Women in the Workplace – Lack of Fit

This post is going to require some work on your part. Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult. But before moving on, I’d ask that you open a blank Word document or grab a pen and paper before you read on.

Your first assignment: Picture a CEO. Jot down some of your thoughts regarding the image in your mind. Just a few sentences or adjectives will do. DO NOT overthink this, just go with your first impression. We’ll get back to this later.

Now for a story. Have you heard this? Its an oldie-but-goodie. A man and his son are out one night, driving along a dark, winding road when suddenly a major storm moves in. A deer jumps out of the woods in front of their car, and the father, in an attempt to avoid the deer, swerves and smashes into a tree. The emergency personnel rush to the accident and tragically pronounce the father dead at the scene. The young boy, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As he is wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon looks down at the young patient and exclaims, “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son!”

How can this be? If you are like most people, the first time you heard this story you were confused. Didn’t the dad die at the scene? Does the boy have two dads? No. In fact, the surgeon is the child’s mother.

Why is it that our instinct is to assume that the surgeon is a man?

Back in 1973, an astute social scientist named Virginia Schein was asking questions about why more women were not being promoted into leadership roles. At that time, Dr. Schein worked as a manager for MetLife in New York. The prevailing answer to her question at the time was that women simply did not wish to be leaders. Dr. Schein believed there was more going on below the surface.

In a series of research papers published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Schein asked research participants to list the most important traits of a successful leader.

Go ahead and do this for yourself. You can simply add to the CEO traits you listed above, or if ‘Leader’ brings to mind something new and different, make a new list.

Next, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with men.

Do this yourself as well.

Then, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with women.

Again, jot some ideas down.

Finally, she compared the lists. What she found uncovered an uncomfortable truth – the list of the leadership traits and the male traits were very similar, while the list of the leadership traits and the female traits varied significantly. This led to the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ theory that has been proven in many studies since then.

One of the interesting parts of the initial research – all of the participants were men. Likely she had a problem similar to the one I faced in my attempt to include women of color in my studies – she just could not find enough female leaders to include in her studies.

But it does highlight another problem – the dominant culture will be the group to define the rules of the game. Research seems to indicate that it isn’t that male qualities are the best leadership qualities, but that since men are in leadership, they will necessarily believe that their qualities make for the best results.

Opinions on the “best” leadership qualities have changed since the 1970s. Back then, words like commanding, or assertive, or even aggressive were common. Nowadays, you likely included something along the lines of collaborative, or even supportive, or perhaps even inclusive.

And yet, even with leadership qualities that are more aligned with the female stereotype, I’d ask you to look back at your description of a CEO. Did you picture a man or a woman? Some of you did, in fact, picture a woman, and you are wonderful for that. Most people, however, pictured a tall, white, older male. If you did, don’t worry – you’ve just uncovered a hidden bias! Now you can work on adjusting it.

The impact of the ‘Think-Manager, Think-Male’ phenomenon is significant. It means that when company leaders are looking to fill a management position, their inherent bias toward picturing men in the position will lead them toward male candidates more readily than female candidates. This is true no matter the gender of the hiring manager.

It means that men will be considered for roles they aspire to while women will only be considered for roles they have already proven themselves in. It means that men will be supported despite failures and a woman’s failure will be seen as inevitable.

The solution to this issue is a catch-22. To get more women (or any other minority, for that matter) into leadership roles we need more women (or other minorities) in leadership roles. If the images we see when the letters CEO are uttered are not just white males, but truly reflect the diversity of our society, then we will disrupt the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ paradigm. To get there, we need to recognize our inherent biases and actively work against them. When choosing our leaders, we need to ensure we are intentionally looking in all directions for the best candidate, regardless of their personal qualities.

For a final assignment, I encourage you to consider ways in which you might stretch your mind when considering candidates for the next leadership role you will help to fill. Write them down. And then when the time comes, use them.

As always, keep it positive!

Selected further reading:

HBR – Alice Eagly: Women as Leaders. Dr. Eagly is an expert on gender and leadership.

Fast Company – The Gender Divide

Psychology Today: Why Women Make Better Leaders than Men

Inc. Magazine: 7 Traits of True Leaders

Labels: One way to think about them


Last week I participated in the Truth Rebellion (#thetruthrebellion), an Instagram campaign led by @ashley.beaudin, the leader of The Imperfect Boss (www.theimperfectboss.com). The idea was to examine labels we, as women, carry around with us, given to us by others, that do not accurately represent our truths. By visibly striking that word and replacing it with a word that does define us, we step into our power and take back our control.

This ‘assigning’ of labels can happen in the workplace as often as it happens in our private lives. We often let our workplaces, our bosses, our coworkers place labels and expectations on us that are not our own. I spoke of this in a previous post. I want to be careful to differentiate between expectations about job performance, and expectations around who we are as individuals. These are two different things. My boss is absolutely allowed to expect certain things of me for the price of my paycheck. What he/she cannot do is define who I am or who I want to be.

