The month of March is Women’s History Month. Much as I sometimes despair that, despite the efforts of so many, women are still seen as a separate (and for many, subhuman) species from men, we have in fact made some very real headway.
In the just over fifty years since Katharine Graham became the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the numbers have risen slowly but surely. Today, women run a little over 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
In addition, women now hold a record 28 percent of board seats on the Russell 3000 index of publicly traded companies.
It is just good for business. In 2019, McKinsey research found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. A 2020 Women on Boards analysis found 55 percent of companies that fell off the Fortune 1000 index had one or fewer women on their boards. Another study from Harvard School of Public Health revealed that companies with the highest number of female directors on their boards had a 42 percent greater return on sales.
Unfortunately, the pandemic caused significant setbacks in what had been a fairly steady trajectory. Another McKinsey study reveals that one in four women left or considered leaving the workforce during the pandemic. The group that was most affected, unsurprisingly, were working moms whose children were under the age of ten.
Having a career while raising kids has never been a cake walk, but the pandemic raised the level of difficulty to an absurd degree. Any woman trying to do her job from home while managing the energy and education of young children can tell you a horror story.
But it isn’t just working moms that face strong headwinds. All women in the workplace face microaggressions. And when they are the only woman on a team, which is typically the case at the seniormost levels, it is worse.
These microaggressions come in many forms:
- Women needing to provide more evidence of their competence than others do.
- Women having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise.
- Women being addressed in a less than professional way.
- Women being mistaken for someone more junior.
- Women having demeaning remarks made about themselves or people like them.
Studies show that women and men each make up roughly 50 percent of the entry-level work force. The gap between the two starts with the first promotion and widens all the way up to the C-level, which is less than 20 percent female.
There are plenty of organizations devoted to gender equity—but what can ambitious women do to advocate for themselves and break this pattern?
- ASK. And get better at negotiating. The research of Babcock and Laschever who wrote Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It shows that by and large, women are far less likely to negotiate salary or express an interest in promotion. Watch this if you want to know more about it. Women are heavily socialized to wait to be invited and to worry about being perceived as pushy or tough. But, as Richard Branson (I first heard it from him) and many others have said: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”
- Apply even if you don’t think you are totally qualified. The original study that showed that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they have all the qualifications and men apply for jobs when they meet only 60 percent of them was originally interpreted to mean women had confidence issues. Further research showed that women didn’t want to waste their time applying for jobs they didn’t feel likely to get. But the hiring manager may just see a quality they didn’t know they were looking for until they see it.
- Focus job searches on companies that have a female CEO or at least a woman on the executive team. Statistics show these companies are more likely to be shooting for gender parity in their workforce.
- Look for organizations that have women on their boards. The same reasoning is true here.
- Keep track of your performance metrics. Don’t count on your manager to remember everything you have done over the course of the quarter or the year. Don’t forget to mention all the extra projects and tasks you took on that weren’t in your job description.
I have been asked many times by young women if I thought it was possible to have a serious career and also be a good mother. The fact is that all through history almost all women have had to work during their child-rearing years, so only the very lucky are exempt. Two important things have come clear to me from my own experience:
- You can have it all, just not always at the same time. When I was building my business and my kids were little, I desperately wanted to get a master’s degree. My coach had to work very hard to get me to see I was being unreasonable. I waited and got it later, when my kids could drive.
- Women who want to have both a family and a career (vs. just a revenue producing job) need three things:
- Passion: It will be hard. Some days (weeks? months?) you will wonder if it is worth it. To hang on to your drive, you must be fascinated by your area of expertise and desperate to make an impact.
- Stamina: The woman who needs a solid ten hours of sleep and can’t get through the day without a ninety-minute yoga class is going to suffer. Not to say that career women who are moms can’t take care of themselves—because they must—but there will be periods when self-care comes last.
- Flexibility: Jobs that can be done from home or on the go, in which the work can mostly be done on your own schedule (often the middle of the night), will make things much more doable. The jobs that force you to take PTO for a quick trip to the doctor for the inevitable ear infections will feel like death by a thousand cuts over the years.
Women have come a long way. And we still have a long way to go. We must stay in the game, keep up the good work, fight the good fight, and keep the faith.
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