Our President speaks out about her journey to female leadership and her insights on women in the workplace.

I remember my first work event as a female executive. It was a COO roundtable session. I knew going in I would be one of very few women in the room. Sure enough, I was one of three women surrounded by about 25 men. As I walked into the room, I could tell by the head turns and gestures that everyone was sizing me up. Mostly older, white men in navy suits and khaki pants. I was a 30-something blonde in a bright turquoise dress. Needless to say, I felt like a fish out of water. But I breathed deep and reminded myself – I belong here. And then the dismissive jokes began. Well now we know why you were hired – you’re a lot better looking than your predecessor. (My predecessor being a man, of course.) Your boss sure does have good taste. You’ll make these meetings a lot more fun. They knew nothing of my qualifications or experience. But just like that I was written off as a blonde joke. And as usual, I knew I had to work that much harder to prove myself. And I did.

The truth is, I’m a statistic. Over the past five years, the number of women in senior leadership has grown. Women in the C-Suite have gone from 17% in 2015 to 21% in 2019 according to Lean In’s 2019 Women in the Workplace Report. I’m one of the 4%. It was nearly five years ago that I took my first “C-level” position as the Chief Operating Officer at WHITE64. And now as President, I’m part of a rare club of female leaders. Just now – I almost wrote that I’m “lucky” to find myself part of a rare club of female leaders. But that’s exactly the type of behavior that holds women back. Women have a tendency to undermine their own success. I didn’t get here by luck. Why am I as a woman predisposed to use that type of language to qualify my success? I got here with hard work. I earned it. And that’s really hard for a lot of women to say about themselves. Me included.

Women in the Workplace Report 2019 – Lean In

While I usually like to focus on the positive – find the silver lining – I find it difficult to celebrate our progress in gender equality in the workplace. Women continue to be significantly underrepresented at every level. While men and women are entering the workforce at a fairly even rate (52% men, 48% women), only 38% of our Managers are female. And women on average are paid 20% less than men.

March is Women’s History Month. And March 8th is International Women’s Day. It also happens to be my mother’s and my daughter’s birthday. So, for me, it’s a special time to celebrate incredible women. Past, present and future. I don’t have the answer to how we close the gender gap. But I know we need to keep the conversation going. Continue to bring awareness to these issues. Continue to empower the strong, smart, talented women around us. And continue to share our stories. And our support.

With that, I’m sharing some of the best advice I’ve received throughout my career on women in leadership. Advice is never one-size-fits-all. And I acknowledge that everyone has a different definition of success, leadership and empowerment. But I hope there’s something in here for everyone. Especially my daughter. And yours.

  • Stop apologizing. Unless you actually did something wrong. Studies show women apologize more than men. Accountability and self-awareness can be a real strength, however compulsive apologizing can undermine your authority and give you the appearance of being weak. Try the Gmail plugin Just Not Sorry to catch yourself when your language is undermining your message and diminishing your voice. You’ll be surprised how often you apologize unnecessarily.
  • Speak up. Opportunities at work are all around you. They can develop organically. Don’t wait for an invitation. Don’t wait for permission. Ask for what you want. Speak up. Join in. Voice your opinion. Remind yourself that you’ve earned the right to participate in the conversation.
  • Get over the Imposter Syndrome. The gender gap extends beyond pay and management representation to self-esteem and confidence. A Cornell University study found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Women are more likely to feel they don’t deserve their job and are “imposters” who aren’t qualified. This self-doubt holds women back from applying to new jobs, asking for promotions or simply taking on new opportunities. Women need to retrain themselves – don’t ask if you’ve perfected a skill or ability, ask if you believe you can do it or learn how. Let that answer guide you.
  • Be fearless. Take risks. Be brave. It’s trite, but true. Ignore the celebrated chauvinistic phrase you need a “pair of balls” to take on a challenge. What you need is courage. Strength. Optimisim. Conviction. And in my experience, women have that in spades.
  • Be yourself. Write your own story. Don’t try to mimic your predecessor. Or the CEO. Or even your role model. Be you. Soak up inspiration and support from others. But know that at the end of the day it is your unique talent, skills, personality and perspective that got you this far. Keep it going.
  • Trust your gut. Women’s intuition is a real thing. A study done out of the University of Cambridge concluded that women are better than men at reading people’s emotions. Women also tend to score higher on empathy than men. However, research shows that women are more likely to dismiss their own instincts and look for validation from others. Next time that happens, stop. Trust your gut. As corny as it sounds, stop looking around the meeting room for validation, and look within.