Recently, I sat with a woman who described applying for a CEO position in a prestigious trade organization; she was offered the job, and then turning it down. Unsure about why she didn’t grab the ring when it was presented, she mused that maybe on some deep level she didn’t see herself as a leader.
Each of us, male or female, form our identity using a combination of who we are inside and what the outside world feeds back to us. It’s the latter that creates a problem for ambitious women. When people around us make it clear they don’t see our gender as leaders, through actions or lack of action, it is more difficult for us to believe it as well.
I see this repetitive pattern in my mentorship program for working women as well. A smart, capable woman goes to university, works hard, gets good marks and maybe even leads her college of commerce business team to national finals. After graduating, she dives head first into the workplace; but once there, she is shocked to find her stock has decreased.
On the other hand, a guy who was once on the young woman’s university business team and possesses all the same credentials, forms mentorship relationships with more senior men in his company. They attend sporting events together and share inside jokes. His presence and clout grows while the woman feels increasingly afloat. When working on projects with this male colleague, she finds her suggestions are dismissed while his are followed.
Unfortunately, this all-to-common scenario causes young women to lose their confidence. Rather than raising their hand to volunteer, they increasingly quiet their ideas and wait for a man to make suggestions, putting their good talents to work for him. Too many of these smart, capable women begin to see themselves as good supporters, rather than as leaders.
Adding to this is the fact that society equates good oratory skills with being a leader. Yet women aren’t encouraged to speak up and aren’t appreciated when they do. Typically, when a woman makes a suggestion in a company meeting, it is passed over until a man makes the same comment a few minutes later. Heads nod, and the idea is applauded.
Research backs this up, too: Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll released a study that showed when U.S. senators become more powerful they talk more, except if the senator is a woman. When Brescoll delved into why this occurs, she found that male executives who talk more than their peers have 10 percent higher ratings of competence, while women who talk more than their peers have 14 percent lower ratings.
These factors make it understandable that women have trouble establishing a leadership identity. Their approval ratings go down when they speak up, they feel invisible when making suggestions on important topics at meetings, and there is a validation vacuum when they step up to the helm.
It is important to remember that these reactions have nothing to do with a woman’s abilities. Instead, they reflect unconscious bias, which can be changed. One way of doing this is to find an external audience that matters to those inside the company and cultivate relationships there. Once recognized as a leader by those outside the company, those inside will fall in line as well.
I know this from personal experience. As a new hire at Potash, I quickly recognized that guys I considered to be lightweight and inexperienced actually had the inside track. Initially, I was frustrated when they were included in meetings while I cooled my heels at the door, so I developed a different strategy. I focused on our customers, serving them tirelessly.
In addition to sharing market research, anticipating needs, and following up on every customer concern, I learned our clients’ children’s names and their favourite sports teams. Using strong, open communication I maintained a ‘no surprises’ relationship with them, and the trust grew. When customers sang my praises, company management looked at me with fresh eyes.
Consequently, knowing our largest customers valued my opinion, my colleagues listened more carefully to my comments in company meetings. That gave me the confidence to take more risks and experiment more, further developing my leadership persona. I knew I had finally made it when, instead of having my suggestion ignored, one of the guys in the meeting commented, “like Betty-Ann said…”.
Even though women have to work harder to gain leadership credibility, it can be done. Furthermore, it can imbue us with a sense of purpose in the process. I loved serving those customers. They benefited, my company benefited and, ultimately, I benefited. It gave me the confidence to grab the ring, and you can do it too. Get ready, because one is coming your way soon!