“Small things come in nice packages,” my mother always told me. As a petite woman of 5’3” , (5’7” with hair and heels), I often felt invisible to my much bigger peers as a child.
I had moved with my Irish family to New York from Tanzania when I was 8 years old. With a thick Celtic brogue, I started third grade in my brand new country and was immediately targeted with both praise and ridicule for my cheery accent. Teachers would go on and on to my parents about my lovely diction. Kids, on the other hand, badgered and made as much fun of me as possible. I quickly assumed a Long Island accent to try and fit in.
Use What You Got
While I had no control of my late bloomer status, (1st date didn’t happen till end of 12th grade), I did have the ability to use my voice to change the outcome of certain situations. To foster this, I attended the New World School of the Arts in Miami as a musical theater major. Before long, I was performing on stage, emceeing events and pursuing a communications degree from Florida State University. What I found from these experiences is that my voice seemed to open doors for me. As a kid my Dad used to tell me while watching the Today Show every morning, “That’s going to be you someday.”
Following what Dad suggested, I began a career in TV news where my voice was part of the job. It was my instrument. Because I could morph my accent into whatever region of the country I was living and covering as a journalist, I easily fit in. On the flip side, I witnessed many colleagues in TV news not make that next market jump because their accent was too strong, or their vocal quality was something news directors avoided. It held them back. Six TV markets later, I landed in Raleigh where my husband and I set down roots.
A Seat at the Table
On the outside looking in, it appeared I had reached a great place in my career. I was anchoring the evening news for a network affiliate in a top 25 market. But in the midst of contract negotiations, I found out that some of my male peers in the newsroom were being paid more for less work and less experience. And it wasn’t just in Raleigh. It was in every newsroom I worked over the span of 20 years. I also noticed that men were ascending to roles in TV stations over women who should have been considered first. Why was this happening?
Looking at the Numbers
We’ve heard it time and time again, if you want a more diverse workforce that leads to better equality, an organization’s leadership must reflect that as well. Too few women or people of color in top positions means the pipeline will likely follow suit. At the six TV stations I worked, only one had a female general manager. In fact, that’s a key reason I took that job. I was so impressed by her and wanted her to be my mentor. She filled that role beautifully. As a wide-eyed, 25-year-old anchor, I craved a female boss I could learn from and aspire to be like.
At contract negotiations, I needed to find my voice, both literally and figuratively. I had to summon the courage to speak the words, “I deserve to be paid appropriately and fairly for the work I’m doing.” My male counterparts had no trouble with this notion. Why did I? The leadership at my station needed to see I meant business and that I expected equal treatment.
You’ve probably heard this statistic: Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. A McKinsey report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, women for their experience and track record. If women see this going on in their workplaces, it makes perfect sense they’d be less likely to apply for a job for which they didn’t meet the qualifications. So it sounds like a question of confidence. Believing in ourselves. Understanding our worth. Seeing the value we bring to the workplace. Claiming that seat at the table.
In reality – it’s a cultural influence, as described in this Harvard Business Review article. Turns out, girls are socialized to “follow rules” much more so than boys. Think about grade school. Who acted out and was in trouble the most in your class? In general, boys tend to have more behavior issues in school and balk against “going by the book” than girls do.
The article also points out that for women, it was our education that opened doors for us in the 20th century. We had to have the right degree, certification, and training to land a job that men typically held, whether they had the qualifications or not. As a result, we rely heavily on initials after our names and less on relationships, (AKA the Good Ol’ Boys’ Club), to direct our career decisions. Guess what? We may have it all wrong. As I mature in my career, I see clearly how important relationships are to succeed in business. I love the Broads networking group I’m involved with here in Raleigh. Its founders decided it was time for women to create a “Good Ol’ Girls’ Posse” where mentorship, friendship, and connectivity reign among its members.
How Do We Get There?
So now that we know rules aren’t as stringent as we were brought up to believe and that relationships are integral to success, how are our voices heard when we sit at the table with our male counterparts? My colleague shared this article about the women in President Obama’s administration. In his first term, the majority of staffers at the Obama White House were men. They had worked on the campaign and were rewarded with positions of influence.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice described how she and other women had to shoulder their way into important conversations. “It’s not pleasant to have to appeal to a man to say, ‘Include me in that meeting,’ ” says Rice. And even when they had made it into the room, the women were sometimes overlooked.
Female staffers came up with a solution they call amplification to remedy the problem. If you haven’t heard about this strategy yet, take notes from Rice:
When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.
Guess what? It works. Seriously. With repetition, women at the White House report being called upon more often and their voices are heard.
Amplification is just one plan of action you could start using today to make an impact at your workplace. Other things you can do include polishing your presentation skills. Knowing how to deliver a message with confidence and poise. Staying on point. Steering the conversation the way you intend.
We’ll be digging deeper into these methods at Women > A Force in Business, a North Carolina Chamber of Commerce Conference on November 16th, 2016 at the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, NC. I’m looking forward to hearing from women leaders whose voices are not only heard, but are also influencing their industries in meaningful ways. Learn more about the event and its featured speakers and panelists here.
In the meantime, do you have any strategies that make your seat at the table more than a placeholder? Reach out to us, we’d love to hear your feedback.