Some of my favorite word pairs I saw in the several hundred posts include unworthy which became worthy, limited became limitless, failure became risk-taker, naïve became ready to bloom, and loud became voice of truth. Stubborn became strong, busy became productive,  too quiet became good listener, bossy became leader, and reckless became fearless. These are such empowering ways to reframe words that were given to us in an attempt to name our limits, and turn them into words we give ourselves, naming our potential.

My word was emotional. Here at work, well meaning individuals, along with those who perhaps did not have my best interest at heart, have told me I am too expressive, too dramatic, that I wear everything on my sleeve. I have had many conversations with bosses over the years, bosses I have loved and respected, along with those who, to put it mildly, I did not love and respect, where they patiently explain to me that I need to ‘calm down’ and ‘hold back.’

In the next breath, these same individuals will praise my drive and ability to push for what is important. While they ‘do not want to stifle that’ (like they could!), they’d like to see me – what? Perfect my poker face? I suppose that is what it is. Perhaps they are right. Professional presence is important, and personal branding is a big deal. But here is the problem – up until now, I have let them define me. I have let them pick the word. I have given away the power to use what I am to my advantage.

So here is the truth – I am PASSIONATE. I will fight for what I believe is right, and I am not afraid to speak up. When I am delighted, I love to celebrate, and to share that delight with everyone around me. When I am inspired, I want to bring others along with me. When I am shocked or disappointed, I believe others should know that, and you will see that in me. I am professional in the way I express all of this, and I am appropriate and controlled in my responses. But there is never any mistake on which side of an issue I fall.

Today I reject the idea that I am emotional, and embrace the idea that I am passionate.

What words do you reject? What do you claim in their place? Please share!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Happy Monday!

Mentors…the subtle sexism that may keep women from finding one

I don’t mean to go political. Today, a political discussion only causes divisiveness when what we all need is to come together and work things out. That said, the following (political) tweet caught my eye last week:


If you are not aware, apparently Mr. Pence’s rule states that he does not have meetings alone with women. Social media has had quite a bit to say about this tweet, not the least of which is the obvious insinuation that men cannot help themselves from abusing and harassing women. We all know this is false, and patently unfair. It would not be a stretch for me to say that nearly every single male colleague I have worked with in the past 10 years has been respectful and has caused me no concern or anxiety that I was putting myself in a dangerous position. I realize I am one of the lucky ones. I also realize the ridiculousness in claiming “luck” in this situation.

That isn’t to say I have been immune to this kind of culture. Just one example: In my first job out of school, I was physically assaulted by a male colleague at work (he breathed heavily on my neck and grabbed me in an inappropriate place). When I reported it (I didn’t know to do anything differently), my career took a sudden downturn. I became a “difficult” employee; someone who had to be ‘handled’. Needless to say, I didn’t last long there, and learned a lesson along the way. That lesson is not the point of this particular post.

The problem with this tweet I want to discuss here is something that goes deeper. There is an insidious underbelly to this tweet that not only paints men as lacking control, but creates a distance between men and women workplace. It creates a difference where no difference exists, or is even appropriate.

In my research, and the research of many others, it is clear that one of the most important components of success in climbing the career ladder is having a strong, supportive mentor. In recent interviews I conducted with successful female leaders in my industry, I heard the following:

“Luckily I have a boss who is now really invested in my future and sees a lot going for me and I would say I am one of the lucky ones. I am one of the ones who is going to be put in a good position in certain roles and will continue developing.”

“I would say that [my mentor] is the number one reason for helping me get ahead.”

Because a mentor must, necessarily, be someone higher up the corporate ladder, many times mentors are men. And, because mentoring is a rather personal endeavor, the most effective mentorship conversations take place one-on-one. If men cannot be trusted to be alone with women, or choose to never be alone with women, we have cut off the possibility of a mentorship. We loose this critical opportunity to support and develop women.

Here is a real life example of this. Quite some time ago, I had a young woman working for me who wanted to take her career in a new and different direction. As it happened, this new direction was a great fit for what our organization needed at the time. The only problem was that she needed some specific experience under her belt to be effective. We had one gentleman in the office who was doing some of this type of work, and clearly would be a great informal mentor for her. The only problem – he refused to meet with her one-on-one, and refused to take her with him to an important company meeting out of town, citing his unwillingness to be alone with a ‘young woman’.

After much deliberation and scrambling, I was finally able to make this happen for her by finding the funds for another person to travel with them to the meeting. What a ridiculous situation to be in. To this day, I am not entirely certain of the gentleman’s motivation behind his refusal, but it rang in the same discordant tone as the tweet above.

In case this isn’t yet clear: Men, you are not helping women by avoiding meetings with them. Women need mentors to get ahead in the workplace. Men will, oftentimes, need to be those mentors. All that is needed to make this happen is decency and respect.

Keep it positive! And smile!

Happy Wednesday!

