"At the core of my passion is this nagging reality that the glass ceiling, although cracking, still exists."
As a woman who has worked in the sales industry for more than 10 years, I’m no stranger to the need for female leadership and empowerment in business. I picked up Nancy D. O’Reilly’s Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life excited for the opportunity to see how 20 different women can help me, and help me help other women.
The book is organized in three sections: Mastering Your External Environment, Mastering Your Internal Environment, and Connecting to Support Each Other. Each section gives us tools that we can use in the business world, but we can also use the lessons in the lives we lead everyday as mothers, daughters, and friends. Gentlemen, please read on for how you can gain insights from the book as well.
The Big Idea
Recognize negative messages
"So many myths exist regarding female capabilities. Your awareness of these negative messages is a giant first step. Help [others] be aware also."
A popular Super Bowl ad asked people of various ages and genders to both demonstrate and tell us what it means to do something “like a girl.” The ad asks when “like a girl” became an insult?
The section written by Janet Rose Wojtalik entitled “Seven Keys to Unlocking Female Leadership” gives the reader different ways to have conversations about female leadership and empowerment; one of those is awareness of the negative messages about women. Things like doing something “like a girl” or being good at something “for a girl”. The section is geared toward talking to daughters, but I think it’s also important to have these conversations with our adult female peers and our male counterparts. If men never realize the subtleties of what amounts to female alienation, women will continue to lose the battle of equality. It’s important to look for teachable moments with young girls, each other, and with the men around us.
I remember the day that I became aware that a glass ceiling does exist. I was a brand new sales rep at a medium sized company, attending my very first area meeting. When management was introduced, there was only one female out of about fifteen managers. I immediately wondered if I were witnessing female discrimination for the first time in my young career. As I grew in the company (and became a manager myself) I learned that they didn’t purposely discriminate against women. In fact, they wanted women in leadership. But like so many other companies, the subtleties of the unintentional “boys club” actually serve to unwittingly turn women away; ask any seasoned businesswoman. She’ll tell you that she’s seen it: locker room talk around the conference table, endless sports references, jokes that warrant apologies after the punch line. Until both men and women have an awareness, it will be more than revenues that suffer.
Define your terms of power
"We want [power] but do not know how to get it and are afraid to admit we seek it. When we have it, we hide it. We are often afraid to use it because our society punishes powerful women in subtle and not-so-subtle ways."
In the very first section of the book, Gloria Fendt gives what might be the most actionable advice for me. She gives simple steps to help define your own terms of power in interactions with others. I know that I have successfully used several in some interactions, but I can also recall many meetings where I failed to use them at all. They are:
- Be intentional
- Say the first word
- Say the last word
When I have successfully used these tips, I have been confident and haven’t felt that there would be a struggle for power. Rather, there would be a frank conversation where everyone wins. When I’ve failed to use them, it’s because I went into the meeting or conversation lacking confidence; I felt like the underdog. At the time I didn’t see these conversations as struggles for power, but underlying they certainly were.
The most actionable item for me in all my future interactions is to make sure that I am intentional, which will increase my confidence. The role I’m in with my company is brand new. It comes with new challenges for me and for the company, as well as a lot of tasks and responsibilities that fill my plate to the edges. If I’m going to reach most of my desired outcomes, I need to follow Fendt’s advice about being intentional about my actions and my interactions. She says “we must think proactively and intentionally about what we want to have happen, and then frame the conversation so that it will happen”. This goes for conversations with those above me, those I manage, but just as importantly, the conversations I have with myself.
"If a woman does not know she has a choice, she literally has no choice!"
Growing up I was taught to be independent, to speak up for myself, and that I had options in life. This lesson was taught to me by women who hadn’t always had a lot of options. When I read the section by M. Bridget Cook-Burch, it was very eye opening to me. I know that I’m more confident and headstrong than many women. I always knew that some women made what might be considered high-risk choices or bad choices that I wouldn’t have made. But it never occurred to me that they made those decisions because they didn’t know they had a choice.
This section was almost painful to read. Painful because some women don’t know they can take control, that they can indeed write their own stories. And painful because I recognize that there have been moments in my life and career where I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I’ve been in conversations with superiors where I was asked a question, presented with two “options” but felt that there was really only one “right” answer. From an actionable standpoint, it’s important that all leaders empower people to realize they will always have options. I’ll look for ways to empower women (and people) that I work with to see their choices and even create new options for themselves.
I tend to struggle with books that are specifically for women about leadership. I don’t agree with many of the so-called differences between men and women. I identify with what are typically both male and female characteristics and I find myself often furiously scribbling in the margins things like “all people” and “disagree”. While this book was mostly about women leading women, it does throw in a few places where men should be involved as well. Whatever your gender, I hope you pick it up. I’d love to hear what resonated with you in the comments below.