Is Your Own Company a Good Place to Be a Woman?

I’m in the process of writing an article for Training’s May/June issue on what companies can do to support women in their climb to leadership positions. Not much of what I’m hearing surprises me—that it’s not what you accomplish as much as how well you “play the game,” and that the same attributes male employees usually are lauded for, such as ambition, sometimes are described by management as “pushy” or off-putting when exhibited by women.

A new study, released last week by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, caught my attention after it was mentioned in an article by Daniel Victor in The New York Times. The article focused on the finding from the study that companies with women in leadership positions tend to be more profitable. That doesn’t surprise me either, as I’ve written before in this blog that having more diversity in leadership means more perspectives to consider when making decisions. So a marketing plan targeted to a wide swath of the population likely will be more successful if it’s crafted by a team that includes women and African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, etc., than a marketing campaign hatched solely by middle-aged white men. It’s just common sense.

With so much that doesn’t surprise me, I started thinking about something I still don’t know the answer to: How are aspiring women leaders doing at our readers’ companies? Is it good to be a woman trainer or Learning professional at your own company? I’ve always heard that the field of Learning is dominated by women. Is that true at your company, and if it’s true, does that mean a woman Learning specialist has a good chance of entering the top ranks of your company?

One of the reasons I ask is because I also am in a field said to be dominated by women. Writing and editing, and journalism, is a stereotypically female-heavy field. But I don’t feel like I have equal footing with the men I work with. I’ve written a lot in this blog about my frustrations with my male manager. He’s thought so highly of, held in such high esteem, yet I can assure you, he can be ignorant. If he weren’t a six-foot-tall, 62-year-old with a booming voice and an authoritative way of speaking, would he still be held in such esteem? In contrast, I’m a petite, soft-spoken, 40-year-old woman. I speak up about what I feel I should be recognized for, and to ask for advancement and more money. But I make little progress convincing others at my company of my value. One of my friends, also a petite, soft-spoken woman, at another company, is going through the same thing. In fact, I have many female friends and acquaintances who match my description and are having a hard time. Is the problem just that we’re soft-spoken, or is it something more? I would say the problem is all about being soft-spoken, but at least in my own case, I’ve pushed myself to speak up on my own behalf. I think it’s just that I could say the identical things my manager says, but coming from me, it would be dismissed as whining or irrelevant.

At least a couple of the experts I got feedback from for my article have led me to believe it’s not in my imagination. They say companies do, in fact, often suffer from subtle bias in how women are viewed compared to men. At your company, do you notice that women and men may be perceived differently? It can be hard to notice, so here are some of the signs that you (if you’re a woman) are not being treated on equal footing:

  • You are not included in meetings that relate to your work.
  • Your male manager is happy to serve (and tout it like it’s a great charity) as your “advocate,” but doesn’t invite you to meetings to present your own ideas. He would rather present your ideas himself, and would prefer to funnel information down to you (with as much success as the childhood telephone game) than have you simply sit in on the meeting and hear for yourself.Not included in dinners or lunches when business partners or associates visit the office.
  • You find yourself doing equal, or more, work than your male co-workers, and more successfully, and find that you’re not recognized as much (or at all).
  • You suspect you don’t earn as much money as men with an equal amount of experience, and in the same, or a parallel, position to yours.
  • You find that during meetings, as soon as you start to speak, a man with a booming or bellowing voice cuts in, interrupts, and hijacks the conversation.
  • The quality of your assignments differs from those of your male colleagues. For instance, your male co-worker is given the presentation to do, and you are given the background research, phone calls, or “grunt work.”
  • Your male colleagues are complimented for their “radio voices,” or other public speaking abilities, while you know from past jobs or assignments that you have proven to be equally competent as a speaker.
  • You often are asked to be the one in meetings taking minutes, and are the default person in the group when secretarial-like work, such as creating invoices, scheduling meetings, or initiating conference calls, needs to be done.
  • When you note to your manager, or a male colleague, that something he did was incorrect, improper, should have been done differently, or simply angered you for one reason or another, your comments are dismissed with: “...and I also think you’re being a little sensitive.”

Last, I will share an egregious professional event that my own company organized on behalf of one of our sponsors a couple years ago. I may have mentioned it in passing before in this blog, but it bears repeating, or elaborating on, because it was so astounding to me. A sponsor wanted us to put together an event to celebrate women in the field of health care we write about, optometry. The sponsor had just debuted a new colored contact lens. So, they thought an appropriate way to celebrate women in optometry would be to have an event focused on fashion. Instead of having speakers discuss how they built their practices to be successful, and the obstacles they faced along the way, the centerpieces of the event were fashion consultants. I suppose the idea was that colored contact lenses are fashion-oriented, so having such an event was appropriate. Nothing would have been wrong with it if the event hadn’t been billed as a celebration of women in optometry, and if it had been an event to which both male and female optometrists had been invited.

When your company creates events for women employees, or targeting women customers, what messages are being sent? Do you have to be a strident feminist to be offended, or have you witnessed some outrageous missteps?

As Learning professionals consider how best to support the advancement of women in their organizations, it’s important to think about if they, themselves, have experienced subtle biases against women. Think about it carefully, and consider: Is your company a friend to women?


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