“I’m just too….” (subtle, inherent, insidious bias)

Image result for bossy woman meme

Of late, I have been interviewing successful female leaders in the Financial Services industry. I have asked them to share their journeys as they have navigated their careers, both within the Financial Services industry, and outside. This has been an exciting project, and I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing women. The leaders I spoke with hold positions at all levels of the organization from manager to Executive Vice President. They have careers spanning everything from 2 years to 35 years. They have worked for over 35 different companies. They are highly educated, highly intelligent, driven, and by all standards, exceptionally successful.

My main focus in talking with them was to understand what barriers and supports these women might have encountered as they climbed the corporate ladder. What I came away with were hours and hours of amazing stories, and some lessons I’d love to share. I do not have explicit permission to share the stories (I was collecting them for a different project), so I will speak in general terms, and will do all I can to protect their identities. The plan is a series of posts, each dedicated to a lesson I learned from these generous, brave, inspirational women.

Trend #1: I am just too….

As I spoke with these women about challenges in the workplace, the conversation would invariably turn to failures. These failures covered everything from a missed promotion, to a project failure to a simple meeting gone awry. Each time one of these perceived failures came up, we would dive into the why. Why had we failed? What was the true cause of the lack of success? The answers were, as you might imagine, as diverse as the women themselves. Many of these will be the subject of future blog posts.

Some mentioned politics. Others mentioned a lack of resources, whether it was human or material. Some mentioned ambiguous requirements and expectations. Most of the time, it was a combination of all of it. We are complex beings!

What came up, however, in every single conversation, was an inherent personality characteristic of the woman herself. Sometimes the women ascribed this characteristic to herself (‘I was just too___’) and sometimes she related that others had ascribed this to her (‘He/she said I was just too ___’). It was the rarely the single root cause of the perceived failure and most women would probably not have attributed much significance to it.

I might have seen little significance in it myself, and instead simply seen it as the individual woman bucking normal stereotypes, had it not come up so. darn. frequently. And had the qualities not been so similar. The list of these characteristics is extraordinary, and I offer them here as direct quotes:

“I’m too aggressive”

“I was too outspoken”

“I’m too bold”

“I am too direct”

“I was too honest”

“I’m just too impatient”

“I’m too perky”

“I’m too rude”

“I am too stubborn”

This is just a sampling…the list goes on and on. In a vacuum, these words are powerful and most are the mark of a successful leader. In each case, however, the women were using these words to describe the reason for a failure. This is not good!

A true leader is bold, is direct, is honest, and yes, sometimes even aggressive and impatient and rude too! A leader needs to be strong in order to lead! The more we ascribe negative connotations to these words when talking about women, the more we impede her ability to lead effectively!

My ask is this: If you ever hear your inner voice say something like “I’m just too….” or “She is just too….” STOP. Stop and ask yourself if you are ascribing a stereotype that is just not appropriate in the situation.

Inherent bias, biases we don’t even know we have, are exceedingly hard to detect. The more conscious we are of them, the better the chance we have of eliminating them!

Stay positive and smile! And have a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend!

Leaders – Beware of inherent bias


Inherent bias is an insidious beast. Inherent bias is the opinions and judgement we each hold deep within ourselves that are a result of our upbringing, our environment, and our experiences. Many times these biases are not explicit. Many times we may not even realize we have them. This is what makes them especially dangerous.

Think about the last time you sat in a public place. Maybe a restaurant, an airport, a ballgame. Think about the people you saw there and what you thought about them. Chances are you only had a fraction of a second to observe them, but in that time you made all kinds of assumptions about that person. At the restaurant, was it a couple on a first date? An interview? A family celebration? At the airport, did you notice how tired a businessman was, or how excited a family was, or how differently people are dressed at the gates for a flight to Seattle versus L.A. versus Milwaukee?

This is not a bad thing – we are programmed to be alert to danger and to act quickly when confronted with it. The problem is when these biases are invoked in inappropriate situations, such as in the hiring decision of a new associate, or the determination of who will be promoted.

There are many studies out there that look at this inherent bias and have proven that it exists. Check out Project Implicit to see some of what might be hiding in your subconscious. Be prepared for some startling results! A study by Corrine Moss-Racusin shows that hiring managers make significant judgement based solely on the name a top of the resume.  “John” has a much higher degree of hireability than “Jennifer”. Another study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan shows that the same is true when comparing “white” names to “black” names. You can guess who scores more interviews.

So what do we do about this? First and foremost, we must acknowledge that this exists, and work to understand how our own inherent biases are affecting our judgement. We need to examine our decisions to be sure we have accounted for these biases. Then, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.

The next time you are in any type of position to make a decision involving the choice of one person over another, I challenge you to stop and consider how you are making this decision. Be sure you have not discounted (or over-emphasized) someone for traits unrelated to the job at hand. This is one way we can all work toward a more equitable workplace for everyone.

Good luck, happy Wednesday, and keep it positive and smile!