At the center of She Leads, a panel discussion on fresh ways to support women in business, is a paradox. Women have essentially achieved parity with men in joining the workforce, representing 48% of employees in entry-level jobs, yet only about one in five C-suite leaders is a woman—and only one in 25 is a woman of color, according to the benchmark McKinsey study, Women in the Workplace. Despite all the progress, the impediments to advancement persist.
“We’re here on a panel talking about our experiences as women, while men get to go on panels talking about what they do for a living, which is really good for their careers,” says Alexandra Cavoulacos, co-founder and president of The Muse, a platform to help next-gen workers research corporations and careers. Cavoulacos likens the issue to those faced by people of color, who typically are expected to talk about their experiences as minorities when it comes to diversity in the workplace, when they might have benefitted more from an opportunity to talk about their actual work performance.
The opposite of this identity-focused discourse holds true as well. Hearing phrasings such as “things will be better when there are more women-led companies,” does sound well-natured and hopeful, but it carries its own issues. “It means that women are inherently responsible for fixing problems,” says Jenny Chiu, vice president of marketing for Maven, a digital clinic dedicated to women’s health. “Telling women, ‘Once you have the power, you can make this better,’ is completely crazy in an upside-down way and it removes any responsibility from non-women.”
The stubborn disparities in how men and women are treated in business, and how to push back and work around them, was the focus of the panel at the From Day One conference in Brooklyn last month, moderated by journalist Sage Lazzaro. Among the takeaways:
Make a Leap of Faith
It never hurts to be a little bolder than one’s regular baseline, whether it means applying for a job or starting a business. Cavoulacos recalls wanting to start her own business, but being quite hesitant to leave out of loyalty to her boss. “Go do it and if it fails, call me, but go,” her boss responded, and Cavoulacos heeded their advice.
Similarly, Susan McPherson of McPherson Strategies, a consultancy focused on corporate responsibility, claims that she owes her success to her lack of fear. It all goes back, she said, to when she was young and her father told her, “Nothing is a prison sentence, except for a real prison sentence.”
Assertiveness also comes in handy when dealing with senior figures. “No matter how senior someone you’re on the phone with is, they’re just another human being, so there’s no need to feel and act differently,” said Stacey Olive, vice president of talent acquisition for the New York Times. “Just speak fearlessly.”
(Try) to Vanquish Unconscious Bias
When it comes to job hunting, many women will see a job description with a laundry list of required skills and focus on the ones they don’t have, while men do the opposite, said Cavoulacos. “Every time you’re adding a bullet point to the [required] qualifications, you’re narrowing your pool of women,” she said, observing that men have no problem applying to a job if they meet five out of ten of the criteria, while women tend to do that when they have at least an 80% match in requirements.
While women applicants may be overly humble, interviewers often judge them that way as well, barely getting past their first names. “What we do in in our team is to black out the names when we’re looking at CVs and resumes, so that we don’t go into any pre-conceived notions,” says McPherson.
Made it to the interview rounds? Unfortunately, women are typically evaluated on prior experiences, while men are evaluated based on their potential. “Our questions are often about the past, about what we have accomplished and how we can replicate that, versus what is the vision,” says Cavoulacos. “Thing is, we would be excited to talk about the vision.”
Cavoulacos suggests changing the performance-review scale, in which managers tend to pick out superstars, who wind up typically being men. “On a scale of 1-10, men are much more likely to get 10s than women. On a scale of 1-6, the gap lessens. By narrowing that, you’re actually giving other people a chance to be seen.”
Child Care Is Teamwork
Forty-three percent of women drop out of the workforce or significantly reduce their workload when they start a family, so when Chiu and her husband were planning for a baby, she noticed that the conversation focused a lot on the implications for her job, rather than his. “When are you telling your boss that you’re pregnant?,” he asked. “Why is the conversation always about me?” she retorted. “When are you going to tell your boss?”
Don’t take your childcare provider for granted, advised Olive. When she was pregnant with her first child, she was really anxious: could she do both? Her boss told her, “What you can do, if you want to make this work, is find amazing childcare and treat that childcare provider really, really, really well,” Olive recalled. “I’ve had the same babysitter for 14 years. We’re thinking of transitioning out, but she’s part of the family. If you’re thinking of having a child, whether you’re the father or the mother, treat your childcare really, really well. Don’t be an ass—- to them.”
Sometimes, The Effort Can Be Clumsy
Good intentions do not always breed good results. At one of Chiu’s old jobs, there was once an eager push for diversity and inclusion, and her team was gathered in a room to help tackle the matter. “They had us go through our LinkedIn networks and submit contacts that we had that we thought could fit the ‘diversity inclusion’ role,” she recalls “When I was sitting in the room going through my contacts, I felt that it was so awkward. It was almost like racial profiling. How am I supposed to know if they’re experienced on the topic?”
How to voice criticism to genuine effort, though? “Every company has to tackle their inclusion effort in a way that they feel sort of works for them,” says McPherson. “There’s no wrong or right answer, but the leadership of an organization needs to be held to account for what they are or are not doing. Don’t shy away from criticizing your directors, executive, or CEO for a lack of progress.”
“Involve employees in decision-making progress,” is Olive’s advice, which comes from working at the Times, known for their activist employee base. However, it needs to be a targeted effort. Added Cavoulacos: “Ask better questions: What is the progress? When will we get the next update?”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn