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Lead, Thrive, Persevere- New Lessons on Gender Diversity from the 2019 Ascend Summit

The leadership path for women at work has become an especially pressing issue in the last year. Not only because of the #MeToo and the Times Up movements, but because of the glaring inequities of enduring salary and opportunity gaps based on gender. That this remains a reality at a time when women are proven […]

The leadership path for women at work has become an especially pressing issue in the last year. Not only because of the #MeToo and the Times Up movements, but because of the glaring inequities of enduring salary and opportunity gaps based on gender. That this remains a reality at a time when women are proven commodities at work and are more educated or degreed than men is simply incredulous.

In academia, government, philanthropy, medicine, law, finance, the corporate sector- the struggle is still very real for women. And stressful, as well as complex. It’s the 21st century, but we still live in an age of exceptionalism and “firsts” when it comes to women in senior or non-traditional roles like coaching.

Many women are still, as the recent spate of lawsuits against Walmart demonstrates, facing issues of under-compensation or being penalized professionally for requesting competitive salaries reflecting their worth. These are the commonalities within the gender diversity space, but there are also very key differences. 

Differences that are often overlooked on the women’s leadership conference circuit.

Leadership conferences for women have really taken off in response to our times. There’s a lot to choose from, but it’s a coin toss as to which one will speak to you. Frankly, some of the content can sound like a broken record and pretty generic. And that’s a problem.

The prism of your day-to-day reality and the frontlines of your workforce experience are everything. And just because we’re all women doesn’t mean that we are having the same experience or challenges at work.

Especially if you’re a woman of color or LGBTQ or a veteran.  

Especially, if what you want most out of this gender diversity battle is not to be a CEO, but to simply live your values and be accorded equal respect no matter who you are, what you want from work,or the life choices that you make. Like being a mom, taking care of your parents, taking a sabbatical from work.

That’s why the Ascend Summit, the powerhouse leadership conference founded by author, MSNBC host and all around-woman’s woman, Mika Brzezinski’s, was such a revelation. This marked the conference’s first year and it was amazing. Although, it was less a conference and more like a series of deeply insightful teaching moments from a bunch of smart, wise girlfriends and mamas that you trust.

There were a lot of valuable lessons. Teaching moments about leading when life is messy. Trying to thrive while wrestling with doubt or balancing personal issues. Persevering in the face of life’s messiness, heartaches, and randomness. Living your truth at work and home.

Not as superwomen, but as real women in a world where things can change quickly, where we’re still figuring things out.

The girlfriend who insisted that I attend had advised that she had feeling that the Ascend Summit would be different. And it was. Here are five takeaways that reveal why:

1.We Don’t All Want the Same Things from Work in terms of Leadership. (And that’s okay. As long as the reason isn’t because work is too stressful due to pressure you face as a woman. Or you’re under the impression that you don’t have the skills, network and experience to aim higher.)

Momentum is growing around gender pay equity, gender neutrality on boards, and women in the C-suite. Yet, there is an aspiration gap between women and men at work. It’s a real thing that’s hard to own in the bionic gender diversity space. But Morning Consult’s data spelled out the “why”beautifully.

48% of the women participating in their Morning Consult’s joint Ascend poll said that more women weren’t in executive ranks because they had to prove themselves more than men at work. The, almost 40% of women surveyed indicated that they were not interested in leadership because work was simply too stressful. 

32% said women has fewer opportunities than men, 35% said the executive ranks were a “boys club.” 34% said that there was more pressure on women and their family duties. 25% of women indicated that they didn’t believe they had the credentials for advancement. 20% indicated that they didn’t have the professional network to succeed. This is aspiration gap can really be traced to the reality check that women are facing at work and the interest of some women in simply climbing other mountains outside of work.

2. Learn to be a Diversity Champion for All Women and Become More Attuned to the Challenges that Different Women Face at Work

One of the most difficult things to reconcile about the women’s leadership and gender equality conversation is how unequal it is in terms of whose truth is being elevated, celebrated and acknowledged. In too many instances, it has not been inclusive.

In too many instances, this one-size-fits all paradigm towards gender diversity issues can be marginalizing. Overlooking or failing to acknowledge intersectionality- the diversity within the diversity- has made gender diversity conversations and spaces uncomfortable, as well as alienating. Privilege, race, orientation, and otherness can cause blind spots within the gender diversity discussion. But that is rarely talked about. The Ascend Summit confronted this issue head on and it was a real Bravo moment.

We constantly hear about the importance of men acting as allies of women in the gender equality space. That is undeniably important, but it’s equally important that women embrace this call to action for each other. We all need to become “woke” about each other’s realities.

For instance, according to the Morning Consult poll presented at the summit, 67% of White women acknowledge that there is pay gap between genders, but only 34% recognized that there is a racialized pay gap that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic women. Compare this to the awareness of 64% of Black Women and 55% of Hispanic women regarding this pay gap.

The overall conclusion of the Morning Consult poll for this data set is concerning. There is a widespread lack of awareness of the hurdles faced in the workplace by Black and Hispanic women. There are also other voices and realities that merit attention within the gender diversity space. There are other intangible gaps such as the difficulty of women of color and LGBTQ women in finding mentors and sponsors. What kind of experience at work are our veteran sisters having ? Have we reached out to find out?

