Original publication – Switch and Shift

Original publication date – November 15, 2016

Over the last 18 years, I have been a leader in various organizations. As my roles became more senior, I began to feel more acutely aware of not only my role as a leader, but the importance of being a senior leader who was also a female leader and generally in the minority.

Over those 18 years, I witnessed more women in the ranks of senior leadership but also witnessed the exclusion of many talented women based on social cues they pick up in the workplace. These cues often are interpreted as: if you don’t behave or talk like a traditional male stereotype then maybe you aren’t ready to be a leader. While those cues (often unintentionally) come from male leaders, they also come from their fellow women. They have often come from me.

“Tomboy,” “one of the guys,” “one of the cool ones”, these are terms by which I have been described. I participated in fantasy sports pools before they were an online sensation, and had conversations that solely revolved around ERA’s and receiving yards. My ‘tomboy’ status and my affinity for sports, combined with my subtle dismissal for ‘traditional’ female pursuits, allowed me to comfortably navigate small talk in both corporate and social situations where the participants were primarily male.

I went along with the locker room talk and ignored sexist banter, viewing it all as part of ‘boys being boys’. While I saw my behaviors as a feminist right, why shouldn’t I get to spend equal airtime talking about sports, I neglected the negative impact it had on females on my teams.

It is only in the last couple of years that I really paid attention to the role of a female leader in an organization, due somewhat to the fact that, at times, I was the only female on an executive team as well as the fact that the majority of my team members were female. Leading a team of primarily females who were open and driven allowed me to have great conversations, and I was privileged to have them share their challenges from a female perspective.

Three months ago, I joined IHHP, a company that helps organizations and leaders leverage the science of emotional intelligence and performing under pressure. They had just released their most recent research white paper ‘Women Under Pressure’. As the head of marketing for the organization, I wanted to, and needed to, immerse myself in the content. The research connected so many dots from my observations as a female leader and helped me build better context from which to lead other females.

Here’s what I realized. Women are different. I am different. No matter how much sports talk, golfing and swearing I authentically can enjoy, my brain works differently than my male colleagues. And it’s a difference worth celebrating.

The white paper explains how women have a brain-based difference that predisposes them to weigh more variables, consider more options, see more context and visualize a wider array of solutions and outcomes to a problem when they (or their organizations) are under pressure. This explains many of those times when I felt the male leaders in the organization looked at an issue through too narrow a lens and they, in turn, perceived I took too long to make decisions as I considered more solutions.

In my day-to-day leadership, getting my voice heard isn’t often a problem. By nature, I find it relatively easy, and sometimes necessary, to make my point. And I will push for an expanded discussion, even when I feel tunnel vision may be winning the debate. This was not always the case for other females in my organization. I observed many smart and competent women in the organization who had great insight and questions didn’t voice their opinion or were easily shut down. Often told they ‘worried’ too much or got too mired in the details, they would hold back on their opinions. Upon reflection after reading the white paper, I think it is important that female leaders help ensure that the important voices of the women in the organization are heard.

The experts at IHHP recommend the following strategies:

Provide Space for Women’s Voices to Be Heard

Often as leaders, even at our best, we are in a hurry to move forward with our own agendas and because of our status, our agendas get more air time. It is important that in both one-to-one conversations and in group meetings that we ask the women to provide their thoughts and insights, especially encouraging those who hold back. With encouragement and positive feedback, these individuals will see what they have to say is valued and we need them to look at broader options.

Stop Being ‘One of the Boys’

I no longer take pride in my status as ‘one of the boys.’ After all, do I have to be one of them to like some of their traditional pursuits? Being ‘one of the boys’ at work can give off the message that if you want to lead you have to take on a ‘traditional’ male persona. You don’t. Be confident in the differences and abilities you bring as a woman and let other women see your confidence.

Help the Men on Your Team Be More Inclusive

I am not sure I ever worked with a male colleague who intentionally wanted to exclude women within the organization. I do know I have, and continue to work with, male colleagues who are encouraging and help me be the best I can be as a leader. No matter how great our intentions, however, we all need reminding that we need to listen and to monitor our language. When we exclude other team members based on the topic of conversation, or deride traditionally female roles or pursuits, we participate in a subtle form of exclusion that tells women they may not be valued. As a female leader, we can’t participate in this behavior and need to let our male colleagues know when this happens and help them redirect the conversation.

In the Women Under Pressure whitepaper, we learn from extensive research that organizations that leverage this unique strength of decision-making and have more women in top leadership positions have stronger relationships with customers and shareholders. As a result they have a more diverse and profitable business. As a female leader, it is our duty to ensure the conditions exist within our organization to leverage women’s unique strengths.