I recently had the opportunity to take part in a career panel for graduating seniors. Following the Q&A sessions, I was approached by a handful of girls, eagerly peppering me with questions about what it was like to be “the only woman” in the very male dominated world of business.
Truth be told, after years of being “the only woman” in countless meetings, conferences, and educational events (minus the exec’s secretaries), I’d grown accustomed to being the only one wearing heels.
Women are grossly underrepresented in business leadership within American culture. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a study highlighting the reasons why women are passed over for promotions by the masses, and why female CEOs (currently at 4% of Fortune 500 leadership) are about as frequent a sighting as the endangered Lesser Prairie Chicken.
Chatting with the young female students, excited about the world of business but concerned about the gender inequality they hear about, reminded me of how many of the professional challenges today’s working woman faces are different than those of male professionals.
Here are five challenges that I’ve encountered as a female professional:
As the only female equity holding member of Silicon Valley start-up, I was teeming with anticipation of shattering the glass ceiling once and for all! Soon as we received VC-backing, I was going to “show all my male colleagues that women CAN rock technology. While I didn’t have a weighty last name, or an Ivy-league fraternity association, I was the only member with my Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). I felt as though I (should be) on an equal playing field.
Discussing allocation of start-up funds with CEO, I was appalled when my position was neglected for compensation. When I questioned why I was the only executive leader not receiving a salary (only equity), I was informed that “Everyone else is a working man, Hannah. They have to be compensated or they can’t afford to stick around.”
While women may make 77 cents on the dollar, our cost of living remains the same. I don’t get discounts on my mortgage because I’m not a “working man”. I didn’t get special rates on a six-figure education because I’m a woman. My cost of living is the same, even though many feel my compensation should not be. Providing for your family on a fraction of what your male colleagues make is not only unfair, it’s damn near impossible.
“When are you going to have a baby?”
“Why don’t you have kids yet?”
“Is it your career—wanting to put everything off until you get ‘working’ out of your system?”
Above are just a few questions I receive on an almost weekly basis from new introductions trying to figure out why a 27-year old married woman doesn’t appear to have a bun in the oven.
My husband (a fellow MBA-grad) has never been asked about children. No one asks if he has any, if he’s planning on having any, or if he “feels” his having a child will force him to quit working. Only I am asked (over and over and over) about my child producing status in professional settings.
My friends with babies say it’s not much different, as they are often asked how they feel about leaving their child at home. What type of childcare their son/daughter receives, and whether or not they think their children will be negatively impacted by their mother’s decision to work.
Personal safety to be a huge concern for many professional women trying to blaze a trail on their own. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered multiple unsafe situations in should-have-been “professional” environments: the prospective client turned stalker, the irate customer gone violent, the industry “leader” who believes conference networking events are primarily purposed for “pick-ups” and will not take “no” for an answer (hence, 911 and security calls when he’s following you back to your hotel room).
Here are three personal safety strategies I use for running my business:
- Ideally, I source the majority of my clients through recommendations from colleagues. However, I will occasionally entertain a “cold call”—working for someone representing an established organization in which I am previously unfamiliar. These situations can get sticky. I try to “screen” any cold call potentials rather thoroughly over the phone. I ask for recommendations, association membership status, and strongly listen to my intuition regarding whether or not the potential client is a “creep”.
- I always, always, always meet in highly visible public places—busy restaurants, coffee houses, co-working space. Even if the client has a designated office space, I try to take all first-time face to face meeting in neutral territory.
- Traveling to conferences presents another whammy of safety concerns. I always spring for a reputable hotel and limit sight-seeing unless I can find a “travel buddy” to accompany. Late evening dinners and cocktail hours don’t happen.
Lack of Camaraderie
My male colleagues seemed to just mesh – helping each other on just about everything from landing internships to swapping study guides. I desperately wanted to be a member of my industry’s “club” and as a male-dominated industry, that club was “Boys Only”.
As one of the only women in my undergraduate program, I was determined to fit in with “the boys”. If such inclusion required shooting the breeze about football, driving a pick-up, and chugging Pabst Blue Ribbon to be considered one of the gang, I was down. But my “boy-like” behavior never seemed to grant me the “in” on the testosterone-charged fraternity. Being left out of group projects, collegiate club leadership, and even study groups, semester after semester left me feeling isolated and alone, and undoubtedly, my career suffered the consequence.
The gender-based colleague isolation continued throughout my higher education, employment, and even into entrepreneurship. DC, LA, Chicago, Dallas—it didn’t matter where I went, I remained one of the few females disrupting male-dominated industries. Diving into the Lean In movement, I slowly built an intimate and geographically dispersed network of Business school educated women around the globe. We chat on a monthly basis, oft times discussing the latest feministic trends. Having a group of women experiencing the same challenges as I have greatly helped in my professional journey.
Several months ago, I’d met with a potential client about providing outsourced marketing options for his organization. As I initiated my standard “here’s the value we can offer” presentation, he interrupted, grabbed my arm, and informed me he didn’t care about my strategy. “Marketing girls are a dime a dozen,” he said. “If you really want me as a client, I’d recommend giving me a lot more attention on the not-so-business side of things.”
I was shocked; it must have taken me a full minute to process what he’d just said.
Sensing my confusion, he continued, “Let’s get out of this restaurant. Come with me back to my room, and we can…”
Seizing with anger and fear, I stood up, threw down my napkin and informed him I would never, under any circumstance work with anyone of such low moral character. Even though I really needed the money from a new client, and this particular gentleman was extremely well connected within the industry, I walked out and never looked back.
My male colleagues were appalled when I’d relayed the “offer” a potential client had made, as they had never been propositioned in such a manner at any point during their career. Some even thought it was funny, joking at how they wished some of their clients would “sweeten the pot” with some not-so-business” like action. Sexual harassment is not funny; it’s the sad reality for thousands of professional women trying to pursue meaningful work.
Break that ceiling!
As a young business school student, surrounded by white male colleagues, I accepted my lone female status as more of the norm. I remember my overwhelming excitement when I (finally) had the opportunity to take a class taught by a female professor. During my two years pursuing MBA at a prestigious school, I only had one female instructor.
Following graduation, my gender disconnect continued. The ad agencies I interviewed at resembled a 21st century set of Mad Men (before Joan was made minority partner) and attending male-dominated industries, I was frequently mistaken as “someone’s assistant”. Nursing a throbbing headache from years of hitting the glass ceiling, I decided to start my own firm, Becker Marketing & PR.
I remember thinking to myself as I drew up the LLC, “at least this way, every day won’t be one big sausage fest.”
Entrepreneurship has not been all peachy…I still get stuck dealing with chauvinistic clients that “have never paid a woman this much before” or that express their distrust in my ability to meet performance standards due to my expected “family duties”. I still get creepers, I still get sexually charged comments, and I still get beat out of corporate contracts by less qualified male competition on a regular basis.
But I’m not alone in these gender-frequent challenges. My female colleagues can tell tale after tale of making half what their male coworkers do, having their butt grabbed in board meetings, and being terminated from employment positions (legally – FMLA is quite limited) following the birth of a child.
It’s not fun, it’s not fair, and it’s not going away – unless professional women continue to push forward, challenging the status quo and shattering the glass ceiling.
In the words of equality champion Malala Yousafzai, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”
For more information about Women’s Day, visit: www.internationalwomensday.com .