Today is International Women’s Day, and I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco yesterday to attend a panel discussion about equality in the workplace. My friend and our CMO at Bluewolf, Corinne Sklar, hosted the panel, which included a diverse group of IBM leaders who shared their thoughts on how women and men can help to close the gender gap in executive roles. Listening to the conversation made me think about my own experiences as a woman who has been in the workforce for a few decades and in several industries, including technology and consulting.
It comes down to this: Women need a network of supporters. I don’t debate this recommendation at all. The panel members described the times when their careers were bolstered by crucial advocates and mentors, and it raises the question: why isn't mentorship automatic? Two topics from gender research come to mind: 1) Competition mentality 2) What a network “feels like” to women.
Competition mentality theorizes that because women are under-represented in the workplace, they believe there is little room for another successful woman within their wingspan. It’s a scarcity mindset. With few women holding senior level positions, it’s easy to see how there might be subtle, even non-deliberate “outcomes” that reinforce this thinking. Network building is a positive way to overcome this belief system. Seeing successful people helping and advocating for other people to become more successful counteracts the scarcity mindset. When we build a web of people - both men and women - who know us and our work, our opportunities broaden with this web. Our ability to create our success and see more opportunities naturally grows.
Many women are not comfortable building an intentional support network. The idea of deliberately cultivating relationships that serve a purpose can feel like we are using people to advance ourselves – making a relationship about what somebody can do for us. Maybe it’s related to the natural caretaker instincts, as women we tend to only see how we need to take care of others or a situation. Or perhaps, it’s rooted in the same sort of mentality that requires women to be more certain of their ability than men before pursuing a job which holds us back. Women feel ashamed or afraid to ask others to believe in them when they are not confident in themselves.
Both of these topics are rooted in something else that has been gender biased since, well, forever: How children learn to interact when they play team sports. The percentage of girls participating in team sports as children is far lower than boys. The connection may not seem obvious but think for a moment of what a child is taught when playing soccer as a child. They have a position to play and the different positions serve different purposes; everyone must fill those roles successfully in order to win; sometimes you make the winning goal, and sometimes you assist; you have to know what the rest of the team is doing and what to expect from other players; how to rely on your teammates, and you only win as a team.
The roles in a support system have obvious parallels – advocate (Fan? Supporter?), mentor (Coach? Players?), sponsor (Scout??) – and all align. There is clear evidence that girls who play team sports enjoy greater success as women in the business world, because team sports address both the scarcity mentality around winning and the negative associations of creating and utilizing support systems. (For further reading, many good non-profits exist to work on encouraging girls’ participation in sports. Just to name a few: Girls in the Game - https://www.girlsinthegame.org/; I Play Like a Girl - https://iplaylikeagirl.org/; and, the Women’s Sports Foundation - https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/)
As the panel discussed, the things women can do to move themselves and other women into positions of leadership touch on the team mentality. Perhaps that is why I left thinking so strongly about the team metaphor. For me, Inhi Cho Suh (General Manager, Watson Customer Engagement) summarized it best by telling the audience to "be intentional in creating your team and to let those relationships be natural." And I believe those things we do – building that network, raising your voice for yourself and others, taking the role that we see as something we aren’t quite ready for – will all be easier if we can begin to recognize the other players on the field as our team, and learn to incorporate that dynamic into our thoughts and behaviors at work.
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