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Gender Equality, what you need to know to make it to the C Suite

Gender equality

Does your body language say “confidence”?

Gender equality and diversity at the leadership level

A recent blog addressed the topic of gender equality in the workplace.  I found fascinating the Economist’s Executive Education Navigator / Economist’s Executive Education Blog fascinating. The article made some great points which I felt compelled to write about based on past experience on this particular topic. 

For the record, I am male and a minority and as much as I would like to see more women in executive positions, I would also like to see more minorities in these leadership positions. I liked this article a lot because it addresses several beliefs that I share when it comes to increasing not just women in leadership but diversity at the senior leadership level. It addresses several action items that EVERYONE should be aware of if they want to make it to the C Suite.

Requirements when interviewing

Not long ago, I heard the head of Diversity for a Fortune 500 speak about gender equality and diversity within her company. The company she works for makes a big effort to bring diversity into the workplace. EG: It is a requirement that a minority is interviewed for all leadership positions. This helps minorities get into the door which, in turn, should increase the chances of minorities being promoted into leadership positions. The bigger percentage of minorities/women in the pool, the greater the chance of promoting these groups. Statistically, this logic makes sense, but most minorities can see the flaw in the logic very quickly.

Need to know how to dance if you want to be on the dance floor 

Diversity at the leadership level is still a problem for her company. She used what I think is a great analogy for most well-intentioned companies:

“Minorities are invited to the dance, but they are not on the dance floor.”

Her point is that diverse candidates are invited to work at the company, but they are not in leadership positions. My question for both leadership and employees from diverse backgrounds:

Do the diverse employees that are hired know how to dance?

If you don’t know how to dance, you are probably not going to be on the dance floor. Just attending the event doesn’t mean you are going to be participating.  

My career is ultimately my responsibility

I think it is easy to blame unfair treatment on “the system”. To be frank, at the end of the day it is our individual career and we need to take responsibility for it. “Blaming the system” won’t do us any good. Learning how to dance will put us in a much better position to be on the dance floor. Learning how to be successful in leadership positions will put us in a much better position to be selected for these positions.  

Working in HR and in leadership positions for the past 20 years, I have seen minorities, women, and the majority promoted into leadership positions. I have seen employees with disabilities, gays, and individuals over 60 promoted to leadership positions.

Learn how to dance

In each case, these folks knew “how to dance.” They fell into a couple of categories:

  • Taught themselves how to dance (communicate and work at the executive level).
  • Were raised in homes or had exposure to executives growing up. They came to the workplace already comfortable with executives.
  • Were mentored and coached to play ball at the next level.

The common denominator for all of these folks was that they did not bring up their differences when talking publicly. They did not call attention to their color, lifestyle, gender, etc. These HR peeps acted as if they were comfortable in their skin and accepted who they were. They did not bring excuses to the table.

The takeaways 

The article on the Economist’s Executive Education Navigator / Economist’s Executive Education Blog talks about leadership programs and what they provide to help women become promoted. A few excerpts from that post.

“We call out and identify the things that women do that put them at a disadvantage, like not taking risks and not showing confidence”

 “Coach on how to communicate and compellingly pitch ideas”

Regardless of your gender or ethnicity, the above statements say a lot. The leadership programs do not step on eggshells when it comes to sensitive subjects. I believe in this approach. (Self admittedly, I am a hard-ass and not for everyone. Hence, no name and no picture of me on this blog.)

Personal experience as a “mentor”

I coach several women in HR, and I use the word coach loosely. In all cases, these women are smart, qualified, and educated. Two, in particular, have their MBAs and their SPHR (Senior Professional Human Resource) certifications. This certification requires seven years of management experience in HR. One is a minority. When I first met these individuals, they both had the title of HR Manager. Unfortunately, they also had low salaries. It wasn’t because they are women that they were making lower salaries. They were not making much money and held lesser titles because they were not acting and presenting themselves as the executives they could be. These HR women were qualified on paper, but they were not communicating in the same confident manner as other execs (regardless of gender). They didn’t show confidence, and they were not taking risks.

Amount of work doesn’t equal pay, communication of results

If you were to look at their resumes, on paper, it would appear they were underpaid, but for their skill set and their productivity, they were receiving a fair wage. Let the chauvinist say that one more time.

They were not communicating in the same confident manner as other execs (regardless of gender). These HR practitioners didn’t show confidence, and they were not taking risks. If you were to look at their resumes, it would appear they were underpaid, but for their skill set and their productivity, they were receiving a fair wage.

I am proud to say that a number of these women now hold VP titles. I am also proud to say that I just received a thank you card from one explaining that their annual bonus was more than their entire salary when we first met. In both cases, these women changed the way they presented themselves. We looked at the genetic makeup of their executive teams and had them look at themselves.

Communication style matters

Typically, exec teams were made up of Ivy League-educated, type-A, white males. These execs don’t apologize or sound meek when presenting or backing up ideas. There is very little emotion in these business pitches. When these female HR professionals looked at themselves, they realized they were communicating in a manner that was completely opposite to the rest of the team. A few of the more noticeable changes over time were made including but not limited to the following:

  • Not apologizing for their decisions. When they made a recommendation or had an idea, they did not apologize. They stated it with conviction and confidence.   
  • Together we practiced their pitches before making them so they sounded confident and sure (even if they were not).
  •  We worked on their body language when presenting to a room.
  • The business pitches focused more on the numbers and the bottom line vs. the emotions of the employees.
  • Recognized that their executive colleagues can blow up, raise their voices, swear, or even yell. Despite these hysterics, the world is not going to end. There isn’t any reason to take what happens at an exec meeting personally.
  • They realized they could quit any job and find another. They didn’t owe any company or CEO anything.
  • Negotiate for themselves and not rely on their manager. If you don’t ask, you don’t git’.

Here is the question I posed in the first few paragraphs is:

Do the diverse employees that are hired know how to dance?

Find your own mentor

The article states that “informal mentoring is most effective because the pairing methodology of formal mentoring programs often fails to create good partnerships. I completely agree and blogged about my personal philosophy on mentoring programs here. The partnerships with the above-mentioned HR VP’s happened informally vs. via a structured program that tries to pair 10 mentors and 10 mentees perfectly.

Regardless of how it happens, all employees must learn “how to dance.” I don’t believe that corporate America or the Universities are teaching this.    

Gender equality in the workplace is an important topic. As much as I appreciate the intent of diversity programs, I don’t want to land a job because I am a minority. (I am a minority.)  I don’t want my co-workers and colleagues looking at me in my cushy office thinking I got the position because of my (good) looks.

Am I the best candidate?

I want to earn the spot because I am:

  • Secure in myself and my physical appearance.
  • Articulate and a recognized thought leader in my discipline.
  • Possess the ability to negotiate a fair salary in the same way I would negotiate a better rate with any vendor I work with.

I am confident there are work environments where women are NOT treated fairly. Please don’t think I am that naive. I am not discrediting that fact.  Am I proud of the women I have worked with and coached? I couldn’t be more proud. They put in a ton of hard work, and they had the professional courage to take chances and try different behaviors so that their colleagues would listen. In some cases, they realized that the work environment wasn’t conducive to their style of HR and moved on. I am confident that if you were to ask them now, they would say they would want to earn the position and the salary on equal grounds vs being given special treatment.

Check out the Economist’s Executive Education Navigator / Economist’s Executive Education Blog. . There is a lot of great thought-provoking material here and even if you are not a woman, this article brings up good food for thought if you want to make it to the C Suite.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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