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How Gender Bending Got Me a Seat at the Table as VP HR

Tapping into the collective wisdom of the sisterhood and the brotherhood helped launch my career. With 5 sisters and 4 brothers, getting a seat at the table started at a very young age.

Since gender-bending is defined as “a person who defies or challenges traditional notions of gender, especially with respect to dress or behavior”, I guess I qualified at a very young age.  I hail from a family of 10, six girls and four boys, and getting a seat at the dinner table, close to the meat platter literally meant ignoring any norms about boy/girl, boy/girl seating arrangements or who sat at the head of the table.   You just got to the table early, staked your claim to a seat and stood your ground if one of the brothers tried to knock you out of place.

The next endurance test came when my Dad formed a Horticultural Club for the kids, with the same application requirements for all.  Identify select vegetation in our yard using both the English and Latin names for the plant, then catch frogs to stock the fish pond.  As I recall, the sisters balked at the second requirement, but no special accommodations were made based on gender, so off I went with frog catcher in hand.

Childhood experiences proved to be character building moments and ones I would later realize set me on a course to advance my career in a gender-neutral fashion.  When it came to male dominance in the workplace, I had the good fortune of already squaring off with the boys in my family, so felt I was entering a level playing field. Call it naiveté or unfounded positive mental attitude, but I embarked on my first real job with unfettered confidence.  I believed if I worked hard and got results, I could expect fair treatment regardless of what sex I was.  

JUST DO YOUR JOB AND WORK COLLABORATIVELY

At the start of my career, I had the good fortune of working for entrepreneurs at an application software company. It was very early stage HRIS, so just three guys, some coding sheets and me.  Most days started with, “who knows how to do this?” and then we’d head off to our respective corners and get to work-using our talents without regard to gender.

I quickly became “best friends” with any new hires who knew more than I (and there were plenty of them): young, old, male, female.  Take in all the knowledge you can, regardless of who it’s coming from, and then return the favor once you have the expertise.

LEARN BY OBSERVING SUCCESSFUL MEN AND WOMEN

My family background and entrepreneurial experiences served as a good launching pad, but then several smart, successful co-workers proved great models and took me to the next level as a professional. I made careful note of how they conducted themselves.  Here are a few of the career-defining moments for me.    

One of my former male bosses freely admitted when he was out of his depth on a topic.  I found his admission alternately disconcerting and then incredibly liberating.  So, when faced with any future challenge, my more enlightened approach was to come clean if I felt out of my element and then seek the necessary resources to tackle the job. I also learned to abstain from apologizing for not having an answer; it only exacerbates the situation.

What about females to the rescue?  I’ve also had great experiences working with women who’ve shared their insights to get projects over the line.  One fellow VP  worked tirelessly with me when I came on board to a fast paced start up, sharing her time and intelligence to guide me through cultural and legal differences between HR practices in the US and Canada.  We had a common goal, mutual respect, and worked collaboratively to build HR functions on both sides of the border.

ALWAYS HAVE A SENSE OF SELF  

As my career progressed, I observed the power of being effective by asserting yourself. Jeff, a fellow leadership team member, was a 38 year old engineer who happened to be brilliant at avoiding the “overcommit and under deliver” trap. As my boss pressed him to sign on to a new, unattainable deadline, he firmly said no. He then offered alternative dates while protecting his previously agreed to critical path items. He was so good in fact, that we minted a fresh meaning to the bumper sticker, WWJD, “What would JEFF do.”  He not only was a great model for standing your ground, but also proved an ally in supporting my HR initiatives. 

CONSIDER THE POWER OF MENTORS  

Sometimes women do need assistance specifically from other women in overcoming real and self-inflicted barriers. If you’re one of those women whose figured it out at your workplace, step out of line and offer to be a mentor.  And, if you’re in a position to launch an even bigger initiative, form an Employee Resource Group focusing on strengthening women’s careers.  Don’t forget to support the women who’ve already attained leadership roles; they likely faced the same challenges in the course of advancing their careers.

REACH ACROSS THE AISLE

Make no mistake-male dominance in leadership roles has been a reality. Move your career forward by welcoming assistance and advice from both men and women who share your values. Reach across the aisle and form a line right down the middle-our organizations will be stronger and we’ll be happier. Businesses win when both women and men lean in at the table.

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