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Sharon Melnick: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”

If I were Queen for a day, I’d grant everyone the ability to feel deep empathy. It will help us have more psychological safety. Research shows that the person in any interaction who has a higher power status will have less empathy (literally their mirror neurons will not be as activated). But once you know […]

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If I were Queen for a day, I’d grant everyone the ability to feel deep empathy. It will help us have more psychological safety. Research shows that the person in any interaction who has a higher power status will have less empathy (literally their mirror neurons will not be as activated). But once you know someone’s story it’s hard to continue behaviors you might be doing that cause suffering. An authentic connection breeds action.

I’d also encourage us to update our definition of leadership. People thrive in conditions where leaders — regardless of gender — lead with empathy and ‘feminine powers’. When leaders are collaborative and inclusive, they bring out the creativity and discretionary effort of others and even motivate consumers to buy. Some aspects of women’s strengths are invisible or harder to quantify (e.g., behind-the-scenes consensus-building), so it will help female talent to be seen as leaders to advance when “leadership” includes the whole spectrum of ‘taking charge’ AND ‘taking care’ as needed.


As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Melnick, Ph.D.

She is a leading authority on women’s next level of success. Informed by 10 years of psychology research at Harvard Medical School, her methods have transformed 30,000 women, clients/trainees, at Fortune 500 companies and created a buzz at conferences around the world (she has even presented at the White House and the United Nations). She is the Founder of the Next Level Leadership program that has a strong track record getting women promoted in weeks not months/years. Her books Success under Stress and Confidence when it Counts are the ‘go-to resource’ helping women in the workplace be ‘in their power’ and make the impact they are born for.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

Though a business psychologist now, I began with 10 years of research at Harvard Medical School on intergenerational issues, i.e., teaching parents how to avoid repeating the mistakes of their own parents. I heard from my clients that their behavior patterns with their children were also being carried out with their boss, business partner, or direct reports. So I started to apply the same behavior change methods through executive coaching to people in the business.

After writing my first book Success under Stress, I started to speak to a lot of women’s audiences. I heard that among women’s biggest stresses was being smart but underutilized, undervalued, and underpaid.

Women’s frustrations are palpable (we could reduce our reliance on foreign oil if we plugged into women’s frustrations and then tapped their inspiration!) I dove into learning about gender bias and bias at the intersection of gender and race. I got hooked seeing if I could develop approaches to help women fully express their talents, and now devote my life to this mission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Deep listening and research helped me pivot away from the more traditional point of view I had learned.

For example, when I was writing my second book Confidence When It Counts I came across the statistic that young men and women enter the workplace with similar levels of confidence and ambition but within two years women’s plummets. Why? Workplace interactions wear down women’s confidence.

I realized how much of the ‘things we beat ourselves up for’ are actually responses to the way we’ve been treated rather than our essential nature. I still train women on how to speak up, end second-guessing, and achieve excellence without exhaustion, but I put a lot of focus on how to maintain and regain confidence in the face of a workplace that feels defeating.

Similarly, as I’ve been interviewing women for my next book on women and power, one of the first things I hear from a number of women is “I don’t want power”. I think women have a complicated relationship with this concept that they have felt oppressed by. It’s time for a redefinition of power — one in which it feels like women are using their natural abilities to influence and make a difference. That’s what I teach women — how to be ‘in their power’ to get ‘in positions of power’ and use their power for the good of all.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While doing research at Harvard, I went to a rock concert in Washington DC. There I met Tipper Gore, the wife of sitting Vice President Al Gore. We bonded around the programs she championed to empower women, and she ended up asking me to come down to the White House to share the policy implications of my research.

What do you think I said? I said “No” to Tipper Gore. Yes, it’s true, I declined an invitation to the White House!

Why? Because I didn’t think I was smart enough. Even though I was at a prestigious institution and my clients told me how much they appreciated me, I didn’t feel ‘enough’ inside of me.

So I prioritized my own self-doubt over the contribution I could have made for millions of women and families.

That was a turning point for me. I realized I was hiding in my life because of it.

Since then I’ve been on a mission to help myself and others turn that private suffering into powerful service. That shift has enabled over 25,000 women I’ve coached and trained to have the courage to step up, take risks, and make even more of an impact.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

There are gender biases operating in all the key moments that determine a woman’s ability to get a job, advance in her job, or get funded for her ideas. Together they form an invisible spider web that catches many women and keeps them from the highest paying opportunities.

First, the idea that women don’t ask for raises as often as men may have been true in the past (due to socialization that penalizes women as ‘aggressive’ for negotiating) but is now outdated. Current research confirms that women ask but don’t receive them as often as men.

Here’s the current truth: Though in some vanguard companies the wage gap for women doing similar work to their male peers is shrinking to 0.98, the pay gap is real for many women, especially women of color and women in lower-paying fields. The wage gap actually widens with career experience and remains a reality even for the highest educated women.

Heads up to compensation committees in organizations: Women want to earn more money and be paid for their dedicated efforts! (The number one reason Millennial women leave one company for another is the offer of an increased salary.)

