Empower, Support and Flourish Relationships with Women in Your Career

Posted by Kristi Brin on 7/14/16 9:38 AM
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Women are underrepresented in the workforce, with only 57% of all eligible females being gainfully employed, and we are generally paid 77% of what men receive at the same level. Forty-two percent of entry level positions are filled by women, but only 23% of senior leadership and 4.6% of S&P 500 CEO positions are filled by women. At the rate of progress, it will take 25 years to reach gender parity at the senior-VP level, and more than 100 years in the C-suite. Women face more obstacles on the path to senior leadership, have lower odds of reaching these positions, and are exposed to less opportunity for advancement in our careers than our male counterparts. These statistics, from the Women in the Workplace Report, make one thing clear: we have a long way to go before we can truly say there is gender equality in the workforce.

My focus as a speaker at the PMI Women in Project Management Leadership Conference, on June 24th, was around relationships between women in the workforce. These statistics were what I uncovered during research for my presentation. I feel privileged to have come as far as I have in my career, but I certainly have had my share of challenges as I’ve moved up. These have ranged from perceptions of who I am and the value I contribute to organizations, to difficulty building relationships, to challenges progressing in my career. One thing remains clear through all of these: no executive leader ever made it to the top alone. Relationships are key to anyone’s success.

Over the years, I’ve wondered why I encounter these issues, and what the experiences of other women have been. An informal poll of women in my network revealed a few of the challenges we deal with on a regular basis: overcoming stereotypes and gender biases, managing relationships, building networks and finding career advocacy. These themes resonated with me when I dissected my personal challenges, and my nature is to work toward solutions, so others do not have the same experiences. This gave clarity to my purpose for this presentation: a call to action for women to build stronger relationships and support for each other in the workforce. We begin doing this by addressing these key issues that are preventing us from building strong working relationships with other women.

Gender Bias

You may remember from previous blogs that I was gifted with a family who didn’t see gender as a limitation or indication of the direction my life should go. A great example of this was when my mother started her career as a draftsperson in 1973 with the help of my father. The civil engineering business was booming at that time, and companies needed good resources. My father had some experience with land surveying. but my mother had no experience when they were both laid off from a manufacturing job. My father found a job quickly, and taught my mom the beginnings of what would become a 30-year career. The fact that civil engineering was dominated by men at the time never swayed either of them, but this would eventually impact both of my parents differently.

My mom is a strong, outspoken, smart woman who was viewed as dedicated and hardworking when she was contributing to teams, and as aggressive and abrasive when questioning status quo or looking for a promotion. This is a theme I have heard from many women, and have experienced myself. Women who are strong and opinionated are not always received well when people expect to interact with the kinder, gentler gender. It was times when my mom was viewed negatively that would be most disruptive to her overall career, causing her to move companies every few years. Many times, I heard stories from my mom of men expressing the same opinions or challenging the company in the same ways she did, but they were viewed as strong, confident, and competent. The impact of this gender bias on my mom’s career would not be felt until her retirement, when her short tenures at numerous companies made her ineligible for many retirement savings programs. As a result, she had to retire much later than expected and is dependent on Social Security to support her through the remainder of her life.

Managing Relationships with Other Women

Every woman I know can tell a story of a time they behaved poorly toward another woman, or of another women behaving poorly, and the impacts that had on both women. I’ve also heard ample stories where women devalue themselves or shy away when presented with new opportunities, or talking about their personal wins. These situations affect our reputations and impact our careers in ways that may not always be obvious. The way we handle them is under a close microscope, but our behavior has been consistent enough as a gender to produce stereotypes around women in the workplace.

Women are just as guilty as men of the perceptions associated with gender bias. Many times this behavior is not something premeditated, but occurs covertly and is typically based on such factors as experiences in the past, learned behaviors, or what we’ve come to understand from stereotypes. This way of thinking limits our potential, and requires conscious change to break the behavior.

We see strong, assertive, ambitious women as difficult or self-centered. We will avoid working with them or gossip about them, eroding their reputations and making it more difficult for them to be viewed as the leaders they are. We fail to read between the lines when another woman is telling us about her “team’s” accomplishments, instead of taking credit for her personal contributions, perceiving her to be weak or unaccomplished and overlooking her for stretch roles and promotions. We process our emotions unfiltered externally with people we trust, and we do damage to the reputations of ourselves and our colleagues as a result.

