Be Heard and Overcome Gender Inequality

Becoming a successful professional is no mean feat. And if you are a woman, then it is all the more commendable considering the hoops you might have jumped through to get there! Being a woman in the corporate workplace is like walking a fine line. You have to strike the right balance. Underplaying your strengths may project you as being a pushover, while playing a tough nut might earn you the tag of being too aggressive. Notwithstanding our legendary capabilities in managing multiple roles and balancing expectations from multiple stakeholders from home and at work, climbing the career ladder can be quite stressful. No matter how often companies shout from the rooftops about diversity and inclusion, the gender balance is still tipped in favour of male leaders. While there are companies that appoint women in executive positions, the candidates are not necessarily the best examples for the role, thereby further increasing skepticism in men about women leaders. As a result, the truly capable women find it very tough proving their mettle.To be successful leaders, women have to battle and overcome many situations and behaviors.

Ditch that Superwoman apron!

As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” We are a long way off, especially in India. One of my friends once made a very perceptive observation about Indian women in the past 30 years. She said, “You know, it has taken 30 years for the Indian woman to get out of the kitchen and take her place at the boardroom. But in these 30 years, very few Indian men have gotten into the kitchen. They are still stuck in their stereotypical past!” I know of women colleagues in top positions who have to get back home in the evening to serve dinner. A significant number of working women in India return home around the same time as their spouses, only to have their spouses relax before the TV after a “long exhausting day”, while the women get busy with the kids or household chores or dinner. I’m one of the few fortunate women whose husband contributes more than his fair share of house work and considers me his equal. Ironically, some women I know (and men), judge me for that. In India, and I’m sure in many parts of our world, women are brought up to believe that if they don’t cook or do household chores, they are inept. Furthermore if they let their husbands do any of the house work, they are regarded as completely weak and incompetent. Running and managing a home needs team work. It is important for us to get it clear in our heads that we need our spouse and family to pitch in. And if you hate cooking, delegate it to someone who can do it better! Of course you will be judged. Too bad for the one who judges. I have previously written about how women can let go of behaviours that weigh them down in this article that was published in AVTAR I-WIN’s newletter The Future of Work.

Beware of underhand chauvinism

The Indian corporate workplace has many skeptics when it comes to women employees. Which is why it isn’t surprising that women in male-dominated teams are at times treated depreciatingly like delicate china dolls. “You don’t need to attend the meeting.” (What new ideas are you going to contribute?) “Don’t you have to rush home?” (It’s easy for you. You don’t have to stay up late.) “Why do you need the job?” (You have your husband or father for that. Don’t you have to take care of your home?) “I’ll take care of the project” (Don’t bother your pretty head.) It might seem shocking, but this is completely true in many teams. One of my bosses (at a very top level) advised me to hire male candidates as I could count on them to work beyond office hours. He didn’t realize he was insulting me. During our very next quarterly conference he talks about gender diversity. The point I’m trying to make is, we don’t live in an ideal world and the earlier we realize it, the better. You have to make it clear that although you need to be home on time, you are capable, and want to take on high visibility projects. And if a confrontation doesn’t seem palatable to you, take the chauvinism with a pinch of salt, but sweetly and firmly let your male colleagues know that you are tougher than you seem!

Ask assertively!

In my article Are you Visible, I had talked about practical ways to assert our ambition. We women have an ESP radar where we tend to understand unspoken requirements and find it very difficult articulating our needs. Shyness or downplaying your abilities won’t do. We need to speak up and stick our necks out! Some men will refuse to see it as assertiveness and consider it arrogance. It’s their problem. Women, when they do get promoted, the ones with a voice are considered a threat and are usually relegated to positions of lesser power or influence. It requires immense amount of courage and self-assurance for women to ask for what they want and doggedly pursue their goals. Glenn Llopis in his article, puts it beautifully.

Listen to your intuition

Like I mentioned, women are very perceptive and excellent decision makers. Traditional Indian families are a great example. While the patriarch appears to be the head of the house, the matriarch is actually the neck who decides which way the head turns! The woman communicates her views using her intuition so skillfully that the man feels it was his decision! Likewise at the workplace, many of your views may be considered emotional and lacking logic. I’m ashamed to say that I used to feel embarrassed about voicing my thoughts in a male-dominated circle at the fear of being ridiculed. Our left brain might take the logical decision, but it is strongly guided by the intuitive and emotional right brain. So if you feel something isn’t quite right, or that you have a point of view that is different, be bold and express it. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about your gift of intuition.

Seek a balance

Yin and Yang. Left brain and right brain. Male and female. True success requires a balanced view of things. In our objective to achieve gender equality, we must not seek opportunities because we are women. We must seek success because we are capable. Gender equality or ethnic diversity is not feminism. It is all about exercising untapped prowess and thinking of ideas that have never been thought of before, in order to come up with limitless possibilities. Fortunately, times are definitely changing for the better. I see the millennial generation of men and women regarding each other in more equal terms. To see a true balance of power, we have to understand the strengths that both male and female employees bring to the table. We need to discard our stereotypical mindsets to magnify our combined power. I would like to end with these wonderful lines by Alanis Morissette: I don’t want to be your other half I believe that one and one make two

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Are you visible?

