As a female director at a marketing authority company, I am unquenchably curious, both professionally and personally, as to how women secure themselves a place at the table – how they distinguish themselves in their fields and become the go-to experts. It’s tempting to think that since its 2017, women do it the same way as their male counterparts, through a fierce work ethic, deep experience, and a unique skill set.
And the visibility of CEOs like General Motor’s Mary Barra, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, and PepsiCo’s Indra Noovi may give the impression that America’s largest companies are embracing female leadership.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Charlene Riikonen is the President & CEO of Cera Products, Inc., manufacturer of rice-based oral rehydration solutions that can correct and avert the devastating effects of dehydration with distribution around the world. Not shabby! Yet after living abroad for a few years, when she returned to the States, the question she heard was, “What does your husband do that took you overseas?”
Women make up less than 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs according to the Rockefeller Foundation. They are slightly better represented in corporate boardrooms. As of 2013, about one-in-six board members of Fortune 500 companies (17%) were women.
Ironically, though, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation.
So why, then, are women in short supply at the top of business?
According to Pew, the problem is that women still have to do more than men to prove themselves. Women need to go above and beyond the standards to which men are held in order to demonstrate their competence. They need to know how to establish their authority.
Here are my 3 T’s for how women can gain professional authority:
Bar none, speaking engagements are the best way to enforce your authority position and build your personal brand.
But getting a speaking gig is harder for women. Browsing through a speaker lineup and seeing primarily men is common. Mathematician Greg Martin wrote a paper that suggests this underrepresentation of women on speakers’ lists doesn’t “just happen,” despite what organizers may claim. It’s statistically impossible. Gender bias, alive and well in the boardroom, can also be found on the dais.
So don’t wait to be invited to speak. Take a proactive approach and identify opportunities. Decide which audience you want to target and research where these groups meet. Ask your social media network. Follow the path of a respected peer to see where they’ve spoken. Remember that less established gatherings – ‘unconferences’ as they’ve become known – from local service clubs to colleges would welcome your expertise. And be prepared to speak for free. This will give you a great opportunity to hone your skills and create a promotional video.
There is research out there about how self-promotion can have a backlash for women – how it contradicts expected gender roles.
Get over it and get your name out there. You need to self-advocate. Write an essay and try to get it placed in an outlet where you know your target audience will see it. Ask your local radio station for airtime to share professional advice and take listener calls.
Writing a book makes you an expert. Whether that’s true or not is another discussion, but that’s the perception.
Look at Misty Young, co-owner of Squeeze-It, a California-based restaurant chain. She started with a 39-seat restaurant known for its omelettes. But as she grew and other restaurants asked her for advice, she realized she had something to share. She published her book From Rags to Restaurants. “Without a doubt, the book has given me a tremendous amount of credibility and a platform to showcase my expertise. Being an author immediately makes you stand out and gives others the sense you can get stuff done. There is immediate respect for authors.” Misty now owns seven restaurants.
Not literally, of course. Network aggressively. Reach out and connect via social media with those people who can expose you to a more influential audience.
Women network differently from men. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Women in the Workplace” study, women trail men in making connections that can help their careers. Among other reasons, women’s networks are more female, while men have predominantly male networks. Given this, women have less access to senior men.
Cross this self-imposed gender wall and network — up, down, right, left.
Make time to network. It should not be considered the “other” activity you’ll get to when you have more time. It’s a way to get your expertise in front of your peers. Ask your network for help in making introductions. And reciprocate. Share your influence and authority generously and watch your reputation grow.
And if you want to touch – literally – go to events for some face-to-face. Events are where your peers gather. Be there, be informed, and be impressive.
It’s been said a thousand different ways by a thousand different people. Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.
One way for women to get out of that hole is to claim their talents, their experience, and their authority.
About the Author
Bea Wray is the Vice President of Corporate Marketing at Advantage Media, a marketing and publishing firm in Charleston, S.C.