Breaking the glass ceilings 101

A conversation with a female friend at a male-dominated and highly competitive company in a very competitive industry went down like this.:

Friend: Grobby, you would be proud of me. I had two days of meetings this week for managers in my dept. it was 16 men and me. When I saw the invite I was kind of startled at the lopsidedness. I know it’s a male-dominated industry but 16 to 1?! Come on!

And I was mad but didn’t plan to say anything. But I ended up changing my mind and prepared a little something to say, and I challenged everyone in the room to take a look around – 16 to 1 — and we can do better than that. Be aware. We’re obviously missing out on talented people and to have only one female who is in any kind of mgmt role just doesn’t look good and isn’t good for our company or our work

Grobby: “Woooooww!!! I AM super proud of you!!  And what was their reaction?”

Friend: It was mostly positive. There were a couple people that said there aren’t as many female applicants or they try or something (being defensive) but overall people agreed

Friend: And the HR representative who was presenting to us (and a woman) said she really appreciated my making the important point, and that she had actually been a little taken aback at the #s. And that this has been a conversation topic recently for her with senior manager of how to get more gender diversity.

Also that she just had an exit interview with a woman who left and said a big reason was she didn’t see advancement opportunities for women as there are VERY few women in top positions at the company

Grobby: Tell her first to stop calling us diversity. Women are not diversity. They represent MORE than 50% of university graduates. They are not some underprivileged sector of the population. For your company they are a huge talent pool which it is not taking advantage of

Question no. 2:  I would ask her is – what are the characteristics that get people promoted in the organization

Friend: And there are a decent – not great, but so-so — number of women at the company. But not in leadership roles

Friend: I also presented this challenge. Google did a study of its workforce (following complaints and anecdotes) and found that women in the same position were paid less and women with same experience and education were in lower level positions than their male counterparts (on average). I think my company should do the same thing. I’m willing to bet that women in same role – on average – are paid less

 Grobby: You totally should. This is almost industry standard by now to do these kinds of studies. Pressure your HR.

Friend: Anyway we’ll see if my comments have any effect. I think the message really needs to be drilled to senior management 

Would you, the reader, have the guts to bring this important topic to discussion with your superiors? You SHOULD because they could be surprisingly supportive. And if they aren’t, perhaps it’s time to look for another employer.

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Descrimination at Work

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I have to applaud Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg for increasing awareness and adding color to the array of issues that our society (and I would emphasize society, rather than just women) faces in better incorporating women into the workforce and reducing the gender gap.

In this recent article (first of of a series) in the New York Times, titled: “When Talking About Bias Backfires”, they write about the fact that raising awareness about gender bias may actually deepen stereotypes about women, rather than reducing them.  

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

I like the analysis but I think it reaches the wrong conclusion. A call for action attached to the awareness is not enough. It’s all about the good old “WIIFM” (“What’s in it for me? “). In my numerous conversations about the gender gap I found out the following.

1. The terminology is problematic. Gender Bias, Gender gap, Gender equality, Gender Equity, are all stuck up academic terms that alienate the average person from the topic. Talking with these terms creates an immediate dissociation in the listener. The conversation becomes formal, academic, bureaucratic, compliance related instead of a meaningful discussion about an important issue for society. This is why increasing awareness about the terms may be ineffective. I have seen this numerous times in the corporate world, when a new initiative is launched with bogus names such as “Program for Gender Equity”, “Say No to Sexual Harassment”, “Corporate Ecosystem Services Value Chain Analysis”. Employees simply hate it because they know that their company is just covering its behind on their expense. When you have to train the trainers (ex: HR) to understand what the name of the program means, most likely you have to come up with a better name for it.

2. Awareness is a nice thing indeed. But most of the talented young women I met, were already somewhat aware of the gender bias. This is why they were consciously trying to distance themselves from this “women issue”. They have spent their careers fighting for their place and proving that they can do it, “just like any man”. They didn’t want their gender to be a factor. They wanted their achievements to be the issue of discussion. They would try so hard to not make it their problem that I would just have to make it their problem. Two of the common questions I would ask in response to rejection of the topic were:

a) Why  should you have to behave like “one of the guys” in order to be accepted, given that you’re not a guy,  you are a woman?

b) it’s so great that you have been given equal access to opportunities, but do you know other women in this company that were discriminated or mistreated because of their gender?  Could things be done differently?

After those, the real conversation would start (and sometimes would last for hours).

3. There is too much focus on the problem instead of on proven solutions. I have heard several women talk about how the system is all messed up and there is nothing to do about it. Sexism in banking and VC doesn’t seem to go away, family-friendly labor practices are a rainbow in the horizon, and women don’t really want to be CEOs anyways. Maternity seems to be the top-of-mind obstacle (perhaps because the bellies are so visible). However, I really have  hard time believing that this is the real issue. Having met several supermoms that have several kids and run their own companies as well as households, I know it can be done with the right amount of ambition (and of course financial success). We need much more emphasize on the success stories of individuals and companies challenging the status quo so that people would have more reasons to believe and the debate could be richer.

