The Single Most Disruptive Leadership Practice for Women


You can hardly take a breath without reading a story or a study about the paucity of women in leadership and the gendered noxiousness that underpins those stories and studies. Bylines by women journalists at the NY Times run between 4-to-1 and 3-to-1 on any given day. Women in Congress: +/- 20 percent. Uber’s Travis Kalanick, et al. Google’s James Damore, et al. Everywhere you look, it’s binders of women, bleeding from wherever.

And day after day, we show up, roll up our sleeves and get big, hairy, audacious shit done, all the while enduring what Candice Sarvino, VP of Engineering at Trunk Club, calls the “tiny papercuts of unconscious bias.”
For so many of us, those papercuts produce some combination of outrage and resignation. Sometimes we play small. Aspire less. We self-medicate with yoga and martinis. Other times, we gather together in women’s initiatives, conferences, workshops and with our circles of friends trying to identify ways to shore up our deficiencies so we can go back to the workplace intending to hurdle over the bias, while still doubling down for 21 fewer pennies on the male dollar.
There’s another place our outrage and resignation can take us: into activism. Yes, we can and should join movements and causes like Black Lives Matter and Half the Sky and She Is Rising, and join organizations like Women Who Code andDevelopHer. But the activism I’m talking about is the kind that happens through self-leadership, in your jobs, right where you’re planted.
I’m going to borrow from California Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ Civil Rights Town Hall talk a while back. While she was speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus about, among other things, impeaching 45, she said something that should ring in every woman’s ears as a call to action: “Don’t another person come up to me and say, ‘you go girl.’ No, YOU go.”

In other words, you have to get in the fight. If you want your workplace to be more equitable, you can’t rely solely on politicians or the C-Suite or your company’s women’s initiative to come to your rescue. YOU GO as a call to action means you have to wake up and wake the status quo up. You have to wake up your coworkers and bosses and leadership. Yes, you.
When you experience bias in the workplace YOU GO means speak up, in the moment, and name that elephant. When the papercut happens to you, or anyone else, stand up, speak up, and offer your solution. And if nobody listens, keep talking until they do.
Risky? Yes. Hard? Yes. Worth it? Damn straight.
The first time I spoke truth to power I was terrified. It was 1972 and I went to a school board meeting to ask the all-white male panel to consider allowing the girls in my high school the option of wearing pants. I remember what I said like it was yesterday.  “I know you think very highly of us girls, because only we could tolerate 40 inches of rain per year, and winter temperatures just above freezing in dresses. So I’m asking you all to wear dresses for just one week and get back to me about how fair or even healthy your experience was.”  They laughed, they poo-pooed, they said pants were not very ladylike. I replied, “How is that we milk cows and bale hay in our pants – very unfeminine jobs – but we have to come to math class in dresses?” We were wearing pants two weeks later.
I’m not telling you this story to pat myself on the back. I was quaking in my jeans, and to be laughed at and told that what was appropriately feminine would be decided by seven men was infuriating. I fumbled. I misspoke. I wavered. But I persisted and got through that first step.
Fast forward all these years, and every single woman I have coached or consulted with has had one or all of these gender-based workplace issues to unravel: they’re making less than their male counterparts, they’re excluded from projects, and they’re being passed over for promotion.
And even when women have been vocal to bosses and supervisors, they’re often told to shut up and put their heads down into work because they might not get some future raise, project or promotion.  
YOU GO – name the elephant – might seem like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice. But as Maxine Waters says, you’ve got to get in the fight. That first step is the activist step, and it’s a leadership choice. What follows that first step is a negotiation. A conversation leading to an agreement that will benefit not just you, but all women.