Stop being pretty good for a girl

Growing up with two older brothers and a dad who coached boys’ sports, I enjoyed a life of often being the only girl in a sea of boys. This environment fortified me: I believed I fit in at places and in ways that other girls didn’t. I began to understand the rules of being allowed to join in, and I learned how to play by those rules. In 3rd grade when a friend told me I couldn’t run for class president because it was for boys, I didn’t challenge his rules. I convinced him that my experiences made me boy-like and therefore qualified me. This was not about me being a capable person, it was about me being enough like a guy. It was the first- but I’m ashamed to admit, not the last- time I found myself trying to prove that I was alright for a girl, separating myself from my gender in order to go after what I wanted.

Instead of trying to redefine the rules, I worked to demonstrate that I should be the one girl allowed in. While this ability to have exceptions made for me has served me well enough—there are many times when I am the only woman in the room, on the golf course, or at the lunch meeting– I have realized recently that it has done little to advance possibilities for others or change the culture in financial services. I want to be part of changing some rules to make it better for all.

Rule 1. Own what makes you who you are, even if it feels like you’re “playing your card”.

Montana’s first female Governor had the opportunity to set the bar for how a woman could be successful as a public official in a role that had never been held by women. During her first year, she had many gaffes that were often attributed to her lacking a certain sensibility that was necessary to be a public figure. For example, once during a speech, she referenced domestic abuse awareness month and said she had never been battered, “then again, she had never given her husband a reason to.” I have always wondered what possessed her to make the comment. While this is pure speculation, I believe it was an effort to somehow demonstrate that even though she was a woman, she wasn’t overly focused on “women’s issues”.

Without condoning the comment, I can understand the mentality that causes a person to actively avoid “playing the woman card,” afraid that it creates a personae too focused on one kind of issue or positions her as too much of an activist. A woman’s ability to overcome that she is a woman—and this applies to any minority– must stop being celebrated. Being accommodating may help the individual get ahead, but it does nothing for women’s rights or equality in the workplace, and it does not help build organizations that thrive with additional diversity.

Rule 2. Make room at your table. Be intentional in supporting others’ growth.

The value in blazing a trail comes from making it easier for someone else to follow that path after you, but I do not encourage this entirely for altruistic reasons. I believe many rivalries have come when a person used to being the first or only on a team becomes threatened by the entry of someone who puts in jeopardy the token position. Instead of this being a negative, there is great value in removing the idea that there is a token position.

When someone with a similar demographic demonstrates effectiveness in a similar executive role, it adds legitimacy. It stops being “normal,” for example, for all League Presidents to be white men in their 50s, and instead it is a role filled by effective executives of diverse backgrounds and skillsets. The position becomes more attractive to qualified people, and conversations become more valuable when shaped by diverse frames of reference.

Rule 3. Don’t believe in any of the rules.

Many executives wish they could hire more women in senior positions, but they do not see female applicants. Study after study demonstrates that women in key executive positions create stronger organizations. Most organizations strive for diversity but struggle to find the right talent in their applicant pools. This is unsurprising: Statistically, men will apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the qualifications, while women will only apply when they can check off 100% of the boxes. An August 2014 article in Harvard Business Review indicates this is not because women lack confidence in their ability to do the job, but because they are playing by a perhaps misinterpreted set of rules in the hiring process. They trust they must have the qualifications defined in order to be a serious candidate, whereas more men seem to understand that the required qualifications often are just a suggestion.

I occasionally work closely with Boards hiring CEOs. Each board has its own set of desired qualifications, along with a few non-negotiables. Many rank qualifications in order of preference, knowing it’s hard to find the unicorn candidate who can check every box. The top candidate might be the one who is 60% qualified, if it’s the right 60%.

More than ever, there is value in credit unions having leaders that represent all the people we serve and who can share unique ideas that will move our industry forward. I am proud of the conversation that takes place in the industry about creating diversity. If you or your credit union is also working toward this end, what lessons have you learned or what rules would you like to rewrite to make greater diversity at the executive level a reality?

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki believes that organizations do better when people bring their whole selves to work and helps prepare cultures and individuals to make this happen. She works with credit unions ... Details

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