The common comment I receive from female sales leaders is:
“I have never been into gender equity and women’s empowerment at work until now. I don’t want to have a victim mentality because that’s not how I operate. But there’s stuff happening I’ve never felt before”
They feel stuck, frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, overworked, are doubting themselves, and wondering what’s going on.
They have what it takes, and want to be recognized, want to be appreciated, want to step into the leadership position that they can truly lead and change the way they envision.
They know they’re competent, they just need to be put in the right position with the right resources to succeed.
However, there’s a gap between what women have always been told will help them propel their careers, and how the promotion process is actually working.
There are the things they’re told… and then there’s the reality they’re experiencing. And it doesn’t add up.
There must be something they don’t know about, because they’re busting ass to produce. They are seen as essential, smart hires. They’re communicating their goals, and doing what they’ve been told it takes to be seen as fast rising high potential.
After interviewing millennial women VP+, and building my own career in strategic sales leadership, I’ve come to the conclusion there are different languages being spoken.
Have you ever watched two people argue when they really want the same thing!? They’re just talking past each other.
That’s because humanity is unclear on their unconscious biases.
The solution lies in part in addressing the unconscious bias of lack of familiarity, and addressing it by building trust in a way that forces a company’s leaders to question their bias.
First, we must realize that in revenue leadership, being female is “unfamiliar” and the norm –
less than 20% of all VPs of Sales are female.
Think about that stat.
Most VPs of other lines of business – marketing, legal, HR, are roles held by at least 30% female. Revenue is the lifeblood of a company, and folks responsible for securing revenue typically are voices that are heard.
The problem is, humans subconsciously divert away from the unusual as a survival skill in case of possible threat. We as humans like to stay in familiar, comfortable zones.
Promoting a female may stir up unconscious biases including potentially feelings of “risk,” and feelings of distrust – just because it’s not ‘familiar.’ This is a form of unconscious bias.
So then.. How are women overcoming this unconscious bias of unfamiliarity in revenue leadership?!
Some women have chosen to downplay their inherent femininity and subtly lean into their masculine sides. This can be portrayed in different ways, but sometimes is evidenced by talking in a low (not quite Elizabeth Holmes low) voice, dressing less feminine, toning down their friendliness, wearing hair back to avoid any “girly” distractions, avoiding feminine clothing like dresses for example.
Let me be clear – there’s NOTHING wrong with any of those behaviors if they are true to who you are – I for years downplayed my femininity thinking it could hinder my ability to be taken seriously.
But in pursuing my fertility journey, I began to feel my feminine energy much more. I grappled with the particularly low stats of gender disparity in leadership for revenue leaders- and decided I needed to know how other women have advanced with embracing, and celebrating their feminine qualities.
How can we propel our careers and communicate our femininity as a superpower used to help us stand out as great leaders?
The solution I found in my research has to do with the ways in which companies and employees give and receive trust – which actually comes from reliance, and dependence:
Trust is “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something” – Merriam Webster Dictionary
In this list, many of these common trends in which women have successfully turned being female into an advantage, is actually when they were relied on, and of course successfully delivered.
Ways successful women have embraced their female energy as advantageous for leadership roles in business:
- They find an environment where they relate to the target consumer demographic: Knowing the end customer via lived experience is the ultimate form of empathy, and allows women leaders to position themselves as an essential asset because they feel the pains, understand the gravity of the problem the company may be trying to solve.
Example: A car company whose largest demographic is female and is prioritizing new models that appeal directly to that market.
- They align with a social cause: Research suggests that women are perceived more seriously as leaders when their personal brand is associated with a social cause.
Example: A past executive at a company I worked for had aligned herself to inclusiveness. She was in the legal domain, yet had a passion she embraced for parents.
As part of her role, she advocated for a more appropriate parental leave policy.
She had very feminine energy and her brand became so strong that in the end she was also provided the title of CHRO when the opportunity arose.
Her warmth, and passion for this social issue of longer parental leave caused her to be seen as a stronger leader by the male leaders in the organization. Our male leaders praised her for years for her policy change, even after she left the company.
- They seek out other females for support: When there are a small number of other females in the company or industry, the tendency is sometimes to make more of an effort to bond more together.
Having social support at work actually leads to less feelings of imposter syndrome and higher confidence, research confirms.
