I’m extraordinarily lucky – when I set out to write about women who’ve changed my life, I’ve got way too many to choose from!
In addition to my family, teachers and friends, there are the amazing women I’ve been privileged to work with, and for, over the course of a 25+ year corporate career. Of the top three bosses I’ve ever had, 2 of them were women – WOW!
But believe it or not, none of these are the women I choose to celebrate for this year’s Women’s History Month. Instead I want to describe a powerful incident that lasted about a minute, with a woman I barely knew, yet it made a huge impact on me and my career.
The year was 2000 and I was enjoying a very successful role as head of Diversity & Inclusion for the largest division of one of the largest Financial Services firms in the world. I’d worked my butt off and had also been blessed to have opportunities to shine, and I was earning a strong reputation across the firm as someone who really knew her stuff in the amorphous world of Diversity. So I was invited to present to the senior team of another division – the firm’s most prestigious and demanding – because they were reputedly struggling with an under-representation of women and other “minority” groups.
When I walked into the conference room, the vibe was so cold that I swore the temperature had dropped by at least 10 degrees. Sitting around the table were 7 or 8 guys in impeccable white shirts and designer neckties, all engrossed in their Blackberries (yeah, it was THAT long ago!). And as I scanned the room, I saw one female face, the head of Human Resources for that division. Though we’d never met, hers were the only eyes actually meeting mine.
She introduced me and explained that I’d been invited to share some ‘best practices’ on how to effect real change; then she gave a brief description of my background and accomplishments. Maybe a few heads raised slightly at this point, but in general it felt like the group was there only because somebody important had required it.
Apparently the female head of HR shared my impression because that is when she slammed her hand solidly on the table, both to make a sound and to make a point, and said firmly to the group,
“Listen to her!”
It worked: to a person, they put down their devices and gave me their full attention. Many even seemed engaged as I talked about what worked in my division, and what I thought might address their particular challenges. Or maybe things changed because of the increased personal power I felt from the vote of confidence I’d been given by the only other woman in the room.
Fast forward to the following year when I was brought in to head Diversity for that same division – in large part because I’d established credibility in that meeting. That new role gave my career the biggest professional and financial boost I’d ever had.
Obviously, there is a reason I choose to highlight this experience in recognition of Women’s History Month 2018. I firmly believe that if more women who are already in power could find the courage to speak up on behalf of women not yet in power, all society would take a giant step away from marginalization and toward equal treatment and opportunity.
IMHO, so much of what is now surfacing through #MeToo, #TimesUp and other important movements might have been mitigated if more women already in power had sought to influence their male counterparts instead of staying quiet and turning blind eyes. Not only would more women have been given credence in the workplace, but they would have received more respect because powerful others were supporting them. Right or wrong, that is generally how the workplace works.
This is not, of course, to equate a tough business meeting with the abuse that too many women face in too many workplaces, nor to minimize the professional risks that all women – regardless of whether or not they are ‘in power’ – too often face. And most especially, it is NOT meant to blame the victims by excusing those who have harassed and/or denied them their rights. There is no excuse for that.
But it IS meant to remind us all, men and women alike, that each and every time we can – directly and indirectly, by word and by deed – we MUST give voice and opportunity to our female colleagues, especially those who are traveling the road behind us.
What a difference it would make, both to women and to the environments in which they work, if we regularly declared to all within earshot,
“LISTEN TO HER!”