How We Can All Elevate Women and Give Them a Voice in the Business World
Women shouldn't have to choose between being nice and being strong.
I'm a firm believer in equality for everyone. No special treatment -- for good or for bad. Labels call out our differences, rather than highlighting how we are all the same. Unfortunately, that's often not the way the world works.
Over the last 10 years, I've had the unique perspective as a woman of the challenges facing other women. I've built relationships with some of the smartest, most successful executives and with the timid, newly hired post-graduate. I feel lucky to say that many of these were women -- a fact untrue not too long ago. What I've found is that women are often viewed as one of two extremes. You are either sweet but meek, or harsh and strong. There is no middle ground. If you have advanced in your career, it's not because you're ambitious and talented, but rather, you must be competitive or cruel. While some of this is perception from others, often it's just our own projection.
Years ago, in my first job out of college, I was working around the clock to build a new marketing channel for my company. I was hitting a lot of obstacles but had support from senior management to pursue. After much persistence, I made it happen, and the new channel generated significant revenue in its first year. Meanwhile, I had been vying for a quick promotion, as a couple of my male colleagues had successfully done in the past. When I didn't get it, I felt a part of it was because of my gender, not my lack of skill. I've come to realize that another part of it was my attitude. While I've always considered myself to be a "nice" person, I wasn't exactly what you call a team player at that point. It was all about my goals, my job, my promotion. The soft skills matter.
I've also seen the other side firsthand. Many women lack confidence -- in themselves and in their abilities. They doubt themselves in a way that men seem to rarely do. I'm not good enough at my job. I don't deserve this promotion. I'm not qualified for this role. I could never negotiate for more.
It is true that women are more likely to be labeled negatively for the same actions that would make a man ambitious. But, the stereotypes go both ways. As a woman, it's using empathy as an advantage rather than a weakness. For men, it's important to remember that this applies, too. It's OK to be a caregiver in life or in work. It's taken years for me to both realize and appreciate: It is possible to be both nice and strong.
Now that I know, I'm here to say to everyone, whoever you are: Be kind. Always be kind to others, but don't forget to be kind to yourself. And also, be strong. Stand up for yourself. Prove your worth -- to you, not to others. Follow your dreams and believe that you can do or be anything. Life is part luck for everyone, but it's also hard work and tenacity that carries you through.
Related: How to Lead Like a Woman
Here are three ways you can start by being "nice":
- Mentor another female, particularly one more junior than you -- you've been where she is today.
- Offer your help on a project, even if it's one that doesn't serve you (it's an opportunity to learn!).
- Support your team and communicate feedback (kindly!) -- being a leader isn't just about being good at your job, it's helping those around you be better, too.
And to be strong:
- Advocate for yourself -- whether for new projects, roles, promotions or raises. No one will do it for you.
- Stand your ground -- it's OK to respectively disagree or create boundaries and say no sometimes.
- Speak up -- make your voice heard for issues you feel strongly about. If you see someone being taken advantage of or if you were blamed for a mistake you know you didn't make, say something. The key is to pull someone aside privately; there's no need to make a public ordeal. If done correctly, you have the opportunity to gain greater respect.
Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful, well-known women in American society, made an impact on women around the world during her Golden Globes speech this month. This is what stuck with me: "In my career, what I've always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So, I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women."
I believe this and I hope you do, too. A new day is on the horizon. We are making progress every day toward a brighter future. But, remember, it starts with you. Be the person you know you are capable of being. Inspire others and inspire yourself. Be kind, be strong and give women a voice -- through yours.