When I signed up for the event last week I assumed it was planned in response to Donald Trump’s victory, but I learned that the event was scheduled prior to Election Day. Panel moderator Mark Lipton, a professor at The New School, opened the night by saying how different he thought the discussion would be just a week ago.
Considering the subject matter and the almost completely-female audience, there wasn’t much hand wringing over the election results. The discussion was overwhelmingly positive. It focused on moving forward and our responsibility as women to take action. The message was that talk is cheap, get out there and do something.
Our panelists were diverse and brought a range of experiences. Sallie Krawcheck, the Chair of Ellevate, spent decades as a leader on Wall Street, working within while fighting the old boys club. Lauren Leader-Chivee, Founder & CEO, All In Together (AIT), a non-partisan organization dedicated to teaching women how to have voice in politics. And Jamia Wilson, Executive Director, Women, Action and the Media, who is a leading voice on feminist and women’s rights issues.
It was an inspiring discussion. All of these women have created their own paths in fields largely dominated by men. There was no secret to their success – it was purely determination and hard work. It inspired me, as an entrepreneur, to keep pushing forward even on the days that feel like I’m swimming through quick sand. These are a few of the other insights I gained from the night.
The World Is Not a Meritocracy
Where was this advice when I was 22? I had a wonderful father who always told me I could do and be anything I wanted, but he definitely led me astray by instilling the idea that being smart and working hard would lead me to success. Early in my career I tried to be the best employee I could be and sat back waiting to be recognized for my work. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Never asking for a raise, never asking for a promotion. Surely my contributions were obvious and I would be rewarded for them.
The reality is that we do need to be smart and work hard, but we also need to actively promote our own contributions. My aha moment came in my early 30s when I discovered that a guy I worked with made the same amount of money as me. He was lazy and the rest of us constantly had to finish his work and correct his mistakes. On top of that he wasn’t a very nice person. When I confronted my boss about this, his answer was that this guy repeatedly pushed for more money. He said, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Lesson learned. The next time I received a job offer, I renegotiated my starting salary and my vacation days.
Women Don’t Have to Act Like Men to Be Successful
This comment surprised me a bit since it came from Sallie who rose to the top ranks of traditional, male dominated Wall Street institutions. I had always assumed that she must have played the game “their” way. It hit home because I’ve always struggled with taking the rules as a given or doing things my own way. I’ve done a little bit of both.
I believe that “acting like a man” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve learned a lot from my male colleagues. The younger me used to hesitate to speak up in meetings, analyzing whether my question or comment was dumb, only to have a guy say almost the same thing and be praised for it. I’ve learned to negotiate better and I’ve learned to stick to my professional boundaries.
The funniest thing I’ve learned from my male colleagues, and I’ve heard this from several, is that they often do a bad job at things they don’t want to do so that they’re not asked again. I think this is difficult for most women to comprehend. In general, I believe women have a hard time showing that they’re “bad” at anything. The implementation might not be totally honest, but the motivation behind is a good lesson. If there are things we are asked to do that are taking time away from what we should or need to be doing, then push back is necessary. There certainly are times when we all need to take one for the team, but if we do that too often we risk it becoming an unproductive pattern and could stifle our advancement.
Not All Women Support Other Women
This one is tough to swallow, even though it should be obvious. Not all men support other men either. Why would all women like and support each other? We must be discriminating in who we trust at work and in life. I’ve certainly experienced a high level of scrutiny and discrimination from some of the women I’ve worked with throughout my career.
One of comments from the panel was that this is a generational issue. “Older” women – which is clearly a subjective delineation – had to fight for the few female seats at the table. If one woman got the promotion, chances were that another would not. It was a zero-sum game. Today, it doesn’t feel like one woman’s success must mean another’s failure. Women are still grossly underrepresented in senior management and board seats, but we are making progress. I believe this is a grass roots effort and every small way we can support other women’s success is beneficial. Let’s make this a case of a rising tide lifts all boats.