Amplifying her voice – how women executives are heard
From the family room, to the boardroom, and now in the White House, we celebrate the immeasurable impact of women in our community and in our companies.
Female voices are rising up, and in 2021 we are turning up the volume. In honor of Women’s History month, we’re recognizing the women who helped shape the present and are looking towards the future to empower the next generation. We asked female business leaders to put in their own words how they found their voice, as well as the challenges they’ve overcome throughout their impressive careers.
Nikki Darden, Head of Global Marketing Integration, Citi
After working in corporate America for about eight years, I earned a highly sought-after role as Chief of Staff to a key senior executive. I was confident that the behaviors and judgment that enabled me to get to this point in my career would continue to serve me.
Then one day, the Division President’s Chief of Staff – who’d been in her role for several years – pulled me aside after a meeting. She let me know that my role in meetings was just to take notes and manage to-dos and project plans after-the-fact and not to speak up and have a POV. I was devastated. Here was someone who’s been in my shoes telling me that my role is to recede into the background. I took her words to heart and I changed my behavior, becoming a shell of my former professional self.
Months later, after a big meeting, I asked my boss why a certain decision was made and humbly expressed the reasons I thought it was the wrong decision. He was taken aback. My line of thinking was spot on, he said. Then, he chastised me for not speaking up during the meeting. Why had I become so reticent? Without naming names, I told him about the feedback I’d received. In response, my boss shared something he’d never articulated before: he hired me because I had the strongest voice and the steeliest spine. How dare I let someone take that away from me!
“I found my voice by being reminded of it, after a well-intentioned mentor tried to take it away. My return to form was not instant -- it took quite a while to get my swagger back. But now? I refuse to let anyone dim my shine.”
Nikki Darden, Head of Global Marketing Integration, Citi
There continues to be a dearth of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women in mid- and senior-level roles in corporate America, resulting in so many assumptions about our place in the business world. And, as a Black woman, I’m often mistaken for an administrative assistant.
I used to go out of my way to signal my level in the organizational hierarchy: always wear heels, a blazer, and red lipstick (unmistakable boss mode, but make it fashion); in an open floorplan, don’t sit near the aisle or the printer (inconvenient but effective); and always introduce yourself with your full title (obnoxious but necessary). These are the kinds of things that men would never think about, while women of color must consider them constantly as we climb the corporate ladder. But why? Like so many things, I’ve learned with age to wear, sit and introduce myself however I want. Do I still face biases? Absolutely. But I look forward to the day that we can show up as our full, authentic selves – without bias or assumptions. In the meantime, don’t ask me how to work the printer because I have no idea.
Every day, I strive to show up as my whole self. This is easier said than done, especially when viewed through the intersectional lenses of race, gender, and gender expression. But for me, there isn’t a single way of being or a mold in which I’m trying to fit. I was raised by a single mother who reinforced that I had it within me to be whoever and whatever I wanted, that the roles and stereotypes presented to girls – presented to Black girls – didn’t apply to me if I didn’t want them to.
This belief that I can transcend other people’s expectations is foundational to me. It means that I simply insist on being authentic – wherever that may fall on the spectrum of gender roles and expectations. I show up as a strong, confident woman, not in order to fight gender biases, but simply because that’s who I am. I’m so lucky that my mother gave me permission to grow into exactly who I was always meant to be. And, I hope that my confidence helps inspire all girls who rise up the corporate ladder after me.
Helen Lin, CDO, Publicis
Digital has been core to every role I’ve had.
One of the biggest challenges is that in the areas I’ve worked – touching digital, investment and technology – is that the population skews more male than female when it comes to executive makeup. Obviously, we’re seeing this shift over time, and companies are making concerted efforts to bring inclusivity to the forefront. But one thing we all struggle with is not having as strong a bench of female talent to pull up when opportunities arise. We still have to make a concerted effort to maintain representation. And when there is representation, I feel the balance is still rather precarious. I’m a huge believer in active sponsorship. Mentorship and sponsorship are both important, but I lean on the active sponsorship side. Whether that be making sure my own leaders are exposed to the brilliant women inside our own organizations, as well as across our industry. Every diverse leader that is given a platform, organically creates more platforms of their own for others to shine, and so on and so forth. I’m always trying to do my part to contribute to the groundswell and work toward the overarching goal of inclusivity. You need all participants in any community to feel valued and productive, as we are only as strong as our weakest link. So I try my best to lift all tides. I serve as executive sponsor for Publicis Groupe’s Women’s Business Resource Group POW! (Power of Women). I also love volunteering and advocating for New York City children who are overcome with the stresses of growing up in poverty, by working with Partnership with Children, which is run by an incredible visionary female CEO, Margaret Crotty. Sometimes people ask how I do it all, of course the answer is that I don’t, but having positive intentions and always expressing sincere gratitude for those who help me achieve allows me to ask for forgiveness when I can’t.
