Dear Leilei, Susana and Siham,
Wow, what a summer! I can’t believe your internship with Buzzvil flew by so quickly. I had so much fun both in and out of the office together (although I could do without the welts from paintballing earlier) and hope you ladies did too.
It may sound crazy, but until this summer, I had never worked in an environment with a higher percentage of women. The percentages ranged from 0% in the Marines and between 3-20% in finance and tech. I’d never really put too much thought into why, but after seeing headline after headline after headline about the experience of women in tech, I started to pay more attention.
I began with some research of my own because I felt that if I was going to work with more women, I should at least get caught up on the issues. And as I got to know all of you more, I felt like just doing research wasn’t enough.
Unfortunately, I’m still a newb in terms of the issues you will face as women throughout your careers. Fortunately, I’m blessed to be surrounded by a lot of female friends who are successful in a broad range of industries from tech, finance, media, advertising and fashion in senior positions such as vice presidents, managing directors and CEOs.
And to avoid having to mansplain my thoughts on how to navigate your careers as women, I’ve asked them to enlighten me with lessons from their experiences. For my education as much as yours, here are the recurring points that surfaced throughout my conversations…
Stand up for yourself
There will be times when someone attacks you by saying/yelling something at you and/or directly undermining you in front of others. There will be times when someone disrespects you by talking over you or making you feel uncomfortable with an unwelcome comment. When it happens, stand up for yourself.
It takes practice on how and when to push back, but it will become clearer over time. What’s important is that you find your own authentic style that works for you. When standing up for yourself, assume positive intent and don’t take it personally. In a calm manner, voice your concerns and address the situation.
One helpful tactic is rather than making the issue about individuals, make it about the team. For instance, you can say, “if you talk to me disrespectfully, then it sets a poor example for how we as a team talk to one another and could hurt our overall performance.” This takes the focus away from both of you and puts it within the context of your team. It also reminds him that you’re on the same team.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be agreeable all the time. In order to get to the top, you need to have an opinion and be able to defend yourself.
Be good. Really good
In order to obtain and keep a seat at the table, you have to be better, more knowledgeable and make a bigger impact at your job. Put hard work in to improve and learn, both on and off the job, to become extremely effective. It’s not fair, but it’s necessary.
With that said, make sure that your efforts and impact are being rewarded. Don’t be afraid to ask for a promotion. When doing so, make sure expectations are very clear and that there are concrete goals related to performance that need to be reached in order to be promoted. Follow up and document as much as you can so there is no room for misunderstanding. Open and honest dialogue is key. Keep the process fact and result based.
Mentors are great in many different ways. They serve as a sounding board for your thoughts, provide you with sound advice from their experiences and open doors to opportunities that otherwise may not have been available to you. However, 4 out of 5 women are not comfortable with asking for a mentor.
To address this, think of all the people who inspire you whether they’re men or women. Don’t be shy about reaching out and asking them to grab a cup of coffee. As you build the relationship, focus on them as a person rather than just their professional standing. Do what you can to be helpful because the best mentor/mentee relationships are reciprocal.
Support each other
In Olga Khazan’s piece about the queen bee phenomenon, she reminisces about a former, more senior female colleague, who “had a rougher go of it than I did, climbing her way up before Lean In, before ’90s-style sensitivity training. She probably experienced the kind of sexism that doesn’t take a Sarah Lawrence degree to sniff out, the kind where your male equals call you ‘sweetie’ or tell you, up front, that you don’t belong. I had to ask myself, How many years of treatment like that would it take for me to become mean like her?”
Women aren’t naturally this way. According to researchers, Ellemers and Derks, the queen bee behavior stems from the fact that these women have “learned the hard way that the way to succeed in the workplace is to make sure that people realize they are not like other women. It’s not something about these women. It is the way they have learned to survive in the organization.”
As you progress and especially when you become a boss, the best thing you can do for yourself, your organization and other women is to build a culture that is inclusive, comfortable and welcoming, for everyone. Even if you had to go through hell to get there, be the leader you wished you’d had. Break the cycle and set the example for the next generation.
Take that step…and another..and another…
In a recent study by KPMG, 67% of women said they need support building confidence to feel they can become leaders and 73% needed more confidence to even pursue a job opportunity that was beyond their experience.
According to this article by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, men are more confident than women, even when abilities are the same. As a result, fewer women vie for opportunities, raises and promotions that they are qualified for.
It’s easy to say, “be more confident,” but it’s another to do it. So where do you start? Begin by aiming for a worthwhile dream and take the first step. Learn from your failures and your successes. But above all, just keep going. Before long, your experiences will build upon each other and one day you will wake up and realize that confidence isn’t about success or failure, but rather knowing that you have what it takes to continue on no matter what.
Hopefully this is helpful for you as you navigate your careers. I know I learned a lot.
I’m really excited that all of you will be returning to work with us during the school year. Let’s keep fighting the good fight!