How to beat the challenges females face in business – just be yourself!

Harriet Heneghan, Director & Executive Coach, EMEA, Black Isle Group

To reduce the challenges that females face in business, there is some simple advice that we can all heed.  All of us need to be true to ourselves, have belief in ourselves and speak up for ourselves.  More on this later but first let’s look at the problem.

Most people don’t need me to quote statistics here to prove there are still challenges for females in the working world. The recent gender pay gap revelations, the under representation of women in senior business and c-suite positions and the #metoo campaign are all sure signs of this. However, there is one statistic which I do want to quote and it is in relation to a big business opportunity being missed.  With 70-80% of consumer purchasing made by women, the way women operate needs to be taken into account in an organisation’s strategy and way of working.  Who better placed to input into this than women?  It isn’t just that we need to be fair to women, we need women in senior roles for businesses to perform better.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly, when I conducted some anecdotal research for this article, it was apparent that a number of women do not feel the challenges are so great.  Some feel that the media overhypes the situation and that it is now white middle class men who are being discriminated against. Some feel they are of a generation where these things simply don’t happen anymore (#notme). Some feel it is society’s problem and don’t know what they can do from a business perspective.  From my experience, this latter group has come about because of the group of women who are seen as being the raging feminists.  My view is that if you have ever directly experienced discrimination or harassment then the feminist group doesn’t seem so raging.  Even if it does, then surely the missed business opportunity will motivate you to do something.

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Putting these views to one side, yes, there has been an improvement in these challenges over time but there is still work to be done to improve the situation. The good news is there is something we can all do about it.  The advice at it’s simplest is to just be yourself.  I realise that given what a hot potato this subject is, I do not want to be seen to trivialise it.  To expand further, the ideas here fall into two categories – be authentic, and override biases.  Everyone can heed this advice no matter their gender, age, race, sexual orientation or position of power.

It is absolutely key that we remain authentic to our true selves.  This is not just a moral stand, it is essential for us to perform at our best.  If we pretend to be someone we aren’t then people will find it hard to trust us.  We should believe in who we are and want to respect each other’s beliefs and so treat each other as equals.

In my line of work I am always surprised to still come across women who try to act like men. For years now,we have all heard that it isn’t necessary for women to behave this way in order to succeed. Yet some women still feel the need to do so.  Just the other day I was coaching a woman in one of the big global investment banks who had a number of men reporting into her and who were older than her.  Her style to them was very punchy and direct, and she told me that she would always try and have the first say in a meeting.  When chatting to me she made real impact without having to be like this and with the help of some video camera analysis she realised that her natural style was the way forward when interacting with her team too.

Do not for one minute think that because I am suggesting we stay true to ourselves that I think our voices should not be heard. It is all the more important that we do speak up and say what we feel- just not in a way that we see others doing it – use your natural style whatever that may be and have confidence in it.

To speak up is of course essential if you feel you are being treated unfairly -the sooner you say something the better. For more serious forms of sexual harassment, this can require exceptional courage and I appreciate some will not feel able to do so.  To speak up to the harasser may not be possible but my hope is that there will be someone who you can speak to and that they will then help.  The difficulty for people to speak up about the more serious forms of unfairness, discrimination and harassment makes it even more important for us to say something about the more minor forms.  Remember they are your feelings and no one can argue with them.  If someone makes you feel you are being treated unfairly, then tell them.  For the minor things, the real art to this is telling them without losing the relationship with them.

This includes telling people that what they may view as humour or banter is not the case for you.  If they are ribbing you, then a ribbing back, i.e. showing your feelings with humour, should not cause offense.  Another example of this would be the stereotype that women get spoken over in meetings.  If you feel this is the case then this would be a great example of when you need to speak up.  No, that doesn’t mean you need to speak more loudly, but you need to let people know how you feel.  A polite “excuse me” to indicate they have interrupted, said in the right tone of voice is a good way to start.  If you have to do this a number of times they are the ones who will look bad.

It also includes asking for what you want.  So many people assume that they won’t be able to work flexible hours, part time or from home; or that they can’t ask their partners to help with the childcare.  I can’t promise you will get everything you want but from my experience you won’t know until you ask.  Recently I met a senior figure in banking who has returned to work after taking several years off to have children.  She openly admitted to me that she didn’t think the bank she worked for would agree to her request to work term times only and so was pleasantly surprised when they said yes.  She works on projects and so long as she manages these around when she works it is possible for her to do this.

We also need to reflect on the situation that people don’t think they are being affected by these challenges anymore.  Some would say that it is because they haven’t reached senior enough positions to be impacted by them.  But perhaps that is why they haven’t reached senior positions?  And even if they haven’t experienced overt bias against them, how do we deal with the level of unconscious bias in the work place?  They need to aware that these problems do exist and that they should be aware of them before it is too late for them.

I called myself out on this only the other day.  Why do I feel the need to refer to my female colleagues as “girls”?  This isn’t always the case and I could say that it is just me paying them a complement.  However, when I really look into why this is, it is because the word women, in my mind, sounds a bit fuddy-duddy and ladies can sound a bit too la-di-da!  I feel the need to embrace these words more now, especially in the workplace and I would urge the rest of you to investigate your own unconscious biases.  Often just by being aware of them we can override the impact they have.  Hopefully then my 5-year-old boy will not be telling me “women can’t be doctors”.  Quite where he gets this idea from is astounding given both his grandmother and great grandmother were doctors!

If we go back to where I first started,I hear the more skeptical of you saying that the business opportunity is only missed for those of you in the b2c world – such purchasing power is not the case for women in the b2b world.  Surely this is the case simply because there aren’t enough women in these purchasing positions?

From all of this the best outcome we can all hope for is that, if we follow some of the advice given above, the people making these purchasing powers will be chosen on their ability to do their job and will therefore reflect the diversity of the population.  That is of course if people believe that white middle-aged men are not better than the rest of us.  Surely that is the case, even if unconsciously some people’s actions don’t reflect this!  And remember it isn’t just women who need to take this advice.  If white middle-aged men feel they are being discriminated against now, then they should speak up too.

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