Tara Ataya, Chief People and Diversity Officer, Hootsuite
Growing up, I was told that I could be anything and do anything—my gender had nothing to do with my dreams. From a young age, I always knew I wanted to work with people and help make the world a kinder, more equal place; this naturally led me into work as an HR professional, and in my career, I have strived to leave every role that I’ve entered better than when I arrived.
Early in my career, I wasn’t aware of the sometimes subtle and not-so-subtle biases and discriminatory comments or actions of people around me. These biases were found in both men and women. As I became more aware of the discrimination, I struggled with imposter syndrome and underpromoted my abilities because of self-doubt. I found my voice by pushing myself to work harder, smarter and faster than was expected of me. I realized that this wasn’t going to solve the problem. So I surrounded myself with people of all genders and walks of life, who were self-aware, allies and inclusive. I also made a conscious effort to learn in spite of some of the experiences I have had. Lifting up other women around me and taking risks despite my fears of judgement
I once worked with a female leader who would say things like, avoid hiring women in their 20-30’s because they are more likely to go off on maternity leave or we should only hire men. I experienced microaggressions like being praised for being logical and level-headed rather than being praised for the work I do. I’ve also been paid significantly less and being given a lesser title for a role that had a larger scope than a man in the role. Of course, I’d love to say that these issues have been overcome, but unfortunately, they haven’t been. Women are still faced with biases in the workplace.
The number one way to deal with it is vulnerability. Seems counterintuitive right? Why would you want to be vulnerable when someone has been sexist? Vulnerability allows you to feel the way you have the right to feel about what has happened, and then respond to it. It allows you to address it head-on. It means that you have to allow yourself to feel hurt and call it out. The hardest situations to address have been the ones that are less obvious, where self-doubt creeps back in. Did he not hear me, or was he ignoring my viewpoint? Was I not clear?
Sarah Glasser, VP Americas, Enterprise Commerce, Adobe
I have always been passionate about sales. I have also always been mindful of the fact that there are far fewer women who pursue this performance-based, competitive and rewarding career, and even fewer female sales leaders. Throughout my career, I have relied upon male mentors to help me problem solve, build relationships and find my voice. These men did not disappoint. Not only did they inspire confidence and help develop my career, but they made certain that I was on a level playing field with my male colleagues. They helped me become the leader that I am today, and I am truly grateful for their invaluable support.
Despite the incredible guidance that I received from my mentors, I still wonder if there is an unconscious bias present when I am the only female at a meeting, whether it’s a pitch, client meeting or leadership conference. I often think to myself, “Does anyone else realize I am the only women in the room? Will I be perceived differently?” While a greater number of women in the field and an increased awareness of gender bias in the workforce has helped alleviate my concern, this past year I have noticed a dramatic change. Why? What is different? Like most of us, my professional life is now fully remote. In every meeting I attend, all participants appear as equals, side-by-side in an identical size window on the screen. With just my face visible in a box on a screen, it is virtually impossible to feel different or to feel judged because of my gender, size, or height. I dare to hope that this remote experience has eliminated gender bias forever and that it will not resurface once we start meeting in person again.
Suma Nallapati, CDO, Dish
Marie Curie and Lise Meitner were my role models growing up. I pursued a Master’s degree in Nuclear Physics with Radiation Physics and Isotope Technology as my specialization. When I started studying this subject more than 25 years ago, I was among only a handful of women in my entire class. I felt unwelcomed and isolated. This led me to wonder why it was so hard for women to pursue science and tech careers. I realized how woefully low women are represented in technical fields. Because of this, I wanted to make an impact in the field of science and technology. Early on, I found that it was important for me to help change the way women are perceived in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and encourage more women to pursue STEM careers. That strong passion shaped my career. If my story inspires at least one woman to pursue her dreams, I have done something good.
