When I was growing up, my family owned a leather tannery in Taunton, Massachusetts. After our family holiday dinners, my grandfather, uncle and father would escape to the den to talk business while the women stayed at the dining table talking drapes and clothes.
You would find me in the den quietly hiding behind the couch trying to hear what the men were talking about because I found it so interesting. I enjoyed these business conversations and dreamed of the day that my dad would let me join the boy’s club. It never crossed my mind that I might not be admitted because I’m a woman. I just assumed that the other women in my family just didn’t want to be there.
When I was 12 years old, my dad had a conversation with me about what I might like to do for a job when I grew up; thanks to a 5th grade homework assignment. He told me that I could do anything I wanted…I could become a nurse, teacher, garbage collector or President of the USA. He encouraged me to believe that I could have or become anything I dreamed of and my gender was not a consideration.
Fast forward to my second job after college. I worked in a large international prestigious Boston bank. I remember looking around and noticing that all the executive jobs in the bank were held by men. That was the early 80s and my experience is that it’s still looks mostly the same today. My job at the bank was in Human Resources, where there were more senior level (not executive) women so I believed I could progress because I was in a part of the company where women could excel. However, I noticed that men ran the place, that there was a boy’s club and I wasn’t in it.
One day I was in the Chief Financial Officer’s (CFO) office when it was the time of year to talk salary increases and promotions. Our CFO said, “Gary has been asking for a raise; let’s give it to him.” I left the meeting thinking all I needed to do was ask for what I wanted and wrote down all the reasons I thought I deserved a raise. When I approached my boss with my request, her response was, “Really, you are asking for it?” And I was pretty clear her underlying message was that somehow I had made a big faux pas.
In business, men compete with each other constantly and it’s interesting to watch. As a strong woman coming up the corporate ranks, when I tried to do what I observed they were doing, I got “spoken to” and my promotional track got stalled. I was told that I was too straight forward and it wasn’t always welcome. I was told that in order to influence other people I should use a less direct approach otherwise I would be viewed as bossy. All this confused me because men were doing what I was told I could not. That’s when I realized the rules for women were different and competing and self promotion was not acceptable for women.
My mother once told me, you shouldn’t always try to be competitive with boys because they won’t like you. Boys like to win. If you want a boy to like you, don’t try to beat them. That went against my nature because I’m pretty competitive even with myself and this duality has been a cornerstone to my entire career. As a professional career woman, here is what I’ve learned as a woman in business for over 25 years:
1. No one is looking out for your career except you.
If you don’t ask for a raise or a promotion, you move down or get stalled on the ladder because men are asking. Women have a tendency to wait to be asked or tapped on the shoulder because they fear coming across as too straight forward. My mistake with the boss I mentioned was that I let her perception of what was appropriate stop me. In retrospect I should have asked, “Why are the rules different between Gary and me? He got his raise because he asked for one, why is it inappropriate if I do the same?”
2. Don’t be afraid to be bold.
You have to speak up for yourself and be straight forward if you want to get what you want. Don’t be afraid to be persistent even if you hear “no” the first time. Gary was persistent and asked numerous times before he was finally awarded his raise. The word “no” can mean not now, not never.
3. Don’t be afraid to promote yourself.
Women typically wait to be selected, promoted, asked, tapped on the shoulder in order to believe they are worthy of moving forward. I can’t tell you how many times a woman client will say to me, “I’m not sure I’m ready.” When presented with an opportunity men think, “What took them so long,” and women think, “Am I ready? Am I enough? Women need to learn to be transparent about who you are, what you want, and why you are worthy and deserving of it. Take action and steps to create a powerful future for yourself as a leader and start making bold moves towards it.
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