates were male and only one candidate was female and she used her gender as a playing card. Men, alone, stand tall. Women, alone, just stand alone.
The purpose of this article is to answer one question: How do top performing women get the recognition and promotions they deserve – regardless of their gender?
There continues to be a very real glass ceiling and what follows is one man’s advice on what to do about it in what is still an entitled man’s world.
First, it’s important to point out that many large organizations, financial services in particular, understand the male bias issue and want to do something about it, but in my opinion, they just don’t know what to do. They know they are missing out on 50% of the high-end candidates and the company could be better if they were truly impartial. They know it’s broken, but, even with the best of intentions, they don’t know how to fix it.
One of the places I worked was particularly out of sorts. I won’t name names for the sake of confidentiality. They had slogans and mission statement points about “equality” but they had no idea how to walk the talk. Here are a series of events that occurred in this one place. You can decide for yourself if they “got it” or if they were just going through the motions.
The people that worked outside the office were called the men in the field (even though there were a few women). The people that worked in the office were called the girls on the phones (even though there were a few men). Aside from labeling the few outside women as “men” and the few inside men as “women”, there is a child vs adult affront in the naming convention. The female workers are “girls” and the male workers are “men”. It may surprise you that this language continues today. Then again, it may not.
Same company: On my first day of the job, I was with the male head of HR going through the customary first-day administration and orientation. One of the female assistants came in to deliver something. She was wearing a form fitting sweater. For the sake of clarity, it was appropriate and professional. His words as he looked her up and down: “nice sweater”. When she came in again 15 minutes later, he used the same leer and words again. This was the head of HR speaking to a subordinate. I should have walked out right then and there.
Same company: I was in the boardroom as we were getting ready for a meeting. There was an external senior consultant in the room. As an organization, we were paying him a lot of money every year to lead our management team through strategy sessions. As we waited for others to arrive, there were 5 executives in the room, one was female. To cajole and pass the time before the meeting, the external consultant decided it was appropriate to tell a “dumb blonde” joke. To which all the executives laughed heartily – with the exception of me, and the woman. This company was in trouble and they didn’t even know it. Regardless of their equality posters and mission statements, they were doomed to daftness. There was one male field person who sent out the “joke of the day” by email. He was pretty good at it. One day, his joke was about a Texas woman and her envy for a large diamond ring. I noted the inappropriateness to the CEO. He didn’t see anything wrong with it. I asked if the punch line was about women or Texans. He still didn’t get it.
The purpose of these examples is simply to point out that, many companies, although they know they have a problem, are like a deer in the headlights and they don’t know how to fix it.
One little article isn’t going to right hundreds of years of wrongdoing, let alone fix these organizations. They exist and it may be another 50 or even 100 years before this gets corrected. The challenge is for women to navigate this bias today.
Here’s what isn’t working:
When women are bypassed for promotions, they may choose to seek advice to help prepare them for the next opportunity. What can they do differently? What things can they learn? How can they improve?
The typical advice they receive is behavioral. How they need to “get along” and “play nice”. How they need to control their assertiveness as, in men this is perceived as confidence but, in women this is perceived as aggression. They need to be empathetic but not overly so as this can be perceived as a feminine and a sign of weakness. They need to build teams. They need to work hard and “fit in” with the guys.
Here’s how that has to change:
When the same missed promotion opportunity happens to a man, and they choose to seek advice to help prepare them for the next opportunity, they get a completely different set of advice. They aren’t counseled on behavior, they are counseled on hard skills. Know the company. Understand the business. Understand the competition. Know your numbers. Present solutions. Create strategy.
Women aren’t getting bypassed for promotions because they aren’t capable; they are getting bypassed because the advice they receive is biased and completely wrong.
If you are a woman reading this, and you consistently achieve great results and you continue to get overlooked for opportunities, stop taking the “play nice with others” advice and start taking the advice that is given to men in the same situation. Understand the business, know what is broken and explain how to fix it – end of story.
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