I have faced dual perception challenges of race and gender. I come from a culture that places a lot of emphasis on women being feminine, quiet and submissive. For women from different cultural backgrounds, race and gender intersect to shape reactions to authoritative behavior. I had to find my strength to speak up. I had to be bold and literally “find my voice.” I knew I had strong opinions with my knowledge, preparation and hard work. I just had to gather the strength to speak up in the very male-dominated world of IT. I did not have a lot of role models in the Asian executive ranks to seek guidance from, and I am intent on changing that for women leaders coming up in their careers. I had to find my own self-worth.
“I believe strongly that empowered women empower women. We need to challenge gender narratives; secure our rights and we need to create a bright future for our daughters.”
Suma Nallapati, CDO, Dish
I challenge not just gender bias in my job, but many unconscious biases that exist around me. I strive hard to do my part to build a more inclusive and involved workspace where women find meaningful work and where they feel they belong. I take my responsibility as a woman leader seriously, monitor my own behavior and help create supportive dialogue with tools, education, strategy and involvement to systematically change an organization’s ability to understand and break bias. I am intentional with my advocacy; I am a sponsor; a mentor and I am not afraid to speak up when I see bias play out. I reach out to women in IT ranks where they can express their concerns freely. Sponsorship and advocacy are critical to change the equation and mitigate stigma. Our next generation of women leaders need us to be focused on shattering the glass ceiling, and, to that end, I am involved deeply in STEM advocacy for girls. I strongly believe that organizations benefit from diversity, and that this diversity prompts higher quality ideas and innovation. I echo Shirley Chisholm’s statement for women, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair.”
Lisa Baldwin, CIO, Tiffany and Co
I had the opportunity to work with many CIOs and I realized how valuable the role could be to the business because the CIO sees all processes and touch points across a company. The CIO “connects the dots.” I realized that I was a good connector, problem solver and I really liked building high performing teams. Technology is certainly a male dominated field. The biggest challenge for me as a woman was progression. I got there through hard work and proving myself over and over. I took on the assignments that no one wanted. Just doing great work and hoping to be recognized for it did not always work. I had to find opportunities to share and show my accomplishments, which did not come naturally to me.
In my role, I focus on diversity within my team and that starts with hiring. We redact names on resumes/CV’s so as we select those we choose to interview, we are doing so without unconscious bias. I also expect our internal and external recruiters to provide a diverse slate of candidates for every position we are hiring for. I am a huge proponent of women in IT and I work to source, promote and provide opportunities to women in my field.
Kate Cindric-Federhar, Director of Marketing Technology and Digital Delivery, Lumen
What I do now didn’t exist 15 years ago, so I worked to map out a path of the type of direction and then rolled with the punches. I knew what I didn’t want, and continued to dive headfirst into what I do. As far as finding my voice, for me it comes from experience. I have a larger voice as I am more comfortable and confident in what I am talking about.
When I started, the biggest issue was that I was the only woman in the room. I was coming from a traditional marketing background that was seen as “soft” and didn’t have the data and IT skills as some of the others in the room. I overcame it with hard work and knowledge. People can only overlook you for so long when you have the answers every time. Now when I walk into rooms full of women, minorities and all different viewpoints, I am thrilled!
When I watched with my then 5-year-old daughter Kamala Harris give her acceptance speech, she looked at me and asked if this means she could be president one day. She then informed me that she really wanted to be a vet, but it was good to know that it was an option. I think it is showing up, no matter what the stage. On the world stage women show up every day, and in my little corner of the world it is to show up and show other women getting into this that it is a possibility. We can only encourage those that come to the table.
Megs Shah, CEO, The Parasol Cooperative
The biggest misconception I faced as an engineer and executive: women are too emotional and can’t be logical. Frankly, I think it is a superpower for women who are emotionally adept and have logical problem-solving skills. I believe this at my core because engineering is all about logical problem solving for the purpose of enabling someone with a solution to make life easier. So, if you aren’t emotionally adept how then do you know if someone’s life is easier or not? Emotional adeptness or better referred to as ‘soft skills’ - to know what to say when and how- gives the person a unique perspective and allows for better communication and isolation of the problem being researched and solved.
