It was promotion season, and my senior management team was sitting around the table, several hours into a review of managing director candidates.
It was time to review “Joe.” Joe was “aggressive,” he “broke some eggs.” This enabled him to “get things done.” Joe had beaten plan. And so Joe was promoted to managing director.
Next up was “Jen.” Jen “got things done,” but she was “aggressive” and “broke some eggs.” Jen had beaten plan … and the strong market environment was noted. We recommended that Jen get an executive coach to smooth out her rough edges so that we could reconsider her next year to become a managing director.
I wish I could tell you that I noticed what we had just done. But it wasn’t me. It was one of my direct reports — a guy, in fact. When he pointed it out a few minutes later, we were all pretty stunned, including my (female) head of HR. We reversed course and promoted them both.
Discouraging for women in business? Yup. Hard to spin it any other way.
But what to do?
As women, implicit gender expectations and biases make it even more key that we build a “personal board of directors” of mentors and sponsors — people who have an interest in our success, can help us navigate through companies’ cultural landmines, and advocate for us. You want someone in that room to point out that the market environment was just as helpful to Joe’s business results as to Jen’s.
As managers, we need to be aware of the subtle gender biases we all harbor. We need to discuss them with our team, we need to point them out when we see them, and we need to provide education and training on them.
Beyond this, smart managers will recognize the “talent arbitrage” that can exist as a result of others’ biases. An extreme example: Some of the private banking businesses I ran operated in countries that were very gender-traditional. So we populated our business with some of the most talented women in the country. And the business results simply crushed it.
But I’m not naive. Some companies and managers won’t grasp this — ever. At one point, I knew that I worked for one such manager when he spent an entire business review “mansplaining” my business to me .... even though I had years of experience, and we were posting top-of-industry operating results. That was another “a-ha” moment. He was never going to change, and so that workplace wasn’t going to change.
Because for women in this situation: Sometimes, you have your own “a-ha” moment … and get the hell out of Dodge. You can move to a company that “gets it.”
And this is perhaps one reason why women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men; it can be a means to strip some of these issues away, build companies that reflect our values, and allow the market to determine our success.
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