As a woman approaching the twilight years of my professional career, I have been reflecting on the evolution of the working environment for females over the course of my lifetime. It is certainly true that “we’ve come a long way, baby,” and the women of my generation owe a debt of gratitude to the women who came before us. These were the women who truly were trailblazers in what was at the time very much a man’s world and helped set the stage for the equal opportunities I have been afforded.
But just as important as those women were those male counterparts who did open those boardroom doors and not only shared the conference room table with their female colleagues but offered mentoring, guidance and support to young women like me who did not have a lot of experienced, senior-career women available as role models when we were starting our journey in the professional world.
I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have worked for and with a great cast of male bosses, colleagues and employees whose guidance and oftentimes blunt “truth-telling” made me a better professional, a more respectful (and respected) colleague, and probably even a better wife and friend. As I observe current popular and workplace culture today, I wonder (and frankly, worry) whether the focus on “women helping women” and “girl power” comes at a risk of losing the sort of interaction with male counterparts that shaped me so profoundly and truly helped me understand and respect my male counterparts and bosses. I learned how to best work with them in a fulfilling way (that was also a heck of a lot of fun) by being open to their guidance.
The fact is, some of the best advice I ever got in the workplace would probably get some of these wonderful men terminated in today’s environment. That does not change the truth of that advice, though. In our important and well-meaning efforts to provide young women today with a better, easier road than we had, I wonder if we inadvertently deny them the opportunity to learn that life, indeed, is not and never will be fair, no matter how many laws are passed, committees are formed or DE&I seminars are attended. Maybe the best way to prepare oneself to survive and thrive is to stop spending so much time thinking about all the reasons there are to be offended and how the world should be different, and spend more time thinking about how we can succeed and thrive in the world as it is.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be vigilant about trying to root out unfair or hateful treatment to anyone. It is to suggest that an equal amount of energy be spent acknowledging that no one can make us feel inferior without our consent, and the easiest path to empowerment is the confidence and security that comes from knowing that we have done our best and are living and working to our highest level of ability.
I once asked a male boss what I needed to do to be considered for the kinds of recognition and assignments that my male peers were getting, seemingly only because they were spending time on the golf course and elsewhere with the senior male leadership in the company and had the sorts of exposure to those people that simply was not available to me. I was selling just as much as they were, and I was well-liked and respected by others in the company. I did not understand why I seemed to be a bystander when it came to promotions and the like.
He told me to have a seat in his office and shut the door behind us. (That alone probably could not happen today.) He sat down and, in the kindest way, said, “Here’s the deal. You can read a room better than anyone I know. You are extremely talented. But you’re young, pretty, and you smile all the time. There are going to be people who just presume you do not know as much as the guys. You are going to have to know more and learn more than the guys just to be on an even playing field. And then you need to let people know what you know. Put the books you are reading that are related to work on your office bookshelf or desk. Do not be afraid to speak up or challenge your colleagues in meetings. Lord knows your male colleagues are not afraid to talk, even when they have nothing to say. Make your voice heard. You have intuition and soft skills that we men do not. If you can learn how to harness those and do your best, no one will be able to stand in your way.”
Does some of that now sound old-fashioned? Maybe. Will some people take offense? Perhaps. Was anything he told me wrong? No. I still hear those words over and over in my mind all the time, almost 30 years later.
Contrast that to a conference I attended just prior to the pandemic last year at a large, well-known medical center in the Midwest. The general theme of the conference was the intersection of technology and healthcare and showcased all sorts of innovation and amazing new breakthroughs in patient care and disease research. I decided to attend a special half-day breakout session for “Women in Tech.” I thought it might be a good way to network and make some interesting connections, and the speaker panel was an impressive group of female leaders. I was eager to hear what they had to say and looked forward to learning something.
While the individual speakers were each exceptionally good, it was the Q&A session that changed my perception and started me thinking about the generational differences in attitude and perception between the women who were my age and the younger women in the room.
The kinds of things I was interested to learn more about were about the speakers themselves and the content of their presentations. But the young women in the session did not seem to be interested in any of that. The tone of their questions quickly turned into something of a man-bashing session. One young woman asked, “How do I get the men on my team to understand how I feel about being the only woman in a room with all men?” Another asked, “How do I make sure the men on my team know that they need to take my ideas seriously?”
I know it’s a different world now, but my reflexive reaction to their questions was, “Why do the men on your team need to understand how you feel about being the only woman in the room?” Or, for the second question, “The easiest way to make sure the men on your team take you seriously is to be a serious person with serious ideas that you can articulate in a way that resonates with them.”
I fear that to ensure everyone feels included, we have inadvertently changed the messaging to young people that their gender or the color of their skin or their sexual preference is a more important consideration for their would-be employers than their actual qualifications for the job. In attempting to level the playing field, it seems that in some cases, we’ve actually just slanted it the opposite way instead. In STEM fields, in particular, the drive to recruit women and minorities can often result in hiring less qualified or experienced employees (and paying them more) than other candidates whose only sin was to be born with different genitalia or skin color than those who got the job. How is that any fairer to them than what we have been working toward all these years for ourselves? And I want my colleagues to know that I am an accomplished badass in my own right, and the company is lucky to have me, regardless of what boxes I check on a form. I’ll experience more frustration and exclusion if people presume I got the job because of, rather than in spite of, those checkboxes.
Back to that conference. Consider that adage, “when you include, you exclude.” While we were all sitting in that room, listening to successful women (which devolved into complaining about men) everyone else at that conference was listening to a keynote speaker talk about game-changing developments in the industry. That speaker sparked such interest and excitement that it was all the buzz for the rest of the conference. And those of us in the breakout session celebrating women were out of the loop, for completely unnecessary reasons except that someone thought it was so important to have a session called out exclusively for women that it was scheduled over the keynote, and we women thought it was so important to meet with other women that we chose to attend it instead.
It is important to celebrate success and share the stories of accomplishment. It is important to ensure that everyone feels empowered to succeed. But I think it is also important to teach our young people by example, that anyone can learn and be empowered by anyone else be they male or female.
We do not have to divide ourselves into groups of people who look a certain way or believe a certain thing — in fact, quite the opposite. The only way to really understand and get along is to ensure that we have a chance to get to know, understand, and like each other, without preconceived notions that because I am a woman, or you’re a man, you or I must think a certain way.
Celebrate success. Celebrate ability. Celebrate hard work. Celebrate rising above whatever obstacles a person may have faced along the way toward success. But most of all, celebrate all the success that comes when hard work brings us all together, respecting each other, having some fun along the way, and working toward a common goal.