It’s because of these two strengths that I have been able to build seriously strong relationships and teams, especially at The Parasol Cooperative.
Being immigrants from India with a conservative upbringing, my parents, namely my father, were not too keen on me taking a major where I would be surrounded by boys. My mom is a firecracker and she told me to go for it. However, I still sought my father’s approval and back then he was very conservative in his way of thinking, but strangely had raised me to have my own opinions and not be afraid to voice them. He and I laugh now because he says “I just didn’t expect it to be raised against me, but I am so happy you did.”
Problem-solving and standing up for what felt right to me have always been at the core of who I am. So when time came for me to put both to use and join the global fight against intimate partner violence, I dove in headfirst to create The Parasol Cooperative.
I was recently asked by a group of female high school seniors, whether I felt being a woman meant I had to work that much harder to get noticed. My short answer: No. My long answer to them was: “In my graduating class we had three women out of a class of several hundred Electrical Engineering students. When I was in class, I never thought of myself as a woman in a class full of men, but rather an engineer with her peers. Same with my roles at Accenture and later with my startup. If we go into a room thinking, I am a woman and therefore at a disadvantage then you start out behind everyone else. The key is to step into a room knowing that you are capable and are in the room to add value.”
Mary-Beth Ostasz, Area Vice President of U.S. and China Global Delivery and Management Consulting, Perficient
I began my career with Perficient in a partner relations role, then moved into sales, followed by operations before landing in a variety of leadership roles. Today, I am the Area Vice President for Perficient’s U.S. and China delivery centers, and Management Consulting.
My varied positions tell my story: my career is constantly evolving. Perficient has enabled me to take on a variety of positions across the organization that have allowed me to have a broad view of the business. I found my voice through asking a lot of questions and listened closely to the voices of those around me. I found that my colleagues are happy to share their knowledge, answer my questions, and consider my point of view.
I have found as a society, sometimes assumptions are made in the absence of information, such as, “She can’t travel: she has kids.” Helping individuals become aware of the impact or missed opportunities caused by their assumptions is an important role we all must play.
Embracing the diversity around you is so important. It fosters an environment of fresh ideas, new perspectives and collaboration across an organization. When this happens, you see confidence in individuals grow and new voices being heard. By approaching situations with the right attitude, you can help foster strong relationships and, ultimately, mutual respect regardless of differences.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the environment evolve where people are reaching out for broader views and perspectives. I have seen more woman in the tech world finding their voice, bringing their ideas and perspectives to the table and really making an impact to organizations and those around them. I look forward to seeing this continue to evolve and more women stepping into and leading in the tech world.
Michelle Schiano, Senior Director, Global Messaging & Portfolio Marketing, Cognizant
A person can find career inspiration in all sorts of spaces – professional and personal. I found it early on, watching my grandmother put her belief in equal rights for women to work when she volunteered for the Democratic Party in 1984 in support of the first female vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro. As I made my way through the professional world, she always asked how work was going and encouraged me to negotiate for better pay when the opportunity arose, having seen the effects of gender pay inequality in her own career.
Of course, inspiration can also come from those who challenge you. Early on, I had a boss who was a yeller. It was a stressful start-up environment, and her response was to let loose on her team. While it wasn’t easy, it made me realize that I wanted to lead differently, and I began to pursue my MBA. Since then, I’ve had many managers who approach leadership with empathy. When they have taken the time to solicit my opinions, listen and offer their feedback I have felt the most motivated. These moments have inspired me to rise to the challenge and I’ve realized that this is how I want others to feel too.
I’ve also had the good fortune to work with and learn from younger women who have taught me so, so much about taking a fresh approach, being their authentic selves and being incredibly efficient multitaskers to boot. Watching their success as they grow in their careers and helping where I can is a real source of joy for me. It gives me faith that my grandmother’s fight for women’s equality will not be lost.
Gabie Boko, VP Digital, HPE
I found my voice when I failed at what I thought I wanted to do with my life.
