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Why I've Spent My Career Championing Women at Work

The idea of gender equality in the workforce isn’t new


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Today, I wrote a blog about women in the workforce and when I went to search our paid stock photo library for an image of a "woman at work," construction sign to use, I received precisely zero results. Thinking I must have used a poor query, I changed my request to "men at work sign," and instantly retrieved 426 photos of various construction signs featuring the phrase.

I didn't intend to start this story with a jab at the absurd inequality of a stock photo portal, but the analogy is, frankly, on the nose. The point couldn't be made clearer. As far as we've come in the past century, women still have to push and fight for our places at work. I hope this answers the question some of you are inevitably asking when you see something like the award for 50 Best Workplaces for Women. Is such an award really necessary in the year 2018? Speaking as a professional woman, I can say with certainty: Yes. Yes, it is.

A LONG-FOUGHT BATTLE

The idea of gender equality in the workforce isn’t new. Before women even could work (in most professional settings) they gathered to create the first American women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In the 1970s, small meetings, known as “consciousness-raising," brought together the women responsible for modern day feminism. Despite the long journey to 2018, a world in which American women are protected against sex-based discrimination (at least in theory), most people will still concede that we’ve got room to improve.

Why should you care?

In simple terms, if you’re not ready to fully embrace and support the equality of each and every person who chooses to be at work with you, you’d better get out of the way. At the very least, don’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of females to connect with and support each other at work. If there’s one thing my career path – from waitress to leadership team – has taught me, it’s that conversations and friendships have massive benefits for the individual, the team and the organization. 

IT'S NOT ALL KUMBAYA OUT THERE

When I finished college in the early 2000s, I didn’t see any professional gender barriers. I believed that women (myself included) would quickly achieve equity at all levels of professional life. I viewed the lack of women at the top as a pipeline problem not a cultural one. But the support I expected to find from my female colleagues — the feeling of sisterhood in this mission — rarely met my hopes and desire to connect. 

When I started at my first job in advertising at a communications agency, I was excited to bond with the women I worked with – especially the principal who had started decades prior as a junior copywriter. When I began to make motions indicating my desire to learn from her, I sensed her pushing me away. I didn't take the hint and kept asking questions, inviting her to get coffee, seeking for advice. This culminated into an explosion on the floor with her saying I needed to stop expecting special treatment. I was hurt and shocked to say the least. Unfortunately, this would not be a one-time fluke.  

My next role resulted in a similar event: During a weekly one-on-one with my female supervisor, I expressed interest in expanding my skill set and knowledge base. She looked at me point-blank and asked me if I was trying to take her job. Unfortunately, her fears weren’t completely unfounded. Studies have indicated that when professional women believe there’s only room at the top for a few, and they will bully and undermine their female colleagues and employees. If that weren’t enough of a rationale, senior-level women who champion younger women are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal.

This phenomenon makes some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers or deprive the younger women of the resources and connections needed to rise – fearing their own eventual replacement. By contrast, men are 46 percent more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, which makes a difference in representation as you go up the org-chart. Maybe this explains men’s blind spots: At companies where only one in 10 senior leaders are women nearly 50 percent of men felt women were “well represented” in leadership.

(QUEEN) BE(E) The CHANGE

These early-career experiences motivated me to be the change I wanted to see – as tired as that might sound. As I advanced in my career; I joined women's groups, hosted women's networking events and created open channels of communication. I made it a point to reach out to each female who joined the companies I worked for, sharing advice and personal experiences, including how to respectfully say no to performing traditionally girly jobs like getting coffee or office decor.

Sidenote: Being “the office mom” is not great for your career progression.

All this vastly improved the flow of information and relieved tension and anxiety when someone felt isolated. It reassured us that though our jobs were challenging, we were powerful together.

POWERFUL WOMEN TRAVEL IN PACKS

The countermeasure to being penalized for sponsoring women may just be to do it more until we’re able to change perceptions. The advantages of sponsorship for female mentees may be clear, such as access to opportunities and having their achievements brought to the attention of senior management, but mentors gain as well, by becoming known as cultivators of talent and as leaders. Importantly, organizations that welcome such encouragement benefit, too — creating a culture of support, where talent is recognized and rewarded for all.

If you are fortunate enough to build a personal brand in your industry, you can start to pick and choose the companies you work for to align with your values. Reading women’s job reviews, certain patterns arise across industries and employers. Not all of these patterns paint a happy picture of what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace. However, among the best employers certain striking patterns emerge that all other companies can learn from.

BEING A BEST COMPANY FOR WOMEN IS A BIG DEAL

Today we learned that Vertafore made Comparably.com’s list of the top 50 Best Companies for Women to Work. Even more impressively, this was voted by our own employees. The company we keep on that list is exciting and I've been thinking about it throughout the day. Virtually all 50 of these employers have invested significant resources in diversity and inclusion initiatives that specifically support women. Whether it’s adopting better-than-average maternity and parental leave policies, launching formal sponsorship and mentorship programs targeting high-potential women, returnships or workplace flexibility policies that allow women to adjust their workload to work-life balance needs and life events, these investments cumulatively make a difference.

"Developing a culture that promotes the parity of women in the workforce should be the standard for all employers," said Jason Nazar, Comparably's CEO. "Comparably's Best Companies for Women celebrates businesses that are rated the highest by their own female employees. They serve as examples for what workplaces should be like for all women."

CULTURE EATS STRATEGY

These benefits and policies are wonderful supplements, but they can’t replace the intangible value of – and necessity for – a culture that fosters connections among women inside a company, across all levels. Yes, the strategy is important: Give women equal pay, equal opportunity for advancement, and benefits and policies that help them. But as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for lunch.” For women to truly win, a culture must reward collaboration and mentorship and reduces the feeling of competition for an imaginary quota at the top.

Most of us have worked in male-dominated companies, so imagine how it feels to work under an executive leadership team that is 50 percent split on gender lines. The opportunity is palpable. It helps other women realize, “That could be me” — a revelation that can change the course of a women’s career. It’s also an indispensable way of identifying bad actors and systemic problems within the company. Whether you are a first-year employee or a manager, just reach out and make those connections. I’m guessing you’ll find that the ROI on the cost of a Starbucks date will be staggering.


Melody Gambino is the VP of marketing at Vertafore.

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