At last week’s Women Leading Disruptive Innovation conference: She Disrupts, hosted by Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Halcyon House, a group of bold, disruptive women gathered to talk about women and work.
Pat Christen, President & CEO of HopeLab, set the tone at the beginning of the day with her keynote. She highlighted women’s propensity for compassion and resilience—expressed through clearly defined purpose, connection and control—as factors that contribute to success in the workplace.
Women have come a long way toward equality in the workplace, but there is still much work to do. We know that women on average make 78 cents for every dollar that a man makes in nearly every occupation, including some, like nursing, that are comprised mostly of women. We know that there are more men on corporate boards named John, Bob or James than there are women on those boards altogether. The speakers at She Disrupts were candid in their personal stories and practical advice, and they confronted some of the big questions related to the perpetual underrepresentation of women in leadership at companies.
The right way to approach work
Some of the advice circulating about women navigating their workplace relationships seems to suggest there are a right and a wrong way for women to behave or carry themselves. Carolyn Berkowitz of Capital One Foundation said that she thinks there are instead best approaches for women to succeed at work. For her, a successful tactic has been to ask others how they perceive her actions. Importantly, she went on to say that she doesn’t value all of the feedback. If, for example, someone says she’s bossy, she doesn’t listen. However, she does take note if someone points out dismissive behavior. She recommends this practice as a tool to help align the way we she sees herself versus perceptions of others.
Succeeding at self-advocacy
Another discussion during the day focused on tactics for women to better advocate for themselves. When discussing a job offer or raising funds, it is tough for women to tell managers or investors that they are worth more than the first offer. There were many helpful recommendations at She Disrupts on how women can do a better job of advocating for themselves, including the Amy Cuddy TED Talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.
Case Foundation CEO Jean Case’s perspective resonated loudly for me. She said that we should identify the purpose – our North Star – that drives our choices. Women are better at advocating for people and causes that they care about than they are at advocating for themselves. So, women who take the perspective that they are negotiating for what they need to be able to achieve for others often have an easier time of it. If a woman’s goal is to cure Alzheimer’s disease, for example, it is easier for her to ‘add a zero’ when seeking capital to open a research facility if she has the perspective that she is advocating for future patients.
Leveling the field with male peers
The wage gap and the leadership gap continue to have measurable, negative consequences for women all over the world. So, how can women as entrepreneurs seeking investments, or employees seeking promotions level the field with their male counterparts? Financial markets could be the next driver of increased gender parity. Women-owned businesses and businesses with women on the board and in C-Suite positions are showing a pattern of high performance that is causing investors to take notice. They are not just performing on par with male-dominated businesses; they are starting to beat the competition.
This is great news, but many of the speakers stressed that women shouldn’t just wait for the market to take notice. They discussed the importance of networks and mentorship to continue to support women to start businesses and climb the corporate ladder. Shelley Porges of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards pointed out that young women, unlike our male counterparts, generally have too few people in our spheres that will advocate for us. David Thomas of Georgetown University McDonough School of Business added that women do not activate the mentors we do have in the same way as men. He suggested that women are less likely to ask a mentor for a recommendation or promotion, and so are less likely to get the career boosts that help young men gain a competitive advantage.
The disruptive, ambitious women who took part in She Disrupts are evidence that compassion, resilience, and the confidence make big bets open doors to remarkable success. As Beeck Center Executive Director Sonal Shah said in her closing, we aren’t going to fix these disparities in a day, so we need to keep the conversations going to empower women to chart their own paths to success.