I wanted to be a lawyer when I was younger and took all the steps to get there. When in the middle of that journey I realized that it didn’t bring me any sense of joy. Instead, I felt depressed, disappointed and absolutely not connected to myself.
Well, my next decision turned my life upside down and has actually helped me to find that voice. I was looking for something that would restore my energy and bring back my creativity. So I took university art classes.
Art taught me how to be more agile and how to speak my mind through any medium, which shifted my attitude. I didn’t want to become a lawyer anymore, or a doctor or a businessperson. I didn’t feel under constraint of what everybody else wanted me to do. I decided I needed to follow the avenue that wasn’t typical. Later I found out that technology really offered me the ability to tap into the same joy, innovation and creativity that I got from taking art classes.
When I was younger I was reticent to support the idea that I was different because of my gender.
However, midway through my career, I understood that yeah, I was different. Not because I was a woman, but because the way I was doing things gave me a different and potentially greater advantage.
Once I was at a meeting with a group of men and I felt myself getting ready to cry because I felt I couldn’t express myself and left the room. Later that day, when I explained this situation to my male manager at that time, he gave me a piece of advice that I’ve followed since. He said: “Find a way to re-channel what you are feeling into leverage. Instead of being emotional, be passionate and find a way to express this passion.”
“Instead of continuing to operate under a misconception that women could not and cannot compete, I found my unique way of operating by choosing to see a different way.”
Gabie Boko, VP Digital, HPE
My advice is this: Don’t change you. Re-channel not just what you feel, but how you express it to be successful. Instead of being emotional - be passionate. Instead of being confrontational - be direct.
I grew up in a time where it was hard to move past the idea of “it’s just the way it’s done”. And I’m always saying to my own team: “Just because it has been always done that way, doesn’t make it right”. You always have to be pushing the paradigm and change the way it’s done and that’s the work of putting the right lens on the situation. If you can make that happen - it’s a “clear your cache” moment. Clear your cache. I’ve said that so many times in the last 24 months. I even say it to my 92-year-old mother. Things change. Times change. Do the hard work of knowing that everything changes and come at it with fresh eyes, with a fresh personal cache and you’ll find the way to make things better and unique for yourself and those around you.
Anuradha Pentareddy, Senior Dir, ACS-India & Global Shared Services Head, WW Sales Field Operations
My philosophy when it comes to work is to work hard, stay focussed and perform consistently. I believe this approach would benefit any working professional—male or female.
Having said that, I do believe there are certain misconceptions that are faced by women in the workforce. One such is the belief that women are better suited to be in managing and coordinating roles, and are not associated with thought leadership, especially in the fields of core engineering and emerging technology. The way I’ve overcome this over the last 25 years is by being very creative and adopting technology into everything I do. I did this by exploring robotics for automation even in areas like operations and investing in creating accelerators/differentiators that can speed up GTM of presales and delivery. And lastly, by making time to be involved in technical reviews of complex programs that help customers in their digital transformation journeys.
Over the last decade in particular, I’ve focused on building centres of excellence across content, commerce, data & analytics, and enterprise integration that helped me in staying very close to technology.
Being part of Adobe also provides me with the opportunity to leverage Adobe’s Digital University to enable myself to use new technologies.
Indira Nooyi speaks about making yourself valuable and being in the technology industry and in my opinion, staying close to technology innovation will certainly make you valuable.
There’s another stereotype that women in leadership are unable to maintain a work-life balance. If they’re focused on their careers, they must be neglecting their families. This is completely untrue and like with anything else in life, the way to deal with it is to prioritise your family, make the adjustments needed, and create an ecosystem of support. Seek all the help you can and plan your day in advance to ensure you can give due attention to all aspects of your life.
Women in the workforce have come a long way and I hope to see many more advancements, and fewer preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Holly Benson, Vice-President/Global Practice Lead, Talent & Organization Practice, Infosys Consulting
I’ve found what I wanted to do several times! That’s part of my whole story. The biggest challenge to me is recognizing just how deep-seated gender differences in behavior and communication styles really are – and having to figure out ways to transcend. That’s extra work that men, particularly men in the majority racial/ethnic group, never have to do. Women have to do it daily.
