Women can help encourage each other on leadership path

Published in UT San Diego, September 30, 2013

The glass ceiling exists. The dialogue about “having it all” or “leaning in” contrasts bitterly with the hard reality that maybe the ceiling is not glass but more like concrete. It often takes a jackhammer to break through. Why does rising to a leadership position seem to be harder for women than men?

“Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” an article in the September issue of Harvard Business Review, contends that second-generation gender bias is keeping women out of leadership roles, and that by calling out the issue, we can start moving toward a solution. The article caused me to reflect on my own path to leadership and the importance of women helping women move into leadership roles so that they can fully utilize their talents and skills.

While many companies have good intentions, they often undermine the process when they fail to address the policies and practices that prevent women from assuming leadership roles, according to the article. These are:

• Lack of role models for women.

• Gendered career paths and gendered work.

• Lack of access to networks and sponsors.

• Double binds — the double standard rears its ugly head again, according to Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, the article’s authors. They contend that becoming a leader is more difficult for women because of “subtle biases. For example, behavior considered assertive in a man is seen as aggressive in a woman and thus is denigrated rather than rewarded.”

Neither men nor women per se are born as leaders. We become leaders from watching role models, and from practice as we take on increasingly challenging roles that allow us to experiment with new behaviors. It is a process. For example, a young woman serves as president of a high school club, next runs a meeting at her first job, and then moves up to supervise a project.

I was blessed that my mother, Adelaide Bry, was an amazing role model. In the 1960s, in the era of the TV show “Mad Men,” she was the first female vice president at a large Philadelphia advertising agency where she was paid less than the men in comparable positions — and there was nothing that she could do about it.

When she went to buy a house for $22,000 (she was earning $15,000 — a very good salary), she still had to get a male friend to co-sign. Yet, she persevered and succeeded, and supervised major accounts.

Her success made me believe that I could be a leader. In elementary school, I organized my friends into groups to create plays; in high school, I served as an editor on the newspaper; in college my nickname was “leader of the pack” because the other women on the floor always came to me for advice. After college, I worked for three years and then attended Harvard Business School, where I struggled to fit in (I never did). In my 20s and 30s, I worked but didn’t lead. It took me a while to become comfortable and figure out my leadership style.

When I was 40, I started what has become Athena San Diego, our region’s leading organization for female executives in the technology and life sciences community. I was fortunate to be working at Connect (then based at UC San Diego) in an environment that encouraged and rewarded innovation. And Connect reported to a visionary leader — Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor, Extended Studies and Public Service.

The Harvard article points out that focusing on a purpose helps women make the transition to leadership. That was essential in how I approached starting Athena, whose mission was to foster the professional and personal development of female executives in the San Diego technology and life sciences community.

The value of connections and the importance of proactively developing them through networking are also key parts of becoming a leader, according to the article. Many women view networking as superficial and inauthentic (which it doesn’t have to be). Athena gave us a safe place to help each other and to give us confidence to go out into the world.

Note from Neil: Women with leadership aspirations need to seek out “bosses” who proactively, assertively and enthusiastically support women advancement. That kind of boss is the jackhammer.

Rule No. 312

If a woman brings a hard hat to work, the message is really clear.

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