Like it or not, the American workplace is still far from free of gender bias. But there are things women who want to climb the corporate ladder can do to improve their odds of getting to the top.
After decades of progress on gender equality in the workplace, and the passage of laws that make discrimination based on sex illegal, women still have a long way to go to reach parity. Only 5 percent of VC funding goes to companies headed by women, and less than 5 percent of S&P 500 companies have female CEOs.
Bias is especially prevalent in male-dominated industries such as construction. Just ask Lindsay Chason, director of merchandising at The Home Depot. "I've had men refuse to speak to me until 'my boss showed up because HE makes the decisions,'" she recalls.
Over the years, she's observed how women executives and entrepreneurs can help--or hinder--their own careers when working in an industry where women executives tend to be rare. Here's her advice:
1. Get a seat at the table--literally.
Have you ever noticed that when women enter a conference room for a meeting, they gravitate away from seats at the head of the table--and sometimes takes seats to the side, away from the table altogether? We're channeling thousands of years' tradition where women stayed away from important male discussions, but the instinct isn't doing us any good.
"Too many times, I have seen women in meetings take a seat in surrounding chairs, deliberately separating themselves from the presentation," Chason says. "Women don't realize that this silent decision is damaging to how others perceive their roles and professional capabilities."
Instead, she advises, make sure to get to important meetings early so you can be assured a seat at the conference table where you can--and should--take part in the discussion. "If you physically put yourself on the sidelines, then the perceived message is that you are not one of the starting players," she says.
2. Ask for what you want when you want it.
Is there a position opening up, a new project that requires a leader, or a new opportunity or market you know is right for you? Don't wait demurely, hoping you'll be chosen. Speak up on your own behalf.
"A lot of women think the only time to ask for what they want is during a formal review," Chason says. "At the end of the day, you are responsible for managing your own career. It's not about bragging, it is about being upfront and standing up for what you want and where you want to go, rather than leaving it to be a surprise during your annual review. You have to advocate for yourself in order for someone else to advocate for you."
3. Be an advocate for other women.
I've always resented the often-repeated dictum that women who succeed have a responsibility to help other women up the ladder with them. Biology shouldn't come with obligations, is how I see it. But Chason makes a convincing argument that it's something we should at least consider.
"As women, we tend to be prone to judging--is she a good mom? Why did she leave early? What is she wearing?" she says. "We must retrain our brains to think positive thoughts about other women, notice what they're doing well and what they bring to the table, and be cheerleaders for them."
Chason herself had a female boss earlier in her career who was a great advocate. "She helped me establish my brand within the company," she says. She seeks to pay it forward by doing the same for other female executives. While I disagree that it's every successful female's duty to help out other women execs, she's absolutely right that it's a worthy thing to do.
4. Don't be too quick to take no for an answer.
"When women hear 'no,' we think it means it's the end of the discussion, whereas men see it differently," Chason says. "We need to learn from our male counterparts to be more resilient, keeping in mind that there's always room for negotiation. What you're after is in reach, it may just take more persistence. 'No' just means 'not now,' not 'never ever.'"
Early in her career, Chason says, one of her bosses told her she could never become a merchandising executive, and now she's just that, responsible for $900 million in sales of interior doors. "You will always have people who tell you they can't give you a promotion because you are too young or inexperienced, or don't have your MBA. Don't let this hold you down! If I just accepted no as an answer, I would not be in the position I am today."
5. Face uncomfortable situations head-on.
"Rather than pointing, whispering, or ignoring, if you see a peer acting in a way you find concerning, address it immediately," Chason advises. It's easy to let things go, especially for women who are often brought up to avoid direct confrontation. But that training serves us poorly in executive positions.
"I was once told that as you climb the ladder, you get paid the big bucks to be uncomfortable," Chason says. "Not only is this applicable to business decisions, it is especially relevant to interpersonal relationships with co-workers."
For instance, she says, if a colleague is dressing inappropriately, or drinking too much at a company event, it may be easier to say nothing, but it's worth the effort and discomfort to help her. And Chason says, "If you can have these uncomfortable conversations and turn them into positives, that says a lot about your own potential for future growth."