Being a Woman in Work
This is chapter 5 of a 6-part series called A Handbook for the Next Generation of Ambitious Female Leaders. The series is based on 18 interviews from top women and aims to empower young women in the transition from university to their first full-time workplace. Read the intro to this project here. Chapter one here. Chapter two here. Chapter three here. Chapter four here.
Many of the peers I have spoken to during this project brought up that they are already afraid of being undermined as a woman in the workplace. And they haven’t even started yet. In digging a bit on this, I found that it exists outside of my circles too: 41% of young women expect to be discriminated against at work. I assume that in part it’s due to the fact that we’re surrounded by messages telling us how tough it is and how hard we’ll have to fight. I believe this conversation to be incredibly important and I’m proud to see it moving forward at a steady pace, but what we talk about most tends to become the roadmap to our future.
So maybe it’s a matter of framing it differently; what if we see it as an opportunity? After all, this generation can make a real mark towards a more equal workplace. I brought up the topic to these women and they had some great considerations for those just starting out.
“It is the best time in human history for women” - Cristiana Belodan
First of all, Oana Bouraoui suggests that you’re not at a disadvantage. You are, however, once you start thinking you are. There’s a tendency for women to put the stigma on themselves. Several women involved in this project advise not to fill your head and spend your energy trying to break the glass ceiling. Devote that energy to new ideas, passion projects and yourself. Carlota Casellas suggests we are all biased to some extent, but we should consciously become aware of these biases and take action to address them.
What also came up, was to keep and cultivate the traits that make us women. These include empathy, listening, collaboration and careful consideration. Be yourself. Trust yourself. You will find some condescending people along the way but their behaviour is not about you.
“Own Your Space” - Vânia Cera
One of the recurring themes in my conversations with these women was space. Walk tall, sit straight and be present. Use your space intentionally. Some women mentioned they’re very conscious of this for their own professional confidence, carefully considering where they sit during important meetings for example. Beyond the purely physical, stand for something and don’t be afraid to defend your ideas as well as yourself.
“Speak out, be Honest and Don't Hold Back” - Machteld Rijnten
Relating to Chapter Four, it’s important to speak your mind and share your thoughts at work. Ask about the career opportunities and salary increases, suggest projects you want to work on and clients you want to work for. Let’s hear it for the cliché: if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Never apologise for that because at the end of the day it’s your career, it’s not personal.
I received the advice to say one thing in every meeting - at least. I lived by that at first, whether it was a comment or a question, and it did make me more comfortable with expressing myself. However, I also noticed I would feel especially negative towards myself if a meeting went by in which I kept quiet. So I would make a small alteration to that piece of advice: Never hesitate to speak up in meetings if you feel like you have something to say.
“Your Biggest Limitations are Your own Beliefs” - Anneli Rispens
Also, when it comes to your own achievements and sources of personal or professional pride, own them. Don’t downplay yourself. It’s OK to be proud, and you should be.
“Lift as you Grow”
This phrase kept coming back in multiple conversations with the Women. I had heard it before but wasn’t aware that it was so widespread. It’s all about mobilising yourself for the women who come after you. It’s the other side of the mentoring coin. Be generous with your time and knowledge as you develop further up the ladder. You’re never too important or too busy to give back to the younger generation that looks up to you.
And on that note, we should be more supportive towards each other and the individual choices each of us makes in our pursuit of happiness. Success can only be defined on an individual basis.
“Great work knows no gender. Great work gets respect, regardless of who you are.” - Susan Credle
Maatje Blijleven suggests that when you’re at a job interview, ask how the company deals with equality and diversity. Bring it up in meetings. Address it. Make sure it is a question that companies are getting a lot so they can’t ignore it anymore. And in the workplace, call things out when you see them. Be part of the solution. Antoinette Hoes suggests to toot the little people who are trying to make a difference.
Also - management is really, really important. A couple of women spoken to in this project mentioned that they went freelance or launched their own companies either because their great manager was moving on to other things, or because they had a terrible manager they couldn’t bare working with. When the time comes, be the leader you wish you had.
Finally, it’s common knowledge by now that having more women in the workplace, and in leadership positions, is better for business. Pushing towards a more equal workplace is not the responsibility of one half of the gender equation only. We need to involve men in these conversations and remember that this is not a woman’s issue - it’s a human one.