I recently did a series of focus groups with women and people of color on their experiences with inclusion – and many of the African American females talked about the balance between being told they are “too aggressive” if they speak up – and “too withdrawn” if they hold back to avoid offending. My experience is, that particular issue transcends race. It’s a gender issue. One woman was told that she needed to be “softer.” Imagine telling a man that he needs to be “softer”! That’s ridiculous. And yet, it’s an everyday conundrum: What voice should I use today, to be effective with today’s audience? Why can’t I just be myself?
How did I overcome? Persistence. Just dogged persistence. Along with the encouragement and support of some absolutely stellar male mentors and colleagues over the years. Do the work. Put the results on the table. Find allies. And have a lot of patience.
My whole adult life has been spent in strongly male-dominated environments. I arrived at a 200+ year old college in its second year of coeducation. The men did not want women there. I went into an overwhelmingly male dominated profession (geoscience) and industry (oil and gas), at a time when there were very few women, period, and virtually no senior role models. I subsequently went into management consulting which, while diversifying, was still a very male-dominated business.
The only way I knew to challenge gender bias was with good humor and hard work. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Deliver the results. Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to ignorance or lack of awareness. However, one key for me has always been finding and seeing opportunities in the “white space” – in between spaces already crowded with players and turf already firmly owned. I have multiple times created opportunities where there were none – and reinvented myself in the process. To go from looking for oil as a geoscientist to managing a global consulting practice dedicated to people and organizational change – that’s a reinvention! And it’s been an amazing journey. For the last 15 years, Infosys has given me a phenomenal opportunity to grow, progress and follow my passion. I’m very grateful.
Now towards the end of my career, I am becoming much more vocal and outspoken. Partly because I think I see things slipping backwards. Women of my generation fought so hard to be taken seriously. We wanted to be recognized for our intellect, our accomplishments, our skills and potential. I’m interested in challenging — in life, in the workplace. I’ve got deep roots – and I think it’s time to be asking the difficult questions.
Catherine Boeger, Vice President, Partner Solutions Strategy & GTM, Microsoft Corporation
My first job out of college was in investment banking. In this role, I was exposed to many industries and types of roles. Through this experience, I came to love technology because of the rate of change, the innovation and the opportunity for impact. I have had a number of roles at Microsoft always centered around business transformation and driving growth. Finding my voice throughout my journey has taken lots of practice and courage. I learned through watching other senior women in the leadership ranks and was encouraged by them and my leadership team to speak up with good ideas. I was given some high-profile opportunities both internally and externally and seized them. Many of these were at first daunting including large stage presentations and demos, but embracing the opportunities given, taking the learnings and adjusting helped me to find and be more confident in using my voice.
I have found that being passionate as a woman can sometimes be misconstrued as being emotional. I work to be fact-based and objective but to not shy away from my passion and enthusiasm as that is my authentic voice and the way that I can bring my best self to work, and life, and have the largest contributions. Having a strong support system of women leaders who I trust, admire and value has been a keyway for me to being able to lead with an authentic voice and to support those around me.
Challenging gender bias is critical to building a more diverse workplace, but I have broadened my thinking here to ensure I am thinking about inclusion more holistically. This is personal work that happens every day. I challenge my assumptions; I listen to understand and apply curiosity in my conversations. I seek feedback and input from my team and those around me on a regular basis. Specifically, I have been challenging myself to have the courage to speak up when I see behavior that is not inclusive. I find that asking questions helps a lot in these instances. I play back what I hear and then ask if that was what was actually meant, this simple tool can make people aware of and adjust non-inclusive behavior. Over the last few years, I have come to more fully appreciate and embrace the impact my position has at the company and externally. I use my leadership role to make other voices heard and to encourage other women to share the challenges and opportunities they see. One specific example of this was supporting a group of women to create a more supportive program and approach for pre, during and post parental leave as they saw this as a gap that could significantly improve the employee experience for new moms.
Karen Park Jones Director Brand & External Communications; Brand, Marketing, and Communications, Ernst & Young LLC
Early in my career, I worked in many exciting fast-paced marketing and sales environments. It was filled with challenges that pushed me to develop my skill set and it was often very male dominated. I have never been one to focus exclusively on gender, but I was aware that I needed to ensure the problems I was solving and the work I was delivering provided a platform for me to be heard and seen. I used that as a way to hone my craft—to become an expert in various aspects of marketing communications. This gave me confidence which allowed me to prove myself and build trust with executives, peers and teams. But most importantly, I was recognized for the quality of my work while also being a woman.