Second, as Mckinsey/Lean In research shows, women are not promoted as fast or as often to higher-level roles so they earn less than their male peers in higher roles.

The main barrier is the “Prove-it-Again” bias: men are evaluated in terms of their potential and women based on their past experience.

Biased thinking goes like this: if he doesn’t have a direct experience he’ll figure it out but if she doesn’t have the experience, she needs to do a lateral role for two years to learn. Women get ‘pigeon-holed’ as good only in their current (not future) role and have to prove their competence more. Literally, women need one more degree to be considered for similar roles.

It plagues women entrepreneurs too. When pitching to venture capitalists, in comparison to male entrepreneurs women get asked more questions about protecting their downside than the more exciting questions about how big their upside can be.

Third, Women are more often given feedback that is too vague to act on or given feedback that is related to their personality and communication style, while men are more often given feedback on how to improve the business. Even the everyday feedback women get constrains their movement to higher-paying roles.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

I show women how to go from ‘pigeon-holed’ to promoted! I lead a program called the Next Level Leader program. And I coach women executives to be influential change agents (so they create Inclusive company cultures where female talent thrives.)

How do I accelerate women to a next-level opportunity? Though Oprah Magazine and Harvard Business Review tell a woman she is supposed to be in control of her career, she often hears from her manager: ‘let’s revisit your promotion next performance review’ or ‘now is not a good time.’ She ends up feeling her organization or her manager controls her career.

Instead, the Next Level Leader program gives her a clear roadmap to take charge of her own destiny. As a business psychologist, I teach ninja strategies she can use ‘in the heat of the moment’ to overcome gender biases.

For example, a way of bypassing the Prove-it-Again bias in an interview is to connect her past experiences with what she WILL do in the new role. When she projects a mental movie in the mind of her interviewer, that person thinks, “I can SEE you doing that role!”

The program also teaches women to get to “Yes” when they ask for a promotion; to get senior decision-makers to know about them; and know the exact words to ask for a sponsor.

One of the things I love about the program is that we do it in a group format. When women participate in this ‘sisterhood’ it helps them to see they are not alone and they inspire and lift one another up. I also co-coach the program with women-of-color coaches to ensure all participants feel seen and heard.

An example of the impact of the program is Tracy, who was passed over twice, and then got promoted within the four months of the program! She was in a business development role and wanted more interesting and strategic work. One strategy she learned was to pursue a Bold Goal in which she could lift out of the day to day work and showcase her leadership abilities to senior decision-makers who didn’t yet know her. She initiated a project benefiting salespeople across the regions, kicked off by an event. It was so successful that she was asked to present the idea to the Executive Committee. By getting the support of senior leaders, she was offered a next-level role within 90 days and got to carry out her dream project across the country.

What do you recommend be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

If I were Queen for a day, I’d grant everyone the ability to feel deep empathy. It will help us have more psychological safety. Research shows that the person in any interaction who has a higher power status will have less empathy (literally their mirror neurons will not be as activated). But once you know someone’s story it’s hard to continue behaviors you might be doing that cause suffering. An authentic connection breeds action.

I’d also encourage us to update our definition of leadership. People thrive in conditions where leaders — regardless of gender — lead with empathy and ‘feminine powers’. When leaders are collaborative and inclusive, they bring out the creativity and discretionary effort of others and even motivate consumers to buy. Some aspects of women’s strengths are invisible or harder to quantify (e.g., behind-the-scenes consensus-building), so it will help female talent to be seen as leaders to advance when “leadership” includes the whole spectrum of ‘taking charge’ AND ‘taking care’ as needed.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When a woman is in her power, she raises everyone around her. I want to inspire women around the world to stand even more ‘in their power’.

A woman is in her power when she doesn’t accept the devaluing projections onto her; when she can tune into herself to be clear about what she wants, and devote her energies toward the contribution she’s here to make. She’s ‘in her power’ when she can say her truth in a respectful way, without concern for the consequences.

Yet when a woman has to fight for respect, when she feels devalued, or excluded and understandably reacts to these scenarios… she leaks her power. The more power a woman can hold in her body the more she can have the impact she’s born for.

No woman has to wait to get into a position of power in order to make a difference. EVERY time a woman stands in her power she chips away at a system that doesn’t work for her or anyone else.

Because when a woman is in her power she raises everyone around her!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Anais Nin’s “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” reminds me to always sort out ‘my stuff’ from ‘the other person’s stuff.’ It reminds me that when I ‘re-act’ I’m activating some kindling inside of me that I have an opportunity to heal and grow from, even if I don’t see it in the moment. And it reminds me to have compassion for the other person who is likely stuck in their own challenging emotions too.

And when I feel that things are not going my way, or when frustrated friends and clients seek my advisement, I remind us of my other favorite quote by Gertrude Stein: “The best revenge is a good life!”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Lady Gaga, let’s meet!

I love to dance to her music, and I’d like to thank her for being an important educator on trauma during the Me Too movement. Then I’d like to ask her how to master being fully authentic and vulnerable, while at the same time strong and outrageous.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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