Female Strong: Looking Back
By Karen and Erica
The women’s movement started when we were in college, and by the time we got to law school in the 70’s, women made up a significant percentage of our law school classes. When we entered the workforce, however, we were once again in an almost exclusively male environment. Perhaps not too unexpectedly, conversation often stopped when we passed by.
Slowly but surely, however, we learned to navigate. We shed our bowties and came out as women. We gained strength from our female colleagues who were continuing to increase in numbers. We began to closely observe what men did, and how they did it, to become successful. Over time, we began to figure out how to combine the strength and the know-how to turn what was thought to be a huge disadvantage into something empowering.
For the know-how, we noticed that men did their work heads up, not down. They worked hard to do the work well to be sure. That’s fundamental for anyone’s success. But, for them, every assignment was an opportunity not only to learn but for advancement. And so they paid attention to what was happening around them—what was the overarching purpose of the assignment, how would it be used, who at higher levels was interested in it, how could they expand the assignment to show that they too understood the bigger picture. They anticipated and thought about next steps. We, too, lifted up our heads.
They took risks. Even if not asked for their views, they spoke up when they thought they had something to add (which was about always!). They weren’t afraid of being wrong. They volunteered for assignments that may have been beyond their current status or knowledge. They asked…for opportunities, for raises, for promotions. They did not in any shape or form believe that if they just kept doing really good work, success would come. They went after it. And, we learned, we had to do that too.
We also noticed that men exuded confidence virtually all the time and, in doing that, they made others have confidence in them. We learned to avoid wishy-washy language (maybe this or maybe that) and make clear what we thought and why. We learned from our male colleagues to speak with authority and in full sentences, often with more certainty than we—and probably they too—may have felt. We saw that they entered a room with confidence and presence, knowing that they belonged. We followed suit and did the same.
Adding to that foundation, we called upon strengths that are uniquely female.
We women are networkers. We concentrated on building relationships and establishing emotional connections within and outside our workplaces from the get go. Even when there was no time to meet, we spent time on the phone, getting to know one another’s families, vacations, interests, before getting to the matters at hand. Most men, we found, like to chat about things other than golf just as much as women do when given the chance. They are just less comfortable doing that. Small conversations over time turned into many large supporters. And so we found an advantage.
We women are also really good team players and coaches. We provided support for our colleagues, helping them make their work better, think through issues, read people in ways that may not have occurred to them, come up with a strategy for their own success. All members of the team were acknowledged and appreciated for their contributions—from people in the mail room to our assistants. We knew we couldn’t do it without them. We knew their names and their stories. They were our friends and allies. We wanted to be surrounded by the smartest people and we wanted them to want to be around us. They weren’t threats. They could only make us be and look better.
We never underestimated the importance of having fun--to take the work, but not ourselves, too seriously. We shared our challenges, our mistakes, our personal quirks and foibles. We were party planners and hosts. We thought of reasons to celebrate even when we had to look under a rock to find them. We laughed a lot, and at ourselves too.
We knew how to read a room, better than any man we knew. We could tell who was with us, who was not. We could tell by watching who the decision makers were. We knew the importance of building consensus by understanding others’ perspectives and addressing them. And we shared our observations so that they could be used by others, including our bosses, to accomplish their goals. Our insights and perceptions became value added.
Finally, as women, we are comfortable with the language of caring. We used those skills to demonstrate to colleagues and clients that we cared about them, their organizations and their issues personally. We celebrated births and acknowledged passings. We took the time to anticipate what they needed, before they may have even realized it. We proved that we would be there for them with everything we had. We were honest and forthcoming, delivering hard messages when they were necessary but not necessarily welcome. Building trust and keeping it was and is imperative.
Now that we are retired, younger women still in the workforce are telling us that they are dealing with many of the same challenges we did. Taking the time to share our stories and lessons learned with those who are following in our footsteps is an important part of keeping the momentum going.
We're interested in your thoughts and experiences too. Please comment--long or short doesn’t matter or write to us directly through firstname.lastname@example.org. What advice would you give to the next generation? What worked for you that could work for them too? We look forward to hearing from you!