March 8th was International Women’s Day. On the one hand, I love that we take this time to celebrate the significant contributions women have made, and are making, to our culture, our society and our world. But I have to ask: Why do women get one day a year and men get 364?
Which leads me to a bigger question: Why do we need an International Women’s Day at all? After centuries of smashing myths and shattering glass ceilings, are women still not equal to men? Women of color are even more unequal. Are we still an “other”? How do we fix this?
As Sheryl Sandberg tells us, women need to take a seat at the table.
In her 2010 TED Talk entitled “Why we have too few women leaders,” the former COO of Facebook and now co-founder and board chair of Lean In talked about the lack of women who have reached the top in professions, any professions, worldwide. She offered these stats:
- Out of 190 heads of state, 9 are women
- In the world’s parliaments, 13% are women
- In the corporate sector, women make up 15-16% of CEOs, C-suites and board seats
- In non-profits which we tend to think are more open to female leadership, only 20% have women at the top
Sandberg went on to tell a story of hosting a (male) senior government official at Facebook for a high-level meeting. Everyone sat at the table except the two women who were traveling with him. The women were fairly senior, but when she invited them to sit at the table, they remained at the side of the room.
She then told another story about taking a college course with her roommate and her brother. The two women read every book and went to all the lectures. Her brother read one book out of the 12 and went to one of the lectures. A couple of days before the exam, he arrived at their dorm room to be tutored by the two women on all the points he missed. They all took the exam and afterward, asked each other, “How’d you do?” The women worried that they maybe hadn’t nailed every detail, that they could have done better, while her brother said, “I got the top grade in the class.”
The problem with these two stories, Sandberg said, is that they reveal what the data shows: women systematically underestimate their own abilities. Instead, they need to reach for the promotion, to believe in their abilities, to put themselves out there. Clearly, men don’t have a problem doing this. She concluded by saying, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table.”
Men save the world all by themselves, women do it in teams
In a similar story in my book, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business, Andie Kramer tells of her experiences sitting on the compensation committee of her law firm where she was a very successful partner. As she reviewed the personal appraisals of their talented lawyers, a pattern emerged. It was odd, she noted at first, that the men all told stories about how they had climbed the Empire State Building to save the damsels in distress, while the women talked about how they had collaborated with others in teams to help the clients never have a problem. In my book, you can read more about how Andie climbed her own mountain and after 30 years had had enough, finally leaving the large firm to set up her own, with great clients and equally impressive results.
These stories occur again and again in corporate life, be they large companies or small. There is a great book, You Should Smile More, by The Band of Sisters, a group of six women, each of whom was a successful executive, in companies from PepsiCo to 20 other similar ones. You will love their wisdom. They mourn the recurring theme in the performance appraisals of women, and themselves, that advised them to “smile more.” Even I got that advice 40 years ago when I was an executive in a bank. Women had to be more approachable, warm and engaging. The men were never told to smile at all, much less “more.”
While there are movements on top of movements, multiple books and Ted Talks trying to level the playing field for men and women, as well as people of diverse backgrounds, race and sexual orientations, it remains a fact of modern business life that true equality has not happened yet…not even getting equal pay for equal work — despite the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009, mandating pay parity in the workplace.
The data reinforces the gender gap in the workplace
A 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, cited by The Harvard Gazette, reported that “women consistently rated their performance on a test lower than did men, even though both groups had the same average score. Even when told that an employer would use their self-evaluation to decide whether to hire them and what to pay them, women still self-promoted less than men.”
In Dr. Margie Warrell’s book You’ve Got This!, Kathy Calvin, President of the United Nations Foundation, echoes these findings when she says, “We women hold ourselves back. We think we aren’t experienced enough when in fact we are.”
Yet, there is some progress, and we must recognize it and celebrate it — or it will go backward quickly.
In 2021, “the proportion of women in senior management roles globally grew to 31%, the highest number ever recorded,” as noted in Catalyst research. And 90 percent of companies worldwide have at least one woman in a senior management role as of 2021.
But as a 2020 study by Mercer shows, women are far more abundant in the lower levels of management than they are at higher levels.
The challenges facing women continue as the post-pandemic environment begins to emerge with greater clarity than earlier. For example, Mercer research suggests that:
- When asked what contributes to a feeling of burnout, women are more significantly more likely than men to say that they feel overworked (30% vs. 24%) and exhausted (29% vs. 21%).
- Only 54% of women believe they are fairly compensated compared to 70% of men.
- More women would consider leaving their current employer due to pay (58% vs. 51%).
- Women are also less likely to believe their manager is invested in their career than men (68% vs. 75%).
- We know that women bear the brunt of childcare, eldercare and domestic support — which is often the reason women prefer remote/hybrid work more than men (52% vs. 45%). There are real concerns about how this will play out in terms of pay and promotion (which too often are driven by social networks nurtured “after hours”) as well as the long-term impact on financial security.
Clearly we have work to do, but where do we start? Here are some thoughts.
Here are 5 ways to put yourself out there so you can succeed as a woman. As you change, you will find others copying you. Women just need other women to set the stage and they will quickly adopt new values and behaviors.
- Take a seat at the table, as Sheryl Sandberg says. Don’t hang back. Be in on the action, make your voice heard. If the men in the room aren’t listening, or talk over you, or try to take your ideas and claim them as theirs, don’t be afraid to clearly and firmly stop the discussion, command the room’s attention, and start again.
- Raise your hand. Boldly say, Yes, I’ll do that. Yes, I’ll lead that project. Yes, I’ll chair that committee. Yes, yes, yes. Then deliver. One word of warning: Don’t raise your hand to get the coffee or hang up the coats or clean up the table after a meeting. Careful that you see yourself as the equal to the men in the room. Say nicely but firmly, “No I am not available to…but Mike or Tom can certainly get that done.” You must develop a language that establishes your position and authority without becoming that “bitchy woman” whom the guys, and even the gals, find fault with.
- Find mentors and sponsors. Mentors and sponsors, even friends, are essential to building a fan club. I am serious. You need guidance, of course, and people to advocate for you. But as Babette Ballinger says in my book, Rethink, she had only adversaries and had to climb her own way up the ladder to success. Trust yourself, but get help you can trust as well. Getting to the top, or at least the top of your department, can be a bumpy, uphill climb. Some people — men and women — won’t like it. You might not be popular, especially if you gain a leadership position that typically has gone to a man. It is wise to find supporters along the way who not only can guide you on your journey but who will also stick up for you when questioned if you really deserve that top position.
- Develop a thick skin. This took me years to learn and I wish I’d done it sooner. Remember, there will always be those who want to see you fail. Don’t let them get to you. You have a destination — don’t let anyone keep you from it. What to do if they penetrate that skin of yours? Smile, stand up tall, and push ahead. Do not let others try to define you. Build and keep your own story and make sure you are the heroine in that story. No one else is going to manage your life for you better than you can do yourself.
- Believe in yourself. You have so much to offer the world. Go out and break through those glass ceilings and vault over those barriers. Be your own strongest champion. In Rethink, eleven women (including me) tell their stories about how they smashed the myths holding them back. I don’t want to spoil it for you. Read it and share it.
Hopefully, one day soon we won’t need an International Women’s Day.
Until then, we would do well to follow Beyoncé’s lead: “I don’t like to gamble, but if there’s one thing I’m willing to bet on, it’s myself.”