Redefining Successful Women

In For the Stilletos, Relationships on March 16, 2012 at 12:15 PM

I’m going to stay on this topic of common bonds and connections and take us to our next topic.  I recently attended a session, a powerful session that discussed this very same issue.  As part of Women’s International Day, my workplace brought in Sophia Nelson, author of the book, Black Woman Redefined.  Although this is the topic of her book, the discussion was not just about black women but all women and how we all need to define or redefine ourselves within various aspects of life.  Of course, I completely agree with this platform for similar reasons that she mentioned in her talk.  Namely, we, as women cannot move forward if we are continuously being defined by the likes of “Real Housewives” or “Basketball Wives”.  (I’ll save that discussion for another day, as there is definitely a hot issue that surrounds the “media women” of today).  Considering that we were in a corporate environment, however, the discussion centered on redefining yourself in the workplace.  Although women in this country are over 50% of the population, make up more than 57% of the professional work force and earn over 52% of professional degrees, their positions within the workplace are grossly disparate with respect to such statistics.  And for women of color, the statistics are even more staggering.

While women are recruited for their talent, educational accomplishments and overall prowess, their development, pay and overall treatment in corporate America often leaves them plagued with frustration.  Even in 2012, women are still not matched dollar for dollar on the payroll and the average female worker loses approximately $434,000 in wages over a 40-year period as a direct result of pay inequities See, Arons, Jessica, “Lifetime Losses: The Career Wage Gap”, Center for American Progress, December 2008.

Retention is one of the biggest issues for women and even more so for women of color, Nelson reported.  For many of you, like myself, who have witnessed the inner walls of the Fortune 500 companies, these statements are no surprise.  We see us at the entry-level positions.  We may even see us in upper management and executive ranks (that we had to claw and work thrice as hard to obtain).  But, honestly, when you think about the numbers (over 50%) and then you look at the Executives and the Board of Directors for these companies, the numbers are not equally reflective.  Why is that?

Oh there are so many reasons and I’m sure I’ll follow this article up with several discussions to address the “whys” of corporate America, but for now, let’s just focus on this idea of common bonds and connections.  As a woman, particularly a woman of color, specifically a woman of color who is a patent lawyer (yes, the statistics just narrowed to less than 2%), walking into a room full of white men is nothing new.  From the legal side, women account for about 33% of the legal field and from the science side, women are less than 12% of scientists and engineers.  (Again, for women of color, these numbers decrease significantly).  Despite these daunting statistics that I carry on my back daily, I have to say that I have had some pretty pleasant experiences when I enter a room of predominantly white, male scientist who are basically my clients within the company.  (Considering that my name is “Kenya”, it should be no surprise when I enter a room as a black woman giving a face to the voice of reason that has been helping them to move their business forward over the phone).  Finding a common bond here is usually relatively easy since first, there is a more collaborative dynamic as service to client and second, not too many people share a fascination with polymer chemistry.  But what happens when I enter a room filled with colleagues or leaders who have a direct impact and influence on my career and, better yet, have nothing in common with any aspect of me except that we work at the same company?  There is no client-service relationship.  Instead, a hierarchical relationship may exist.  So now what?

As I stated in a previous article, we have more in common than not.  I truly believe that and approach everyone with this mantra.  I challenge myself constantly to find a person with whom I cannot find a common bond.  I challenge you to do the same.  It may appear impossible or you may think, “Kenya, you’re taking this ‘Love Revolution’ too far now”.  But, honestly, I try not to meet a stranger.  I learned this from watching my oldest daughter interact with people who she meets.  Certainly she’s a little shyer in her younger years but it doesn’t take but a few minutes to begin talking to someone as if she’s met them before.  There’s something to be said about that kind of confidence.  I also believe EVERYONE is essentially human.  They put their pants on one pant leg at a time.  Maybe they jump into them but the end result is the same.  While a level of respect is given should I meet my company’s CEO or other executive officer, I don’t, however, feel that respect equates to a level of fear.  True.  Some people in “ranks” are simply unapproachable and operate from atop a mound that looks down upon their underlings.  Although I find this military style of power to be dwindling as companies are becoming more successful under the younger, more approachable CEOs like Tony Hsieh of Zappos or Larry Page of Google, certainly there are still a few leaders left from the generation of yesteryear.  They operate based on fear and that style tends to trickle down as the model for management.  Fear in this regard is just a manifestation of differences.  Remember what I said previously about differences?  Common bonds are more powerful.  So, if you find yourself amongst those who are just so different and seem so unapproachable because you don’t see commonality, shake their hand, smile, make a connection that way and anyway.  Break that barrier!  If you don’t get a chance to talk and determine what you have in common, you’d be surprise how far a smile will take you.  Not returning the grimace or not adding to the fear and the manifestation of differences will help you focus on the work at hand and the issue that brought you into the same room.  Again, don’t dwell on the differences.  So what, you’re the only woman in the room.  Move and work towards what has brought you to that room.  If you operate on fear, it will undermine your value and ultimately undermine your presence.  Don’t undermine your presence.  You are there for a reason.  Show it.

Additionally, as part of her talk, Nelson focused on the things women can do to change the game of women in the workforce and shift the present paradigm:

Find a sponsor. This is distinct from a mentor.  This is your connector.  This is the person who helps to build the relationships that will be crucial to the success and advancement of your career.  They are the ones that can help make the connections that will break those awkward or fearful introductions.  A sponsor will boast of your talents and put you in front of the people who can help your success.

Find a mentor.  This is different than a sponsor.  A mentor is the traditional guide and advisor of your career.  This is a person with whom you will have more interactions in comparison to your sponsor.  You will have a closer relationship with your mentor and this person will be more of a role model with whom you can bounce ideas off of.

Know your value.  Live by your ethical standards and integrity.  Understand what it is you do well, what matters most to you, and what enables you to thrive and be fulfilled without compromising those standards and integrity.  I can only hope that those days of Mad Men for women in the workplace are over.  You know what I’m talking about!

Live the 3 “S’s”. Savvy. Style. Substance. These are three things that make up who we are as individuals.  Understand what your unique business style is, how to incorporate it into the working world, and use it to build meaningful relationships with power players so that you can stand out.

Define.  Redefine. Connect.  Succeed.  That’s What’s Up!


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