If we are to take diversity to the next level, then everyone must have a voice within the gender diversity narrative. There is strength in numbers, if women truly stand together that can be powerful. Everyone has to be given the opportunity to be authentic and speak their truth,hopes for the kind of norms that change their lives. Kudos to the panel that conquered this tough topic, especially Dr. Ella Bell Smith from Dartmouth’s Tuck School.

3. The Gender Diversity/ Workplace Equity Battle is As Much an Internal and Psychological One as it is An External/ Workplace-Facing One

The “Theory to Practice” panel featuring the research of academics from Columbia Business School, Insead, and London School of Business shined a light on the behavioral tropes and self-perceptions that have become integrated into our psychology. Professor Modupe Akinola presented fascinating research examining the gender differences with respect to on task delegation.

Here’s what she found.

Women are more reluctant to delegate than men and feel more guilty about it when they do. The reason? They believe in the communal nature of team work and want to carry their weight. They also don’t want their competency or leadership abilities to be perceived negatively because they delegated a task. Women feel more positively about delegation if they are told that it will help someone on their team.

Professor Akinola gave us a simple formula to consider when struggling with whether to delegate a task or not. (1) Whose performance will be hurt and compromised if you don’t delegate this task? (2) How critical is this task, should you be spending your time on it or something more important? (3) Who will you help from a leadership development and growth opportunity perspective? This “superwoman” complex in our heads can actually impair our performance. Akinola’s research showed that the more pressure woman put on themselves to be a superwoman and prove themselves, the worse they perform.

Part of this battle for equity is the one raging right inside our heads. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman who wrote The Confidence Code noted that confidence isn’t a bravado, it’s about turning your thoughts into action and being willing to take risks- like delegating a task and trusting a colleague to do it well. Confidence is about trusting your instincts, pressing the reset button when needed, and continuing to know your value even you don’t get the outcome you hoped for. And before you start trying to convince others, you first convince yourself of this.

Diversity is Still Mission Critical and Over-generalization about the Successes of Women in the Workplace Based on a Few Examples is Sexism

When former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina says that diversity is mission critical, you can take that to the bank. Less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And when she advises that courage is critical and that we need it to challenge the status quo, you know you’re hearing that from a battle-tested veteran who has done precisely that. The numbers on board appointments of women this year has improved, as has the appointment of women in C-Suite roles, but we are still woefully behind. By no means are we able to say “Game over” on the gender equity scoreboard.

Being forthright at work about gender equity and inclusion issues takes guts. If we are influential enough to be in the room where decisions are being made about compensation or where women are being considered for senior roles or work assignment opportunities, it’s important weigh in. It takes courage to be an ally. It also takes courage to challenge the perception that women have somehow “overcome” in the workplace.

According to Professor Aneeta Rattan of the London Business School, this tendency for the success of women to be over-generalized hurts the gender equity cause. In fact, she called it a form of sexism. That’s right -sexism. Over-generalization creates a false perception that the problem of gender diversity has been solved when, in fact, we are far from a resolution. Anyone who speeds up our progress so that the woman’s issues can be checked off the list has a very narrow and misguided perception of what women should accept as success.

5. Leadership is Accessible, Authentic and Imperfect

My favorite part of the summit was the panel discussion moderated by Mika B in the afternoon. Her panelists were Arianna Huffington, Sheri Bronstein, CHRO for Bank of America, Ilaria Resta of Procter& Gamble and Kirsten Allegri Williams, CMO for SAP Success Factors. Heavy hitters.

And yet, it was as if they had scrubbed off their make-up, kicked off their shoes, put on their sweatpants and sat down for heart-to-heart with girlfriends over tea. It was that intimate, inspired and real. The stories ranged from Mika undergoing a divorce and grappling with her parents declining health at the same time. Arianna discussed her personal challenges and then the challenge of wearing the game face of “everything being alright” at work. Sheri Bronstein discussed how her decision to take a sabbatical from work due to burnout and the painful loss of a parent led to her to value a better work/life balance. Kirsten Allegri Williams discussed having dealt with a major health challenge and fighting her way back into a leadership role.

These women emphasized the importance of keeping friends and families close, sharing your pain, getting help, (yes, that kind of help from a good therapist), being patient with yourself and keeping it together with meditation, sometimes not keeping it together as well as you’d like, maintaining a work-life balance. They shared their stories as equals with each other and us. Mika advised that there will be crises that you will find yourself facing , that deeply personal challenges can dovetail with work challenges, but you have to pick yourself and move on, push forward.

That’s what happens when you know your true value and understand that you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable at work or anywhere else. You should be disciplined, you should be confident, you should be courageous, alert and empathetic towards others.

But you don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to be mistake-free, overly strong or emotionless. Leadership is about being human and tapping into the best parts of humanity to inspire performance and success.

And gender equity is about giving you the space you need to be your best you without being automatically diminished with unequal pay, discriminatory behavior, arbitrary decisions or policies based on gender, race or any other reason. This is how we lead, thrive, aspire, persevere and ascend.

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