What’s it like to be an executive at your company? If you asked a male and female executive, would you get the same answers? What about executives of different ethnicities?
As a female executive who has worked in the tech industry for the past 25 years, I’ve watched other women get bypassed for promotions. I’ve seen people of color who have had years of experience suffer from pay disparity. And we’ve all heard stories from friends and colleagues of when they spoke up and it reflected negatively in a performance review or inhibited them from getting that promotion.
Looking at statistics, it may seem we are making progress. In LeanIn.org’s “Women in the Workplace 2019” report, the representation of women in the C-suite had increased from 17% in 2015 to 21% in 2019. There’s also now at least one female board member at every S&P 500 company, and the Fortune 500 has 37 female CEOs, although only three are people of color.
Pay parity is still an issue, with women being paid less than men, currently at 81 cents for every $1. But hey, that’s up 10 cents from where it was in 1990. Sure, we’re making progress, but at a snail’s pace.
Reports have suggested that one reason women are still underrepresented is that humans are unconsciously biased about who we hire and who we promote. Just as we tend to have friends whose values align with ours, we also tend to hire and promote people similar to ourselves. As leaders, we have to work at being unbiased. It takes practice and purpose, but it’s achievable.
Studies also show that both human resources professionals (45%) and men (21%) believe there are too few qualified female candidates in the pipeline — compared to only 13% of women who believe this to be true. One way to increase the pipeline of qualified women who will have a seat at the table is to promote and invest in ourselves.
I once hired a professional organization to provide speaker training to a group of folks who were to be part of an internal speaker’s bureau. Part of the training was a workshop during which the organization taught speakers how to project their voices, have voice inflection, annunciate and other basics of public speaking. The second part of the training involved a one-hour one-to-one coaching session with a speaker coach. I decided to participate in the training as an investment for my company and for myself.
During my one-to-one session, I told the coach I often felt like I was defending my position on a topic when in a room with male executives. It always seemed to take more words, more defending statements of proof, and I felt I was receiving more scrutiny than my male colleagues. I know from my conversations with other women in tech that their experiences have been similar.
I provided the coach with a recent example of how I had positioned my stance on an industry topic I knew well and felt very strongly about. When speaking to a male executive, I had started with the words, “I think we should ….” This is where the coach stopped me and pointed out that I was giving my opinion, and people often take that as a signal to offer up their opinions too. The coach also said this particular phrase sounded as if I was dictating to them what they should do, and no one likes to be told what to do.
In my first attempts to change my phrase, I stated the facts but then ended my statement with, “What do you think?” The coach pointed out that I was asking for permission. If I knew I was right and the facts said so, I shouldn’t need to ask for permission.
After what seemed like 17 times, I finally got the coach’s seal of approval when I worded it in a way so that it was definitive, unapologetic and factual. It was no longer my opinion; it was fact, and hard to argue with or be challenged.
This coach’s advice for moving forward was to connect before you correct. Acknowledge the other person’s position, and always come from a place of service. Only then will you be truly heard, and perhaps get a seat at the table.
For female professionals looking to attain executive-level roles in their industries, stop asking for permission to be heard, and don’t be shy about promoting yourself and your work. Remember, no one else has your unique experience or your unique perspective. Your opinions have value; don’t be afraid to voice them.
Also, try to seek out a mentor. Your mentor does not have to be in your department or even at your own company. Some of my most treasured mentors have been women leaders in other departments of the company.
For female leaders who already have a seat at the table, the greatest thing you can do is use your position to foster and mentor other great female leaders to help close the gender gap. Become a more trusted voice in your organization by coming from a place of service. Create opportunities that enable your female employees to showcase their abilities and build confidence.
I was glad I took the opportunity to invest in myself. It’s helped me considerably in my career. Now it’s your turn. What will you do to invest in yourself? How will you help a woman in your company take the next steps toward leadership?
Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?