2015 has been a year of discovery for me as a businesswoman. Perhaps it’s 38 years to late to realize that there really are still some pretty big hurdles that we have to overcome and that just not talking about them or not acknowledging them is not going to make them go away.
I’ve been lucky. Born in the UK in the late 70’s, I felt that I haven’t really experienced true sexism (beyond name-calling, stereotypes and some borderline-funny jokes) and I’ve always enjoyed working with men and had the feeling that its better to just shut up and get on with it, to compete.
Yet when I think about things a bit more, (inspired by Catlin Moran’s hilarious “How to Be a Woman” for example) I realize that time and time again I’ve had mediocre men promoted above me and seen their ideas taken more seriously than mine.
I spent last week at the INCAE Women’s Executive Leadership Programme in Miami, where I studied with 40 women from all over Latin America, sharing stories, struggles and successes. Without doubt they have had to fight a lot harder than I. Still I was surprised by the similarities between our experiences.
Not so much in earning less and not getting promoted (although obviously that is there) but in discussing our own attitudes towards work, success and career. My classmates were impressive. Some running teams of hundreds, some entrepreneurs, some top executives in leading firms. Yet one of the biggest questions they had asked themselves throughout their career had been “why me?”
Of course this was my first question when I walked into the class “Why me? Am I good enough to be here?” (as it turned out I was, although my Latina credentials are in some doubt). Perhaps it’s obvious, but in general we women have a tendency to be more reserved and undervalue ourselves.
There is actual data to back this up too. In one study (see HBR Aug 25, 2014), Hewlett Packard assessed what percentage of the job requirements candidates needed to comply with in order to apply: for men it was 60%, while for women it was 100%. That is, unless we can tick all the boxes in the job requirements, we don’t even put ourselves out there as an option. We have a tendency to focus on what we are missing rather than what we have.
Women also have more of a propensity to work hard and hope that someone further up the food chain notices this. I have been guilty of this time and time again. Dedicating 100% of my time to getting results for the company and very little to selling myself within the company. Bad strategy.
At one of my previous employers there’s a guy who would strut around dedicating around 20% of time to getting results and 80% to selling himself: He is one of the most highly valued managers. While I hope I’m never like him, I know I would do well to channel some of his boastful energy from time to time and make sure my results reach the ears of those who matter.
The programme in Miami was bursting with much more content than this but for me, there were two clear conclusions: 1) there is still a difference between women and men in business all over the world and its worth continuing to fight for a more collaborative form of leadership, and 2) In many cases there is a psychological difference in approach and many of us also need to take a leaf out of men’s books and be more assertive, confident, less perfectionist and more ready to promote ourselves.
I’ll be raising my game from now on. I owe it to all the women who have had to work twice as hard as I to get where they are.