Work-life balance is extremely important for any executive, but for women in the workplace, it is even more crucial. We deal with issues that our male counterparts rarely encounter.
Early in my career, I was excited to move up the ranks in the professional world, getting promoted from assistant to coordinator to manager. What no one told me or prepared me for was that when I got to the level of senior manager and director, then later to president and CEO, the game changed. It was no longer just an uneven playing field. It was a completely different field altogether.
Here are 10 things I wish I had known or fully understood before I became a high-ranking female executive.
1) You Become a Unicorn.
As a member of senior management or the head of your organization, you are often the only woman in the room. If you are a minority female, then you are usually both the only minority AND the only woman in the room. To excel in the workplace, this reality is something you need to get comfortable with to the point of not reacting to it or even noticing it. Some of my executive sisters have admitted to exclaiming, “Oh wow. I am the only woman in the room!” They later found themselves irritated when that fact was used as a handicap or jokingly as part of the dialogue. “We have to watch our language since we have a woman in the room.” The less you react to the gender difference, the less your male counterparts will. You are all executives in the room, there to get a job done.
2) You Become a Cryptologic Linguist
Since man-speak is still the primary corporate language, women executives often must work harder to get the same results simply because we communicate differently.
Imagine being dropped into a foreign country where you don’t speak the language of the land but you are still required to excel at the same level as its citizens, or beyond, lest you be faced with deportation. Welcome to the upper ranks of Corporate America where men have their own language, activities, and work styles. They meet on the golf course, the cigar bar, or at sports events to talk business. It doesn’t typically occur to them to invite you to those places, and when you invite yourself, the conversation changes. (It is similar to how we adjust our conversation when a man walks into a beauty salon or the ladies’ room.) Since man-speak is still the primary corporate language, women executives often must work harder to get the same results simply because we communicate differently. We are required to either become cryptologic linguists to break their language code, or we have to manage to get by on the breadcrumbs of information we can snatch up. The good news is that we have learned how to create masterpieces out of breadcrumbs!
3) You Frequently Have to Be a Ventriloquist
In male-dominated meetings, it is not uncommon for a female executive to present a brilliant, well-thought-out idea only to not have it heard until one of their male colleagues repeats it, at which point it is deemed excellent and innovative. Of course, the “dummy” who shares it as his own typically has no idea how to implement it, so you end up being asked to assist with your own idea.
4) You Are Perceived as too Much or too Little
If you have a great sense of humour and like to laugh, you may be considered silly and not taken seriously. If you are more the serious type, you may be perceived as moody or too intense. If you speak with the same force and tone as your male counterparts, you will likely be called attitudinal, bitchy, or too sensitive. If you are too quiet, you are deemed weak. If you are too vocal, you are considered too talkative. I was once labelled “hard-headed” because I disagreed with a colleague’s idea. When our male colleagues disagreed with him, however, it was considered a “counter viewpoint we need to hear.” There is no middle ground that satisfies everyone, so just be you.
5) You Have to Build in Bathroom Breaks
Physiologically, we women are completely different from our male counterparts. In addition to pregnancy and post-partum changes, we have monthly issues we must face. Having to leave a long meeting for a desperate bathroom break, with a tell-tale purse or supply case in hand, can be embarrassing. What is more embarrassing, however, are the numerous stories I have heard from my executive sisters who waited too long to make their exit and literally left their mark in the board room or on the president’s office chair.
6) Nobody Believes You Are the Boss
A few weeks (or days) into your new executive position, as you start attending conferences or business meetings, surely it is normal to expect industry colleagues and vendors to be eager, impressed even, to meet you, the head of the company. Instead, if you arrive at a meeting with one of your male employees or counterparts, people will immediately defer and direct all conversations to him. The male-dominated corporate culture is so deeply ingrained that even other female executives will make this mistake. Being on the receiving end of this can be humiliating and infuriating, so practice your coping and redirection strategies in advance. Here is a tip: You are the boss whether they believe it or not. Don’t try to convince them. Don’t even introduce yourself. Arrange in advance for your male colleague to introduce you.
7) Lunchtime Can Be Lonely
As a high-ranking female, you are rarely invited to lunch by your colleagues. Everyone assumes you are already booked solid with business engagements. I recall when I was a director and one of my female division presidents invited me for a casual lunch. We had a great time laughing and talking. When I thanked her for asking me to join her, she said, “You know, you can ask me sometimes, too.” Not until I became a president did I truly understand the loneliness she felt in that moment.
8) You Can Be Unapologetically FemininE (or not)
Contrary to popular belief, dressing like a girl does not make men take you less seriously. If they are inclined to do that, they will do that whether you have on a tailored pantsuit or a form-fitting dress. Thankfully, professional attire encompasses a wide variety of looks. Figure out which style of dress makes you feel good and empowered, and wear that. If a male colleague offers to hold the door or carry a heavy bag, let him. You don’t have to prove your capabilities to earn their respect. I have had male counterparts or superiors let out a string of profanity, then turn to me and apologize. Some women would be offended by that, but I am honoured. It is a form of respect. Conversely, if you want to wear boxy or androgynous suits and carry your own heavy load, feel free to do that, too.
9) You Become the Mentor
Unlike men, women don’t typically have female mentors who are grooming and preparing them for executive leadership. There is often a competition factor. As a high-ranking female, many other women young and mature will look to you for mentorship, even if you are still figuring it out yourself. The thinking is you made it this far so you must have the wisdom to share. A bit surprisingly, I mentor as many men as I do women.
10) The Work Is the Easy Part
The work itself is rarely the biggest challenge most female executives face. More often, it is subtle misogyny and, if you are a minority, not-so-subtle racism or discrimination. In my previous position, one of my female clients snidely remarked to me, “Before you came we NEVER had to observe Martin Luther King Day.” I smiled politely and reminded her that before I came, and grew the organization, the business was closed on Mondays.
So, now that you know some of the challenges you may face, you understand why self-care and having a work-life balance are important
Oh Sandy, this is priceless! I laughed out loud at each and every point. In the 90s when I was in banking, women were taking golf lessons in order to be part of important work discussions. Of course then there was my first job as a Marine Corps Officer in the 70s – actually that was a good experience – the fact that many men didn’t want me there wasn’t subtle so I had to toughen up pretty quickly. The subtleties of the civilian world were far more frustrating. I guess I started out right when my father pushed me to go into the Marine Corps because it was affirmative action time and they needed pretty girls so it would be easy to get in.
I hit the executive ranks fairly early in my career. My first promotion to Vice President, my father’s reaction was, “I didn’t know they made secretaries Vice Presidents.”
When I opened my own consulting firm, my husband later joined me. By this time it was fun to watch male clients talk to my husband even though the expertise in the work was mine. We had some chuckles once I pointed it out to my husband.
Anyway – thanks for the morning dose of humorous (and sad) reality.