In the famous TED Talk titled "How Great Leaders Inspire Action", Simon Sinek uses the metaphore of the Golden Circle to explain the importance of knowing "WHY" you're doing what you're doing. This "WHY" should be the motivation to "WHAT" and "HOW" you should operate as a leader or an organizations.
I'd like to share with you my personal "WHY" of for becoming such a vocal advocate for women in leadership.
A Humble Beginning
Looking back, I must say, I have never planned for it. I cruised through gender barriers most of my life as if they never existed. Even back in Israel, when my pre-teen friends were taking dance classes, I joined an all-boy Karate class. I was shorter than most people by at least one head and was about half of their weight but I still wanted to show them that I could do it. In University, I was one of the 10% female students in the Computer Sciences program. I had to overcome a huge learning curve with no prior coding experience and finished at the top of my class. I landed a lucrative job on Wall Street, got my MBA from the Wharton school and ultimately ended up taking an exciting role at a Brazilian mining company. Even though it was not a popular career choice at my program nor I knew much about mining, I thought it would be a fun to try a new industry and a new country.
Fast Forward Two Years Later
I was fully eased into my role a corporate strategy manager in Rio de Janeiro when one day I saw a study about the gender balance in the company. To my surprise, I was one of only 13% women there (I later found out that mining, as a whole, was one of the most male-dominated industries). I've never realized that the numbers were so low because in my immediate environment I dealt with more women than in any prior job. The data also showed that at every level, women were paid about the same rates as men (great!) but at every stage of hierarchy they were not progressing through the pipeline at the same rate as men. This was a great loss of talent in an industry that could benefit a lot from more feminine touch - collaboration, employee development, long-term thinking, attention to safety, etc.
My financial analyst-turned business strategist-self started digging deeper and mapping out some interesting trends:
Men lobbied much more aggressively for recognition and promotion while women held the belief that their work would be recognized eventually. Some of the more timid men shared the same attitudes.
Biases against moms or moms-to-be were common: they got removed from promotion lists and training opportunities and sometimes even demoted or fired. Ironically, some of the most dedicated employees I encountered were working moms.
In performance reviews women were deemed as "too aggressive" or "not assertive enough" and thereby disqualified from promotion.
For both sexes, promotion depended very much on building strong relationships, something that men tended to work more on.
Even in functions with high percentages of women, men dominated senior positions.
Sexist jokes were seen by some as a way to create a "fun work atmosphere." Those who didn't appreciate the jokes (or were the direct targets) felt obliged to participate.
Very little transparency existed in career paths
There were a few women in high leadership positions but majority of them were disliked and rumored to have gotten their jobs due to nepotism.
There were various actions addressing women in operational roles (mainly focusing on facilities and uniforms) and initiatives around women-friendly recruiting but nothing was really targeted towards solving the leaky pipeline problem.
It's not a Women's Problem, but a Culture's Problem
I first thought this was a "Brazil thing” but shortly thereafter discovered that Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Mary Slaughter who were talking about similar issues in the United States. I started sharing this research and raising awareness.
Source: Catalyst. Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies. New York: Catalyst, October 13, 2015.
With more data at hand, it became clear to me that the problem was cultural: women were trying to compete in industries created for, and run by, men. On one hand, they had to face all sorts of biases and extra hurdles and on the other hand, they were not as adapt as male colleagues in navigating the system (either because of access or because of upbringing /socialization). Moreover, with no interesting role models at the top, leadership didn't feel attainable or desirable for many of the women I met. I realized that I had the ability to empower my female colleagues by raising their self-awareness and providing the tools to be more successful. Nevertheless, I couldn't do much about changing the system unless I figured out a way to engage mostly-male senior leadership who was running the show. Before leaving Brazil I bought everyone in my team Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and promised myself I will keep fighting for these talented women.
Once I figured out my "WHY", There was no going back. I had to take action.
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