This is an interesting question to ask in the midst of so many women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a huge problem in our society, and it is interconnected with so many other instances of degradation, dismissive behavior and deeply ingrained attitudes about women who seek equal opportunity and power. I started to write this particular blog post before the #MeToo movement – I planned on simply recounting a recent situation where I was among a few women in a group full of more than 70 male leaders. A very prominent male business leader made a presentation to the group, and afterwards opened the room up for questions. The first hand raised was that of a woman. The presenter proceeded to call on 4 men, all of whom had their hands up after the woman. Finally, when prompted by a woman who was with him, the presenter finally called on the woman who had first raised her hand.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story, but it reminded me how often women are still invisible. Yes, it is not as serious as experiencing sexual harassment, but it is never-the-less a symptom of women not being seen as powerful as men. I had a conversation with my step-daughter about this topic and her perspective was that it’s all behavior that falls on the same continuum. It may not be sexual harassment, but to the women in the room, including me, it still felt demoralizing and degrading.
I knew after the meeting that I needed to say something. I pointed out the behavior to the facilitator and reminded him that he needs to be aware of the dynamic in the room. He had not noticed, and was thankful that I had made him aware of the situation. As women, we need to come forward to point out behavior that creates the dynamic that positions women as invisible.
As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, leaders are watched. Whether you realize it or not, followers listen to you, even when you don’t intend to send messages. It is for this reason that I am often very cautious about staying focused on messages of leadership and organizational culture while steering away from political messages. I have not used my leadership platform to make any statements that may be misconstrued as political. In fact, I value people from “both sides of the aisle” and I have worked along side of both Democrats and Republicans.
I have kept to this practice until recently, when I began speaking out to advocate for preserving Medicaid funding for children. I was even a bit uncomfortable putting my views out there but I felt that I need to be the voice of children who cannot vote or speak for themselves – who better than me, who has the ear of elected officials? Now, I must take that a step further, as I believe all leaders need to do when we face intolerance. I cannot insulate the people I work with from some of the hate in this country but I can make my workplace a safe and tolerant place for all employees and patients. And, I can use my leadership platform to send messages to employees. Here is an excerpt from a recent message I sent to employees:
“…It was painful to see the hatred that unfolded in Charlottesville, but it inspired me to work even harder to model the values we are reinforcing. I am confident that tolerance and equality will overwhelmingly defeat hate and violence. We have a shared responsibility to make our workplace a place where all staff, visitors and patients feel respected, welcome and safe. By promoting a culture of respect and diversity, we can deliver on this commitment and send a strong message that our team of 14,000 will not stand for anything less….”
If you are a leader, now is the time to use your platform in more deliberate ways to influence others. It is much easier to be complacent, but as history tells us, dangerous things can happen when leaders look the other way.
I often hear the term “fake it until you make it” – usually in relation to a woman who does not feel confident in her own abilities. In fact, I recently used that term when mentoring a young woman. She was hired by a new client who was really stretching her beyond her comfort zone. This new client was a nationally known brand and the stakes were higher than any client she had experienced working for in the past. She just did not feel that she had the depth of content knowledge or experience. Yet, the client had hired her as the expert.
She did all of the things that you would expect; researching and talking to others who had similar clients and challenges, but she still did not feel confident. As I was prepping her for a first meeting in New York City with her new client, I found myself saying, “just go there and be confident, don’t let your hesitance show to the client, just fake it till you make it.” What I really meant was, don’t let yourself defeat yourself. In the eyes of the client, you are the expert. Make sure you see YOURSELF as the expert too. Come into the room with a air of confidence, a command of the subject matter, reaffirm the problem to the client and turn to other experts on your team to provide the detail.
In reflecting on what I said to her, perhaps “fake it until you make it” led her to believe that she did not have the content knowledge, but she did. It simply meant that she needed to get the age-old foe of women, the imposter syndrome, out of her head. She was not faking anything, she had the right stuff, she just needed a bit of a confidence-booster.
So often, I receive heartfelt messages from readers of this blog either thanking me for writing or telling me about a particular post they enjoyed. Recently, I heard from a CHOP employee, Julia Wicoff, who told me about how reading my blog lead her to advocate on behalf of herself. It meant so much to me to hear from her. She kindly agreed to give a testimonial with me to share with you. I hope this inspires you to take page out of Julia’s book!
“When I first heard that CHOP’s CEO, Madeline Bell, was writing a blog about elevating women in the workplace, I was interested and decided to take a look. Quickly, Heels of Success became part of my regular reading material. I feel like each post is written just for me. The topics that Madeline covers relate directly to what I am feeling and experiencing. As a result of reading the blog, I was inspired to approach the leadership in our department to indicate my commitment to a future in our organization. That conversation helped spur a promotion just a few months later. There is no doubt that without Heels of Success I wouldn’t have had the confidence to express my feelings and take the next step in my career!”
Julia Wicoff is the Director of Cause Marketing and the Children’s Miracle Network at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Prior to that, she served as the Associate Director of Events Fundraising and Community Partnerships, also at CHOP. Before CHOP, she worked for organizations such as The American Cancer Society and The Philadelphia Eagles.