When I peeled back the layers to understand why I’ve exhibited these behaviors in the past, I have found the underlying issue lies with my own insecurities and self-doubt. I have also been guilty of perceiving myself as a victim of these situations far too often, forgetting to reflect on how I could have handled a situation differently to create a more positive outcome, and instead staying safe within those stereotypes.

Building Networks & Finding Career Advocacy

The job market in the Denver area is tight: thousands of newcomers flock to the area each month, and the number of large corporations headquartered here is limited. I see the impact every day when my recruiters fight to find me the right candidates at fair compensation. The most effective way we fill our openings is by leveraging the networks of our existing team, which are filled with people who have similar ideals and demonstrate similar performance to our culture. Therein lies why your relationships are critical to the success and trajectory of your career.

Studies consistently demonstrate the power of your network, but I was surprised by the results of one report that was able to illustrate it distinctly.

“A majority of manager-level women hold line roles (positions with profit-and-loss responsibility and/or focused on core operations), but by the VP level more than half of women hold staff roles (positions in functions that support the organization like legal, human resources, and IT). In contrast, a majority of men hold line roles at every level. Since line roles are closer to the company’s core operations and provide critical preparation for top roles, this disparity can impede women’s path to senior leadership.” (Lean In and McKinsey & Company, 2015)

If you consider that your network primarily consists of the people you engage with on a day-to-day basis, you can begin to see the connection as to why women struggle to move into leadership roles. Our networks are tightly aligned to our current position and not the direction of our careers. To address this, we must expand our circles to provide a more diverse perspective on our career, and open ourselves up to more opportunity. We must also actively seek people who are willing to support and advocate for our success.

Career advocacy takes your network to the next level, and the number of people that fill this role are limited. These are the mentors and sponsors in your network that help you address challenges, identify strategies, and actively engage in helping you achieve your objectives. Both mentors and sponsors are people you go to for specific advice or counsel; they typically help you identify a path to managing an issue or attaining a goal. The difference is in the level of effort they extend with regards to your career, with a mentor typically being a more passive relationship, and a sponsor being more active.

Sponsors are key to major career transitions, and for gaining visibility at levels you may not normally have access to. A sponsor would support your goals through actions, such as holding conversations to advocate for your career with senior leadership, or lobbying for you when the right opportunities are presented. Your sponsor typically leverages their social and political capital, and takes a risk on you and your career. Having someone sponsor you is not as simple as asking for one. To grow a sponsorship relationship, you have to invest and engage in something that connects you to that person in a meaningful way, and demonstrates your capabilities and performance. These opportunities may not always be obvious. In fact, in my experience you need to actively seek them out. The best way to get started is to find people in leadership roles related to your capabilities or interests, and then go have coffee with them. Make sure you have a plan and clear objectives for that conversation, which can be introductory at first with your initial ask being for help getting involved in a special project, or for feedback on a promotion or new position you want. Time with your sponsor is valuable, make sure you use it wisely!

Personal Success & Self-Awareness

These major barriers are but a start to the work required for women to build stronger relationships with each other and reach gender parity in the workforce, and they tend to focus on situations that are external to us. The ultimate way to be prepared for any situation is to first understand yourself (likes, dislikes, passions, emotional triggers, etc.), and then define what success looks like to you, which is a blend of your personal and professional goals. With the influence of technology, the distinction between your personal and professional life has become harder to identify, making it increasingly important to know what boundaries you need to set around work, family, personal time, and hobbies. Knowing these boundaries is necessary to ensure you are able to find the right balance to keep yourself centered, a key element to your ability to navigate challenges in your career.

A Parting Reminder

Relationships with women can be rewarding; we have a deep desire for connection and a longing to belong. We are able to fill these needs for each other, which comes with the responsibility to act as stewards of each other. We have a long road to go to achieve gender parity in the workforce, and we cannot travel it alone. Only together will we begin to see closure in this gap, resulting in more opportunity for women. I challenge all women to be smarter, bolder, more compassionate, and seek to find understanding and clarification to build stronger relationships with each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt, and encourage the women around you to chase their dreams and challenge themselves. Move past your own insecurities by realizing that the woman in the office or desk next to yours shares them on some level. Look for opportunities to build bridges between women, and use these relationships to help each other manage challenges and conflict in a positive manner that builds trust between us, and fights the gender bias stereotypes out there.

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