With a support system at work, and executives seeing you have the trust of your peers, much more is possible. Get the work bestie and feel good knowing you have the support of other women professionally.
- They find environments that are actively seeking gender balance: If a company is setting goals for diversity, this is obviously a great sign.
I landed in two separate wonderful new roles at great companies – one in Silicon Valley and another on the east coast – because I was one of very few females qualified for the job. The hiring managers were specifically looking for gender diversity, and were stacked with all males.
The trick here is to recognize if they’re pursuing gender balance across the organization as a whole, and/or actively seeking gender balanced leadership as well.
- They leverage their female brain’s ability to connect the dots: drawing connections, multitasking and thinking about how a change here can affect an input or output in another place – women’s brains are naturally great at this.
Our left and right brains connect allowing us the unique gift. This is an asset in business when you have to think about multiple levers at once.
Couple that with a significantly larger pre-frontal cortex allowing women to organize, make judgment calls and focus amongst chaos.
- They are proactive about risk: studies show that women tend to prepare more, and are more likely to consider potential risks of a project. This also likely stems from less serotonin naturally occurring in women’s brains than men, causing less euphoric feelings and a little more tendency to worry.
Example – a female COO I worked with insisted that we input a disaster clause into a major contract which would delay the contract signature and revenue recognition.
This caused friction with the executives who were counting on that revenue as part of the quarterly earnings. But when the pandemic hit, everyone realized if that clause had not been in place we would have lost the customer relationship. She had demonstrated trusting her gut, and it paid off with a preserved positive customer relationship as well as revenue flow.
It pays to have gender balance if not for anything but to have counterbalance, alternative approaches, to risk.
By the way, this risk reduction doesn’t cut into profits. Companies with female leaders are on average 15% more profitable.
- They Leverage External Expertise: Females tend to seek out expertise and advice from specialists much more than male leaders.
Building a network of experts inside or outside their current company is a way women have successfully gained a set of effective data points to overcome any lack of trust that they have felt from other leaders, and improved their confidence in their abilities to solve problems.
This further reduces imposter syndrome and data-based is actually the opposite of emotional decision making.
Everyone needs a community to tackle difficult problems. Don’t let seeking out expert opinions cause you to feel insecure – it’s smart business. It’s still up to you to make the decision.
- They Invest In Their Teams: Harvard produced research recently that confirmed firms with women in the C-level tend to invest more in R&D (research and development) than M&A (mergers and acquisitions).
We hear the term “building my empire” often and women are doing this – and it’s more than just hiring internally.
Harvard found that female leaders drive higher rates of team engagement, collaboration, and transparency amongst teams – and Harvard also found female leaders will perform more work to work with individual members to ensure members can accomplish their tasks.
Gaining experience in team building is essential for any good leader, and trust comes with proven experience.
- They Embrace Innovation: Higher rates of innovation are reported in companies with women in the C-level.
Women leaders display a significant impact and organization’s openness to change, and let’s note that it’s occurring while lessening risk as well!
While we know that women tend to be highly resourceful, this shows in business through the language organizations use to inspire change. Solving problems is one skill, and trust is built with leaders who figure things out and evolve quickly to solve problems.
University of Arizona found that on average, Fortune 500 companies with females in top management roles have on average 20% more patents, and experience “innovation intensity.”
Solving problems in new ways is even more of an asset, though. Innovation is an area that women are thriving as leaders – helping women to gain credibility as forward thinking business people in a quickly changing landscape.
These statistics were incredibly helpful to me, coupled with taking skills and personality assessments, to recognize the gifts I have as a female leader. The point here is that through identifying our own strengths, we are able to then identify which environments are ready, and encourage the skills.
Whether intentional or not, organizations are sending out signals related to trust all the time.
Successful women have made progress through leveraging their distinct skill sets in business to gain even more trust. No longer is denying femininity the key to being taken seriously.
I believe that these research findings of women leaders tell us that embracing feminine qualities can build trust and become appreciated for the female leader we grew to become.
So, by leaning into the skills we have, and recognizing the ways in which women have flourished in leadership, we can embrace our feminine sides and let go of the notion that feminine is a weakness. It’s an essential counterpart to masculine energy.
Go for that promotion, you’ve got what it takes.