As a coach, I get to talk to many aspiring individuals who express a desire to get selected for managerial positions. They are usually people with significant experience in their core function and are eager to grow into a more visible role. A majority of these people have also expressed unhappiness in being passed over by the management for someone (in their opinion) less skilled or less experienced. “It’s as though I’m invisible!”

It’s a noisy, overcrowded workplace

It’s become an information bombardment at the workplace over the past decade. Emails, instant messages, online notifications, online meeting have facilitated the growth of global organizations where employees communicate without seeing each other. As a result we have too many desk managers who manage teams from their cubicles rather than walking around and meeting people face to face.

So as a manager, among 130 emails, which one do I read and respond to? In my periodic face-to-face employee interactions, which employees leave a lasting impression in my mind? How do I know who really did the work and did it the best? And most of all, who to my eye, is the one to watch?

The attention-grabbers

We all have seen them. The ones who talk the most. The ones who laugh the loudest. The ones who make sure you know about everything they do. We have seen them in school. Teachers usually love them as they are the “know-it-alls” and the ones that raise their hands or assist the teacher in erasing the blackboard. They know the knack of making the teacher feel special. Take yourself for example. Who would you notice? The students who complete their work quietly or the ones that announce their progress to the teachers?

As humans we are fallible. No matter how non-judgmental or discerning we try to be, we do get drawn towards those who make us look and feel good.

Managers seek solidarity and support. Some managers like yes-men, some admire those who ask questions, some appreciate those who chase results and make them look good.

So how does an employee get her manager to sit up and really take a look at her capabilities and her accomplishments?

Five tips for becoming more visible

It isn’t easy trying to grab attention when you are naturally attention-averse. In my growing years I was taught the virtue of modesty. “Make your work speak for you”, “Do your duty and you will reap the fruits eventually”, “To minimize your achievements, talk about them!” These were some of the words of wisdom drilled into me. It took me many years of lost opportunities, acute disappointment, and hidden resentment to realize the secret are of actually making people take notice of my work.

Here are a few tips based on my experience that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Rise to the occasion

Rather than thinking of how good you are in your role, think about what is it that your manager needs? Is there a meaty project coming your team’s way with no one to coordinate it? Is there a scarcity of people and more work than the manager can handle? Is there a specific skill requirement that the team needs? Look at how you could position your current skills to meet the need. The idea here is to make a significant impact at the right time. An effort that will be a huge win for the team. Once you have worked out the idea in your mind, approach your manager with your proposal.

Stick your neck out

A manager likes people who participate, respond quickly and positively. Be willing to erase the blackboard. You could volunteer to mentor new entrants, help with some administrative reports, or even train your peers on a required skill.

How many times in a class did you know the answer to a question but were afraid to raise your hand? We refrain from volunteering out of fear. Fear of being ridiculed, fear of criticism, fear of change, or fear of failure. A manager’s role is full of risks. If you want to become a manager, you need to overcome your apprehension and demonstrate to your manager the ability to take risks and learn something new. It’s easier to blame an overenthusiastic colleague for “hogging the limelight” rather than trying something new or daring. Ask yourself – “What is stopping ME from volunteering for that complex assignment?”

Express! Express!

The easiest way to get attention is to speak up. Ask questions during team meetings. Come up with suggestions. Appreciate a colleague for his help. Thank your manager for supporting you. Express your views on a solution offered. Initiate and conduct meetings to encourage conversations. Communication skills amount to 80% of a leader’s role. Expressing or articulating is a great way of demonstrating your communication skills to your manager. However note that it is important to communicate assertively and positively if you want to be noticed for the right reasons!

Stop trying to be perfect

As an individual contributor, you are used to being in control of your output. You are so good at your job that you can easily spot defects or deviations. In contrast, leadership is a very subjective role. A manager learns a lot by trial and error. Mostly error. Error in judgment, error in estimation, error in planning, you name it! It is not possible to grow as a leader without making these mistakes. However, these mistakes help a leader learn and grow. Are you willing to make errors AND accept blame?

Ask for it!

It isn’t a nice feeling being passed over for an opportunity you have been waiting for. Oprah Winfrey has a nice quote for it. “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” Quite a few of us, especially women, don’t ask for what we really want. We hope someone observes us and appreciates us and gives us what we want. I have been guilty of this as well. Expecting someone to have mind-reading skills is frankly illogical! Your manager may have observed your good work, but does he know of your ambition to become a leader? Approach him and explain to him what you really want. Ask him how to go about it. Let him know how you intend to support him towards the team’s goals.

It’s a networked world after all

The global corporate workplace is no longer a simple layer of hierarchies. With dotted line reporting and matrix reporting structures, it is more possible to get connected with various other teams. It is not only important to get noticed within the team, but also across cross-functional groups. This is especially true if you want to grow as a manager. Volunteer for employee committees, social causes, or other group activities. Work-life balance is always a challenge for working parents. However at a time when you really want to get noticed and grow, you may want to stretch your schedule a bit to accommodate these initiatives.

Modesty does not mean keeping silent about your accomplishments. You don’t have to brag or exaggerate your capabilities. Good managers can see through the hyperbole. Be honest and objective, yet express your career goals.

Finally, if you do feel that you don’t have the room for huge additional responsibilities at this point in your life, then don’t resent that colleague who got that promotion. Be happy for him. You will get your chance too.