If you read my first blog on women leaders, you would have read what women leaders said about how they became leaders. Though they all had slightly different stories, one thing rang true: They all persevered and rose up the ranks due to hard work and commitment. For our second post in this series, the natural next question I had was this one:
“Did you have any challenges as a woman, or have you faced any discrimination along the way?”
“So many of my obstacles early on were brought on by myself - self doubt, putting myself in the ‘not smart’ bucket, not taking up space. The thing is, when you choose to not take up space, you take yourself out of the game, out of the room, out of the process. It's so limiting. And I did it for a while until I built up my ‘worthiness’ muscles. Also, I didn't self select my occupation for quite some time, meaning, I let life and decisions happen TO me, rather than me creating options for myself. I told myself that I had just gotten lucky . . . right place right time, San Francisco in the 90s when the digital dotcom space was just starting up. And some of that is true, but I know that skill helped get me there too!”
“One of the challenges/obstacles is prioritizing what is important and along the way be nimble and flexible. Especially today when things are constantly changing, as a leader, you need to be able to make the call and make the changes.”
According to Alaina, who set up Women Who Code, the diversity problem in technology doesn't stop at the entry level, and 56% of women in the industry will leave their jobs mid career. Her goal as the CEO of Women Who Code has been to provide her members with support, not only to continue in technology, but to excel and overcome challenges by taking on executive and technical leadership positions so that they can become role models for the next generation.
“One of the biggest problems facing women leaders and those who aspire to leadership positions is perspective. Society has a mental image of executives as being male, and of the qualities that make a good leader as being somehow masculine. At Women Who Code one of our core missions is to expose the falsehood of those assumptions, and show that not only can women be great leaders, but they already are.”
“I had to come to terms with how I was going to be a great mother, wife and great leader. I stepped back with my career when my kids were toddlers and now go full force ahead since they are older and I have more brain space. My husband and I juggle as a partnership and support each other in our career goals.”
Kylie Green - Sales Director Australia, Reward Gateway
“I've been lucky in that I have faced limited discrimination. Partly because I've spent much of my career in HR business-to-business solution based sales, and HR in Australia is 73% female. But early on, I did have some interesting moments. The most memorable one was when I did a presentation in a room full of 100 postal men who were unhappy with a recent decision. The mood was sombre and tense, and it was obvious that they didn't want a 22-year-old girl presenting to them. Then one minute into the presentation one man threw a tomato, square at my head! What did I do?? I ducked! As a naturally uncoordinated person, that was my first achievement.
The next was keeping my composure and turning the situation around to win over the crowd and have them clapping by the end and apologising for their colleague. I found moments like this character building. The team and I walk into some tough male-dominated, executive meetings, but no one 'pegs' a tomato at me, so in comparison, the rest is a walk in the park!”
Shelley Lavery - Group SVP Sales, Reward Gateway
“My challenges are in my own head, around balancing being a great mum with a job that requires a big commitment. I heard a woman once say she always felt like she was failing. When she was kicking butt at her job she felt she was failing as a mother, and when she was spending quality time with her children she felt she was failing in her career. I used to relate to that feeling of guilt until more recently. I've never felt more comfortable about where my value is to an organization and what I'm good at and indeed what I'm not so good at, and now that my daughter is a little older I no longer doubt that my time away from her negatively impacts our relationship. We're mum and daughter with a wonderful bond, in fact I'm proud when she kisses me goodbye in the morning and says ‘mummy going work, see you later’.”
And here's mine...
The majority of challenges I’ve faced over the years I’d classify as gender-neutral, so had nothing to do with me being a woman. The first time I faced a challenge based on being a woman was when I presented for the first few times to an all-male leadership team as a Head of Reward. Right or wrong I felt I was being judged harder for being a woman, thinking I had to do not just a good job but an amazing job with my presentations. I was lucky enough to have a boss who sent me on a course for presentation skills which helped me overcome my fears and develop my skills.
I have to admit, hearing about these challenges didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me is that it seems so many of the challenges you face as a female leader are extremely similar to ones that male leaders overcome, too. I’ve found in my career it can help to talk to others about your challenges — you may find there are others in your shoes! Next week, we’ll explore advice for future leaders.
Debra is the co-author of "Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement," which she wrote with Reward Gateway Founder, Glenn Elliott. She's a Rewards guru, having over 20 years experience as a rewards leader, speaker, teacher and a frequent contributor to the Reward Gateway blog.