We know that female executives are vastly outnumbered in boardrooms and C-suites with few role models and sponsors, and are unable to advocate forcefully for their perspectives. Running the executive communications function for many sales leaders gave me a unique opportunity – a platform – to help executives see and understand different perspectives. By advocating for different voices, I was able to build a successful working relationship with executives while at the same time expanding my own leadership skills.
“For female executives, it’s often hard to read the room if there are no other women around the table. In other words, as Marian Wright Edelman has said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Karen Park Jones Director Brand & External Communications; Brand, Marketing, and Communications, Ernst & Young LLC
Over the years, I have certainly seen significant progress in my own industry, marketing, where not only are women in these roles increasing, but they are becoming the majority. It’s a positive trend but we also have to be mindful to always have a balance of people from different backgrounds, and to consider representation and inclusion in the workplace across the board. That’s why, as I’ve taken on leadership roles, I’ve seen the importance of creating an inclusive team environment. This means encouraging team members of all backgrounds and perspectives to voice their opinions and support each other. In both my professional and personal life, I sincerely believe in standing up for those around me and supporting them to develop and establish their own voices
Farah Hussain, Director, Global Partner Marketing, PayPal
I first found my voice in my early 20s when I asked for a raise and my boss was so surprised, she physically fell off the edge of her chair and had to grab her desk. A light went off for me: “I can have an impact!” As someone who was known for being accommodating, that moment left an even greater impression on me than the bump I soon saw in my paycheck. I had challenged what I believed to be my own limits. I had challenged the social construct that you can’t be both flexible and determined.
For me, being accommodating is about creating space, which can be as authoritative as expressing a firm point of view: it’s about making room for different perspectives, styles, and voices. If I disrupt the flow of a meeting to ask a quiet colleague for their thoughts, that’s an act of being accommodating in an authoritative way. I challenge bias by making room for people to be seen and to represent themselves.
Amy Heidersbach, Chief Marketing Officer, Persado
Realizing that I wanted to build a career in marketing happened over time versus in a lightning bolt moment. The journey involved watching and learning from my Dad, who made his career in advertising and marketing, and exploring a wide variety of options, including the law and fine arts. And ultimately, letting go of what I thought others expected and listening to what my inner voice about what would make me happy.
Finding my voice in the world and in business happened over time too. I remember presenting one of my favorite childhood stories, “Where The Wild Things Are,” in a grade school drama contest and feeling a sense of accomplishment after a lot of preparation and pre-teen courage. In business, preparation and courage have been important tools in shaping and asserting my voice too. Even now, the journey continues.
I remember learning about gender bias – especially as it relates to leadership – while at eBay/PayPal. As part of our leadership development program, we heard from researchers at Stanford whose findings revealed that women and men lead in very similar ways, but that we communicate very differently as leaders.
Having a different communications style – often in contrast to more aggressive or dominant styles – has been a continuous challenge in my career. And honestly, it remains a challenge. But I’ve found two things that have helped. First, accepting that my style is my style even as I endeavor to improve my communications effectiveness. And second, surrounding myself with people who lead with positive intent, engender trust and value different styles to begin with.
As part of our recognition and celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, I shared this challenge with my global colleagues at Persado as part of our internal #ChooseToChallenge message.
Let’s reflect on our own biases as they relate to gender. We all have implicit biases – unconscious associations, beliefs, or attitudes toward any social group. And as a result, we often attribute certain qualities or characteristics to all members of that group without realizing it.
Let’s honestly ask ourselves – are we giving women the same opportunities to communicate, lead, even fail in the workplace? Are we advocating for them and celebrating their successes equally? I believe the true test of great teams – and great companies like Persado – is how we face our challenges together. And for those of us who are data-minded, the research shows that gender equality is good for business too.
McKinsey’s study – Women in The Workforce 2020– highlights, among many illuminating things, that company profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well represented at the top. Obviously, something near and dear to my heart – but we need diversity in all parts of our business.