That question comes up every time I speak with women about their career aspirations.
A second question just as surely follows: if we can’t be authentically who we are, why would we want to “succeed” in male-dominated organizations or professions? Many women who leave the corporate world to stay home with children or enter entrepreneurial or nonprofit fields—or alternately, remain quietly in their jobs put only to find themselves doing the work but not getting the promotions—say they do so because they don’t want to become like men.
Yet all signs point to a potential breakthrough moment for women even as we debate the pros and cons of taking on male camouflage.
Study after study finds that companies with greater numbers of women in leadership roles make more money. Managers know they must retain high performing women to succeed. Today’s economic and social turbulence loosens traditional boundaries, thus opening opportunities for women prepared to take them; else Christine Lagarde would not be atop the IMF, and Crain’s New York would not be crediting women such as Jill Abramson, the first female managing editor of the New York Times, Tina Brown, and Arianna Huffington with coming to the rescue of the media industry.
True, this potential is far from fully realized. Though most doors have been opened in the legal sense and we’ve seen a woman first almost everything, the overall numbers remain numbingly immobile. Despite being 60 percent of college graduates and half of the workforce, women hold just 18 percent of upper management positions across all employment sectors. We sit in fewer than 15 percent of corporate board seats and hold a penurious 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.
Little wonder we earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. Further, our nice-girl salary negotiating style costs us each a cool half million dollars on average over our working lifetime.
According to Catalyst, a non-profit organization dedicated to women’s advancement in the workplace, “Sexism is alive and well in the workplace and coupled with gender-based stereotypes, women continue to be placed at a disadvantage when it comes to advancing their careers.” Yet my own research found an equally pernicious barrier within. It’s women’s resistance to embracing the power we have in our hands to change the cultural soup that keeps us simmering on low when we are ready to transform it to boil.
It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it.
This conundrum evokes George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the reasonable person adapts to the world, whereas the unreasonable one expects the world to adapt to her. Of course he said “man” and “him.” I take poetic license since Shaw was born in 1856. But his conclusion is up to date: “Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable (wo)man.”
Clearly, it’s time to be unreasonable—to challenge the existing situation directly--if we’re going to make the next set of breakthroughs.
Since the days when mimicking men’s severe navy suits, learning to play golf, and talking tough were advised to make our woman-ness invisible, it’s become eminently clear that the strategy of co-opting women into acting like the guys doesn’t serve us any better than being stereotypically female or dropping out to escape dealing with sexism.
For women to be able to practice the authentic leadership that allows them to give their best, earn their worth, and advance to their highest abilities, it’s far more fruitful to define, align, and redesign.
1. Define: Both women and men are stuck with an outdated definition of power that implies power over others. No wonder many women reject the idea; after all, we’ve borne the brunt of its worst aspects, including abuse and discrimination. But once we define power as the power to accomplish things, to innovate, to make life better for ourselves and our families—I find that women’s faces relax and they are quick to say, “I want that!”
Julie Gilbert discovered something similar when she was an executive with the giant consumer electronic firm, Best Buy. The business had been created by men for men. She knew something had changed dramatically when she began to listen to female customers who are now the primary purchasers.
“When I engaged the woman’s voice, I started to realize how my voice transformed. I became more myself. I could breathe. I had ideas that frankly I used to think about all the time in executive meetings but had never ever said.”
2. Align: The world turns on human connections. Timing and preparation help. But without those human connections, used effectively, other assets don’t get you far. As Ellen Gustafson, co-founder at age 28 of The Feed Fund, told me, “Women, as we get more senior, have to remember that the more we can make it easier for all women to do well, the better we will be.”
Similarly, Anne Doyle, a second wave feminist who blasted through many doors, from being the first female sports journalist to report from the men’s locker room to trailblazing as an automobile executive, shows in her book Powering Up how “going it alone is a losing strategy.”
Women need to kick mentorship up a notch, to sponsorship, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy. “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.
Women have more than enough mentors but are only half as likely as their male peers to have a sponsor. Consequently, they miss out on the measurable impact of the sponsor effect: A sponsor confers a statistical career benefit of anything from 22 to 30%, depending on what's being requested (assignment or pay raise) and who's asking (men or women).”
It’s time to take all of these resources, incomplete or imperfect as they may be, and mass our strengths. The path to big systemic change is to align with and support one another in collective action leading to redesign.
3. Redesign: I recently had a chance to keynote a leadership retreat put on by She Negotiates, a women-led organization teaching alternative dispute resolution. That’s a fundamental change from the adversarial legal system in which there are two polarized sides. Says co-founder Victoria Pynchon, “I'm no longer in the win-lose, bomb them back to the stone age business. I'm in a "power with" or as you call it a "power to" business. Now I'm helping people - particularly women - have the courage to speak up and encourage others to exercise power with them.”
To Best Buy’s Julie Gilbert, empowering women and elevating their authentic voices “lifts all boats of opportunity not only for women but also for men, kids.” It transforms business and fosters innovation that leads to financial growth while building leadership skills “to transform societies and make the world a much different place, a much safer and more prosperous place for everyone.” That’s not mere rhetoric; the metrics reveal a 5 percent decrease each year in female employee turnover, and a whopping 300 percent increase in the number of women managers, along with an 11 percent (4.4 Billion dollars, not chump change) increase in revenues generated by women company-wide.
To be sure, many bumps along the road to securing women’s rightful share of leadership roles and compensation remain. They cause frustration, approach-avoidance of power, temptation to quit or become co-opted. But in the end, if women are unreasonable enough to redefine power and align with one another and with sympathetic male sponsors, organizational cultures will become redesigned.
The winning strategy is not to be like men after all, but to be more authentically ourselves.
Gloria Feldt is the best-selling author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a frequent keynote speaker, 30-year CEO, and passionate women’s advocate.
More from living