Political views aside, I think it’d be pretty tough to find a woman in business who can’t relate on some level to the gender dynamics of this election.
Just think about it: one of the most grueling, bitter, divisive presidential races in our collective memory also happens to be the first in which a major political party has nominated a woman for president. I’m pretty sure that’s no coincidence.
And if that woman wins next week, her monumental accomplishment will feel, in a sense, bittersweet. On the one hand, the rocky path to victory will underscore the enormity of the achievement. On the other hand, as many women who have succeeded in male-dominated fields know, gender bias—both overt and subtle—can be a career-long challenge that doesn’t end just because you’ve achieved success.
It’s the men who rudely interrupt you when you’re trying to speak your mind. The ones who dismiss your ideas because of the way you look and suggest that maybe you’d rather be out shopping. The ones who embarrass you in professional settings with demeaning, inherently gendered nicknames like “sweetheart” and “little lady” (and, yes, “nasty woman”).
Of course, lots of men are wonderfully supportive of ambitious women. But some seem to refuse to believe that a woman can compete on their level, despite evidence to the contrary—whether that’s a major party’s nomination for President of the United States or a promotion to president of a company.
But I learned not to let that stop me from pursuing my goals, and based on my own experiences, I’d like to share some advice for other ambitious women in business.
- Be the smartest person in the room: When I was working my way up the ranks at Jelmar, I learned early on that a surefire way to prove my value and be taken seriously by men was by knowing more than anyone else. When I had to prepare presentations, I studied excessively and pulled all-nighters. I worked harder than just about anyone else and it showed—and, over time, I earned my male colleagues’ respect instead of their judgment. Most importantly, I also made a habit of taking classes and doing outside research, then bringing that knowledge back into the company. That made me the invaluable, in-demand expert.
- Develop your presence: Presence is less about how you look and more about the confidence you project. In my experience, many women sometimes seem uncomfortable looking someone in the eye and giving them a firm handshake, but these are fundamental business skills that women must cultivate to be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. If anything, we need to be even more polished, poised and reserved than men because we’re often judged more harshly. I’ve been criticized for the smallest, craziest things—and it’s an unfortunate double standard—but it’s especially important for women to have a thick skin.
- Stand up for your ideas: It certainly takes a great deal of strength to stand up for what you believe in—especially in a male-dominated environment in which a woman may feel unfairly judged. But it takes even more strength to change your mind. As in politics, business leaders are often expected to make a decision and stick with it. But if new information arises that invalidates that choice, doesn’t it become cowardly—even foolish—to stubbornly stand by it anyway? If you find yourself in a situation in which you believe a change of course is called for, don’t be afraid to argue for what you believe.
- Don’t leave other women behind: It’s imperative that women who have achieved success support other women who are working toward similar goals. My industry is only just beginning to become more inclusive of underrepresented groups, so I consider it my obligation to help give more women the opportunity to contribute their unique perspectives and opinions. In addition to sponsoring women within my own company, I work with outside groups as a mentor to help young girls develop skills that will help them succeed in business later on. These mentorship opportunities are incredibly rewarding and available to women in business at any experience level.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been pleased to watch old gender biases break down, opening up more doors for women. But in many industries, as in politics, there’s still a long way to go. And as I think about the many hurdles I’ve faced throughout my 20-plus years in business, I’m struck by how often an offensive comment or sexist business practice actually inspired me to work even harder to succeed.
In the same way that “nasty woman” was quickly reclaimed by countless women and turned into an empowering show of strength and defiance, being a woman in business often requires finding ways to turn negative experiences into positive motivation. I’ve done it my whole career—and you can too.