How to Achieve Better Outcomes for Women in the Workplace
I was really fortunate to begin my career at IBM. It was a company ahead of its time in terms of diversity and the investments they made in women. I spent 18 years there. I learned, I grew, I was challenged and mentored by women and men, and I never felt marginalized because of my gender. When I changed companies, I had a much different experience. Different doesn’t mean bad. I’m a firm believer that every challenge or roadblock brings about a learning opportunity, which makes the moment in time worth experiencing. At the risk of sounding dramatic, what I learned after IBM significantly changed how I viewed myself and how I interacted in my professional circles.
As a female executive, I’m constantly asked what women in the workplace can do to thrive in business. I have three answers:
- Work harder than every man
- Be willing to adapt your style, when necessary
- Support other women
Typically, my first two answers are met with a sigh by members of my own gender. Why should we have to work harder? Why should we have to change? My reply is always this: for better outcomes. Look, I recognize this strategy isn’t fair and in a perfect world everyone would be treated equally and accepted as they are. But the world isn’t perfect, and sometimes we need to make personal adjustments to achieve better outcomes. If accomplishing this means becoming a measured version of myself in certain settings and interactions, I’m going to do it.
Let me give you an example. I’m a passionate person. I’m animated. I’m loud and I talk with my hands. Some men in my career have found this part of my persona unsettling, describing me even as “emotional” … an absolute no-no for women in business (and, for the record, a charge that is almost always a gross mischaracterization of a woman’s behavior). Now there isn’t any way I can change how they interpret my style. I am powerless to do that.
What I can control is the piece of my personality that weakens or threatens our business relationship. So I dial it down. By doing so, have I changed who I am? Of course not! We may not realize it but we change and adapt in situations every day without giving it a second thought. I know people who have a salty vocabulary outside the office but in the workplace, their filters are in overdrive. Why? Because not doing so would be unacceptable, unprofessional, and it would negatively impact relationships and jeopardize outcomes.
So this was really one of my greatest learning experiences following IBM. I learned to become more self-aware, which helped me grow into a more effective leader and earn the respect of my peers, both male and female. No company is going to change its model to suit anyone, so we need to look deep within ourselves to see what little changes we can make to achieve the best outcomes for the greater good. And that’s not selling out.
Another case in point: The Washington Post recently ran a story that came from the unlikeliest of places … straight out of the Obama administration. This is a president who is viewed as progressive and a champion of equal rights, yet women on his staff felt compelled to use “amplification” to influence decision making. Essentially, they repeated each other’s suggestions in staff meetings to ensure they were being heard, and then credited one another to prevent men from claiming the ideas as their own. This clever strategy is linked to a wider phenomenon known as “shine theory,” which was coined by magazine editor Ann Friedman. The idea is pretty straightforward: “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”
I realize it’s absolutely shocking and frustrating that in 2016 women in the workplace have to resort to tactics like “amplification” to be heard, but I admire greatly how they were willing to come together and adapt their styles in order to achieve the right results. What was their alternative? The men weren’t going to change! And the more outcomes women can achieve in our roles, the more we’ll advance up through the ranks and have the ability to directly influence and change policy, behavior and perceptions. This is long-term thinking, ladies. We lose a battle here and there to win the war.
I look at my life in chapters, and within each one I’ve been lucky to have women present who supported and coached me in the areas I needed to develop most. It’s important to me to create that type of environment for women at Avaya too. That’s why I’m “leaning in” with my colleague, Chief Marketing Office Morag Lucey, to introduce a “Women in Leadership” program at Avaya (and, by the way, Morag recently published a terrific blog on this very topic). We want to start a conversation and out of that create opportunities for women to drive organizational change, develop their talents and contribute more broadly to Avaya’s ongoing success. It’s our own “shine” strategy.
Designer Gloria Vanderbilt famously said, “I always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.” I believe this to be true. We stand taller and have more power to positively influence our experiences and our futures when we work together. At the end of the day, that’s what will bring about meaningful, lasting change for our gender as a whole.