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Diversity: Becoming a Powerful Champion for Other Women

Posted By Robert Wray, Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Facilitator Robin Ely (Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community, Harvard Business School)
Jenna Dudevoir (Director of Marketing, Kalypso)
Sandra Finley (President, League of Black Women)
Lisbeth McNabb (CEO and Founder, w2wlink)

Robin Ely came to feminism at a young age. In her first real job, she had her worst experience with the only other professional woman she knew – and yet, her friendships with women are among her saving graces.

This experience has led her to today’s session, a look at what women can do to support their own, and other women’s, ambitions. In light of women’s literature exploring professional competition with titles like Mean Girls Grow Up and men’s equivalent titles such as The Competitive Edge, why do we see a harsher view of female ambition so widely spread in the professional and public consciousness?

One damaging belief is that women are pettier than men. Reality finds that when women engage in pettier behavior, it engenders more attention and criticism. When men are "petty,” it’s naturally assumed to stem from a rational desire for more wealth, and to "win.” Also, women in positions of power are also considered "Queen Bees,” having traded competence for likeability.

The "Double Bind,” which points out the warm qualities expected of a woman in comparison to the ambitious qualities of a leader, is a distraction. Leadership is about enabling others to bring their best selves to bear on a meaningful goal.

Speaking to women in positions of power, Ely states that we need more of them!

The idea that you can’t have it all rests on the notion of an "ideal” worker who commits 24/7 to her job… but is that really ideal? Successful women don’t question the norms; younger women tend to feel betrayed.

It’s also believed that women face similar obstacles as well as opportunities on their journeys up the corporate ladder. However, the frequency of this belief varies between white women and black women, and it’s important to note similarities between white and black women. The truth is that women don’t actually see each other across racial lines. "Colorblind” strategies engender misunderstanding – what is needed is open dialogue.

The first question was raised: What can you tell us about the path forward to women becoming powerful champions and supporters of other women?

Jenna Dudevois pointed out that the younger ranks of professionals can be viewed as the most entitled, or most ambitious, of generations. The millennial generation has approached life by wanting to create their own path, with three key points to consider:

- The majority of millennials are not willing to sacrifice their personal or family values to get ahead in career.
- They want to work for organizations that accommodate these values.
- The gender cap is closing in this millennial generation.

Dudevois was nineteen when she helped start a business. Quickly, she gained experience in business and marketing, as well as learned from another female professional who rose through the ranks to become a news anchor while starting a family and eventually dealt with being a single mother. It’s important to her to advance women in the workplace, and in a sustainable way.

Lisbeth McNabb entered the workforce in the 1980s. In a career that has seen her hire many men and women, she has noticed that the intent to give feedback to someone who doesn’t look like yourself can be difficult. It’s important to gain that element of trust, to surmount ideas of reverse discrimination.

Sandra Finley pointed out that they are a multi-generational panel, Dudevois at 31, McNabb at 51 and Finley at 61. Financial support was a hardship for her parents as she chose to go to college. Then, faced with a cultural divide at Loyola University (predominantly white, and Catholic) she nevertheless was taught how to learn. She adds that we can collectively figure out how to support each other.

Whatever you negotiate is not likely to gain everything for your group, says Finley, and the rights of black women are often treated as a "side salad.” If we can strategize together, as sisters, both cultures can rise through the ranks. She explains that benefiting from the time that you were born in, takes positive advantage of the opportunity of being modern women, who work together.

The question was raised: how do we become fluent in the conversation that leaves someone out, along with the realization that it also affects me? That it’s also an economic conversation?

McNabb notes that inclusion improves decision-making. "When we have more of our population at the table, we make better decisions,” said McNabb. "There is research proving that business results improve with women included in the conversation.”

In closing, Ely offered an intriguing point.

"To move forward with an agenda of diversity, diversity must be tied to the central work of the organization," said Ely. "When a company just wants to be fair, the issue becomes about numbers."

(pictured, l-r: Jenna Dudevoir of Kalypso, Lisbeth McNabb of w2wlink, Sandra Finley of the League of Black Women)

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