All in all, I am very optimistic and am hopeful that in the not so far future, the terms “gender bias” or “gender equity” would become obsolete because this will be a non-issue.

An Exercise in Empowerment

This evening I attended a very cool event organized at a friend’s rooftop. The hostesses were two of my girlfriends who have recently graduated from a top MBA program in Europe and are now trying to launch a business aimed at increasing women empowerment in Brazil. They assembled an interesting group of female advisors, ages 25-35, of various nationalities and sectors: corporate, government, social entrepreneurship, consulting, environmental engineering, finance, that are all interested in the topic, and shared their ideas with us, asking for our feedback.

We all had very different insights about the challenges women face in this world, from difficulties managing raising kids with a full time job, lack of female (or even male) mentors, hard time accessing financing (even banks have prejudice against landing to women), lack of supportive business network, challenge in asking for a raise, outright discrimination in hiring / promoting, being outside the male bonding circle with the boss, machismo culture, other women who use their sexuality to get ahead, and self-doubt/fear and other personal characteristics that prevent women from taking the leap they should be taking in their careers. It was a very interesting discussion that also generated all sorts of possible solutions and initiatives. I felt really motivated after participating in this exercise, which made me once again reflect on the fact that I should be doing more about this topic.

To my mother who thinks I am a feminist who will not get married, I have to say that I care about these issues not because I am feminist or because I hate men or think that women are better than them.  I, rather, have 2 very specific things that move me to action:

1) Empowerment – I want to help people believe more in themselves and get better and more successful and women happen to need much more help in this realm, and

2) Fair treatment – I can’t stand discrimination, stereotyping (that goes beyond the joke) or ignorance and I think the issue of gender is being treated too often based on ancient concepts instead of looking at modern day reality and needs. Again here, there is too much discrimination against women in Brazil in my opinion in terms of promotion and access to equal career opportunities and I want this to change.

Here, I said it. Now what?

Women in Media, Women in the Board Room, Career Choices versus Population Growth

Today I had multiple inputs about the status of women’s progress in society.

First, the below video highlighted the high level of negative / sexist bias that mainstream media creates about women, showing them as sex objects or raving bitches.

Second, it was announced that for the first time in history, a woman, Mary Barra will serve as a CEO of a major car company, GM, in an industry that is notoriously known for its “old boy club” mentality. All articles, kindly highlighted her professional and interpersonal skills that had led to this promotion.

Third, I ran into the following article about Japan, who is genuinely putting an effort to incorporate women in the workplace, building on their knowledge and talents. It cites all sorts of initiatives, the most interesting of which I found was pushing social norms, to encourage dads to contribute more at home. One challenge it tries to balance with women’s career options with the need to increasing population growth in a country where there are more pets that children under the age of 15!

Overall, 1 step back and 2 steps forward. I guess,  I shall remain optimistic!

How I chose to motivate my amazing leader friends to make a difference and inspire others

I sent out the following long e-mail to my girl-friends this week:

Hi Girls, did you know that only 3% of CEOs of large companies are women?

How does the above statistic make you feel?

I am guessing that the thought that may go into your mind is: these women are probably some sort of cold-hearted bitches that don’t have time for their personal lives..

What I am thinking is that the other 97% of CEOs are supported emotionally by strong and smart women, that are doing the work behind the scenes.

As you know I am full of projects and not in short of free time. But wanted to talk to you about something important that I have been thinking for a while that I need to do something about. I wanted to share this with you because all of you inspired me somehow in my life and made a huge difference in the formation of who I am today.

I have always been operating in male-dominated environments -> mathematics after-school program, computer science undergraduate, banking and now natural resources industry. Even in business school, you could see that the ratio and distribution of power was not equal. When we talk about Brazil, the situation is just sad in my opinion. Women participate, but who makes the decisions are definitely the men, in my opinion.

I never felt that I had less opportunities in life because I were a woman. Probably, the the opposite is true. I did feel often that I had to apologize to society somehow for being a successful career woman. I still think that with all the liberalism and social progress, being a successful woman carries a negative connotation. Anyway, whatever the reasons and hard feelings may be, my main conclusion is that women can and need to play a bigger role as leaders in society. 

If you look at both emerging and developed market statistics, you will see that women on average have better education rates, they are more committed to their jobs, and worry more about quality and long term. We have all that it takes to compete with men in the professional sphere but somehow many of us are left behind.

So back to Women Empowerment. I became an ambassador for Gender Equity at my company (project aiming at inspiring women (Which are only 13% of our workforce) and ensuring they have equal opportunities for success as men). I also have been receiving different information about initiatives aimed at encouraging women to participate in innovation initiatives (ex: singularity university’s project on increasing women participation in technology).

I want to do something about it.  I want to make women feel more confident to be leaders and inspire them to make a difference in their professional careers. All of you, as successful and smart women, have this responsibility (of course you may disagree but I will not change my opinion about this point). 

WHAT DO I NEED FROM YOU?

I started a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Leaders/155746767939517,  where I want to put all the relevant information and articles about this issue. It would be great if could participate and do the same whenever you see anything related that we could share with others.

Hope I could you at least a bit interested or excited. Please share the idea with other great women you know. WHO IS IN???