Several months ago, a well-meaning professional connection of mine called me “sweet” in a public forum.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though I’d prefer to be labeled “strategic,” “intelligent,” “ambitious,” or “visionary.” Going on five years in my role as President & CEO of CUInsight (albeit also a woman in my thirties), I had hoped my performance had earned different descriptors. After all, I’ve never heard a male CEO, nor any successful executive, referred to as “sweet.”
Countless female peers and I have heard the gamut over the course of our careers. Everything from “too young” and “too old,” to biased feedback like “too confident” and “not humble enough,” to unsolicited pet names like “honey” and “kiddo.”
We’re judged on our appearance, on displays of emotion, on our ability to work and parent, on our choice not to have children, on behavior perceived as too cold or too assertive for a woman. I’ve encountered men who kiss me on the cheek in professional settings while my male peers get a handshake. More than once, I’ve been asked if a male colleague is my dad.
“Sweet” is hardly the worst of it. And yet, the connotation and implication stings as if a nice disposition is my most remarkable accomplishment. As if my work ethic, intellect, or executive achievements are hardly worth mentioning. Many of the wise and talented women in my network have learned to let the bias roll off their backs like water off a duck. Admirably, some even find ways to use the misogyny to their advantage.
These experiences aren’t just one person’s point of view, nor are they the perception of an “overly sensitive” woman:
- No age is the right age: Research conducted by HBR last year shows that “no age [is] the right age to be a woman leader.” Put another way, women’s ages are held against them in the workplace no matter what. Either they’re considered too young to be promoted, too middle-aged to have bandwidth with family commitments, or too advanced in age to still be invested in their careers.
- Ambiguous and contradictory feedback: Another study suggests that women often receive vague feedback unconnected to business outcomes. At the same time, women receive conflicting feedback from different parties (“you’re too bossy,” but “you should be more confident.”)
The gendered language and bias have real impact on real humans. It’s hard not to internalize prejudiced and inequitable feedback, especially when it may look innocuous on the surface. Men to whom I’ve shared my own experiences are often surprised. Though many of us aren’t perpetrating the issue consciously, not everyone notices the discrepancies either.
Our industry is also affected. We know that diverse teams perform better, and with risk to our industry emerging on every front, we can’t afford not to perform at our very highest level (read: we can’t afford not engage and promote women).
As we kick off another conference season, here are three strategic approaches to a more inclusive environment:
1. Diagnose the culture you have created or permitted.
As a leader, you endorse what you allow. If the people who report to you treat women inequitably, inaction on your part equates to your seal of approval. As an executive, people manager, or leader with influence, look around you, and look beyond the surface.
Does someone on your team refer to the “girls in marketing”? Are women always taking meeting notes and cleaning up the conference room, though it’s not in their job description? Are there women in leadership at every level of the organization (and not just in HR and marketing)?
Strategic action item: Invest time and resources in understanding the culture around you. Leverage continuous improvement principles, and consider working with an external partner to ensure your culture is an equitable one.
2. Look inward and look around.
Hidden bias is just that—easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that women of color face even steeper barriers than white women. Studies show women of color encounter discrimination more frequently and more prominently in every way than their white counterparts.
Whether you’re in a meeting room at your HQ or at the lobby bar after a conference event, keep an eye out for those around you. Women who speak up for themselves when facing inequity are often penalized for doing so. Don’t be afraid to step in as an engaged bystander. Whether you choose humor to gently correct and diffuse a situation or choose structural and procedural changes to build a better culture, the power of an ally cannot be overstated.
Strategic action item: Search for hidden bias within yourself, and within the feedback you provide to women in your organization. Step in as an engaged bystander for those around you.
3. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.
I’m lucky to report to a board who have always treated me as an equal and with complete respect. For me, this creates an environment in which I can show up authentically and perform my very best. Many women do not have that luxury.
I strive to create the same environment with respect and inclusion at every level of our organization. For us organizationally, that starts with keeping the lines of communication open at all levels. From an industry perspective, creating dialogue also invites action. Whether through LinkedIn posts, speaking engagements, or articles like this one, the more we shine light on the issues women still face in the workplace, the closer we are to eliminating them.
Strategic action item: Speak up no matter your role. Initiate dialogue in your networks and spheres of influence to move toward action.
Before publishing this article, I passed it around to trusted people in my network for initial reactions. (Note: I consider it one of the great honors of my life to have such a remarkable group of talented and passionate humans in my professional circle.)
Along with the feedback, stories flooded my inbox. Every woman had her own experiences that unhappily aligned with the broader picture of inequity. From unsolicited hugs to disproportionate office housework requirements, to some encounters I can’t put in words here.
As I round the corner on half a decade as a CEO, I’ve decided that while others may call me “sweet,” I choose to call myself fiercely determined. This isn’t the world I want for the women who came before me, or the ones who will follow. This isn’t the world I want for myself. I’m committed to building a better world, an equitable and inclusive world for all, alongside countless others who are doing the same. Are you with us?