We have a lot of work to do to make American businesses truly diverse and inclusive — and to thus unleash the economic growth, higher returns, and greater innovation that research tells us diversity drives. Public policy work, work in changing company cultures, and work in challenging gender expectations all top the list.
But there’s something each of us can do.
No, it’s not to work harder, or to adjust our styles to be less threatening, or to find a graceful way to deal with people who talk over us, or to make our requests for raises less demanding.
It’s to recognize that some of the “lessons” we’ve learned about how to get ahead haven't served us well.
The first myth that needs to go: the rock-solid belief that women can sidestep the systemic issues listed above with grit, pluck, good cheer, and a self-help book with the right “to-do list for career advancement.” The underlying message: “If I, the provider of this career to-do list, can make it to the top, then so can you.”
Does it feel empowering? Yes.
Is it successful? Not always.
Because an unsaid-but-crystal-clear message of so many of these books: Business for women is an “individual sport.”
The problem with this?
Men have approached business as a team sport. They’ve promoted each other, hired each other, talked each other up, put each other on their boards, funded each other’s businesses, hired each other’s kids, sent each other RFPs, and provided back-channel reference checks. You get the point.
And the cold, hard truth is that a team most often wins over an individual. (There’s a reason they call it a “boys’ club,” isn’t there?)
Of course, the irony of this is that one of women’s and girls’ strengths is building and nurturing relationships. It’s why so many of us spent so much of our high school and college years traveling in packs. But we were somehow convinced to drop this tendency once we began climbing the corporate ladder; maybe because we looked up and saw that there were only a couple women in the C-suite, and most often no women of color. So we intuitively knew they had made the journey on their own, or worse, had been pitted against each other.
And maybe it was because we saw that so many of those senior women were the proverbial Queen Bees, who, after making it to the top, didn't support other women in getting to the big table. And maybe it was because we also intuitively understood (as research has told us) that women who promoted other women — and people of color who promoted other people of color — were often penalized for it.
You’re already doing much of it at Chief: changing the game to play it as a team sport. Networking, supporting each other, promoting each other, putting each other on your boards, funding each other, buying from each other, introducing each other to people they should know. And recognizing that by doing so, you’re not lowering the bar; that diversity raises the bar. And the table at the top can grow.
But even for women who achieve business success, there’s another fallacy that can eat away at our well-being: The belief that “women can have it all.” That we can achieve work-life balance, rock our careers, start that business, get that VC raise, score that board position — all in those three-inch heels and without breaking a sweat.
I remember when I was CFO of Citi, being on a panel with other CFOs of global companies. I was the only woman on the panel, and I was the only one asked about “having it all.” I remember thinking that it wasn’t enough for me to have achieved the position of CFO, with all of the traps I’d avoided along the way; but that I was expected to clear the additional, even higher hurdle of “having it all.”
Which is why I took to joking that my goal was to be successful in the workplace – to make it to the C-suite – but to just be an average / mediocre / fine / 50th percentile mom.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean I don’t love my children; I love them almost more than I can stand. But, the underlying message of these misconceptions is that our issues getting ahead rest on our shoulders — that somehow, it’s our own, individual fault that we’re unsuccessful while the system gets zero blame. It’s a tactic that can serve to keep us apart and believing we need to be “empowered.”
But women don’t need to be “empowered.” We have power, something that we clearly demonstrated this summer as women across generations embraced their financial clout. We bought tickets to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Barbie and caused economic earthquakes. We used our money as the freedom to leave bad relationships during what was dubbed “the summer of divorce.” We pushed our industries further, whether we advocated to close pay gaps as athletes or took our company public as CEOs.
We can keep the momentum going by continuing to use our financial power. And we can increase that power, too, by considering how we spend money, how we invest it, and who we invest it with. Together. As a team. This summer was the blueprint, so let’s run with it.
Because, as we like to say at Ellevest: “Nothing bad happens when women have more money.”
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