ABOUT THIS SERIES
This is part 3 of a series featuring the voices of women in the executive ranks. The series was inspired by the national dialogue ignited by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” With metro Atlanta as a major business hub and Georgia home to 15 Fortune 500 companies, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to tap into this conversation and provide a platform for an exchange of ideas.
We invited a range of female executives to participate in a roundtable discussion. So we leaned in, listened and brought you this series. Part 1 featured a discussion on the challenges women face as they try to ascend the corporate ladder. Part 2 last Sunday featured the leaders talking about their background and upbringing, looking at what helped them reach the point where they are today.
By KELLY YAMANOUCHI - THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Do women who’ve ascended the corporate ladder help other women, given the scarcity at the top?
Yes and no.
Some believe in helping other women gain the skills and experience to advance.
But others worry they could lose ground, or fear the appearance of a “girls’ club” in the male-dominated executive ranks.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution pulled together a panel of leading women in metro Atlanta to discuss the challenges women face in the workplace. The roundtable discussion was inspired by the debate since the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Coca-Cola Co. executive Wendy Clark said during the discussion that “women can help other women. And I think too often, women lean away from helping other women.”
In the final installment of our three-part series, the nine leaders talk about that issue, as well as why men should care about whether more women get the opportunity to lead companies.
Q: Why do some women lean away from helping other women?
Wendy Clark: I’ve had to ask myself that question a lot. Probably like most of us, I’m sitting in a room as the only woman a lot of times throughout my day. The question is when another one shows up — why don’t we like it?
All of the studies point to the power of three. It’s not just two. You need three women to triangulate the impact.
Culturally over time, I think we got used to being the shiny penny. So I think we’ve had to overcome a culture of being singles, and I think we’re re-learning to be multiples now, which is a great thing.
Kelly Regal: I’m very mindful — we’re often the only one around the table. But I don’t want to be viewed as the woman around the table, I want to be the smart executive that has something to contribute around the table. And often when another woman comes in, you don’t want it to be like, “Okay, and what is the woman’s perspective?”
I heard this on boards a lot. You want to be asked about growth and new markets we should be approaching. Not, okay, now we’re turning to you for the woman’s perspective.
Kat Cole: I’ll call myself out. I was a young executive, the only female executive. And when another female executive came on board with the team, my fear was being seen as cliquish. That the minute another woman was in the room, I would no longer be one of the guys.
When she came into the room, while I would help her up and support her and ask her what she thinks, give her that permission that she might not give herself to speak up, I did not want to — and this is the truth — take myself backward. That was the thought I had as a 26-year-old female vice president. And what I learned through work at the Women’s Foodservice Forum that that was more destructive to her and me than I could have realized.
And ultimately that reinforces the power of three. It is hotly contested, but I have lived through examples where when there aren’t three at the table, the two tend to not bond together because of that fear that it looks like the girls’ club.
I’m ashamed to say that that’s the way I felt when I was 26-years old.
And I learned from that mistake.
I learned from a lot of great male and female executives who said, “You’re going down the wrong path. You need to point out other talented people that need to have a seat at the table. Maybe not a permanent seat. Bring them in to present.”
The funny thing was, I’m the oldest of three girls raised by a single mother, I’m on the board of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. My whole life has been about strong, powerful women. But yet here I am going, “I don’t want to be viewed as a woman” — instead of being proud of that.
So I have evolved greatly from that point. But I think that’s part of why people lean out.
Veronica Biggins: You have to think, you’re at that table for a reason. You’ve earned your seat. So why not ask the question: Where’s the diversity at this table?
I think in a board room, women need to establish their credentials in knowing the numbers, the business, etc., but not fear asking the question about the women. Because who else will ask?
Regal: And quite honestly, (it’s) how do you use your influence out of the room to have somebody like the man around the table ask the question. So (the question is) being raised, and it’s a partnership, but you’re not just out there on an island.
Clark: I love what (Veronica) just said about earning that seat because too often you hear women say, “I was lucky.” No, you earned it.
Kenzie Biggins: My best friend and I have been having this conversation quite a bit.
(There) was a life changing event for me — it was like this turmoil point where all of a sudden people were out there trying to take credit for my work and trying to steal my ideas.
And a woman stopped me and was like, “What are you afraid of? Haven’t you established yourself? Haven’t you worked hard to get where you are?” And now when I step into these situations, I’m like, “What am I afraid of? I deserve to be here.”
My best friend was elected to a position, and was like, “I can’t believe they elected me. Why did they elect me? There were all these men in the room with me and here I am the youngest female and the youngest black female, and they elected me.”
And I was like, “You were elected for a reason. What are you afraid of?”
Teri McClure: It takes a lot of strength to stay and keep that kind of confidence, even if you have it. There are subtle messages around you that will try to convince you that you’re not there because of your expertise, or you’re not there because of your skills or your hard work — you’re there because you’re a woman.
Lori Kilberg: We’re used to being self-deprecating. When I graduated from law school and was on the law review and did very well and was interviewing for jobs, somebody would say, “Oh I see you’ve done very well in law school.” And [I] was like, “Well I was just lucky. I really loved studying.”
I mean, stupid stuff. And I remember going home and telling my husband and he goes, “Are you out of your mind? You go in there and you say, ‘Yes, I’m very good at this. I love the law. I’m going to be a great attorney and look at my record to show you what I can do.’”
But no. Self-deprecating — it was the way I was raised.
Sally Yates: I wonder if, particularly for some of us who are a bit older and were coming along in a time when there weren’t as many women in these positions, we would subconsciously temper our assertiveness a bit — to make our assertiveness more palatable and less threatening to the men with whom we were working. Almost the “Aw, shucks” kind of thing.
I’m not even sure how much of it was deliberate or conscious. But more just kind of to make them more at ease with the fact that you’re there and to be less threatened. Unfortunately, though, it becomes the way you operate.
Kenzie Biggins: I have a somewhat funny story about this. I was in a meeting in D.C. at a table full of men, and me. And it was a group of men (who asked me), “Kenzie what do you think?” So I stated just very business matter-of-fact, here’s what needs to happen and why.
It became this joke in the room like, “Ha ha. Look at this young girl speaking about business in an authoritative way.”
And I was like, “Hold on. If the guy sitting next to me had given you the same answer, you would have praised him for taking on this challenge and giving you an authoritative answer.”
I do think I get some of that from my mother, although she will not admit it. She’s always been the one who is not been afraid to voice her opinion in a room full of men.
Veronica Biggins: In a gentle way.
Sally Yates: If saying it in a gentle way made you more effective in that room, and made you more persuasive, then wouldn’t it have been stupid not to have said it in a gentle way? We shouldn’t have to do this, but the fact of the matter is, if you want to be effective, everybody modulates their behavior to a certain extent, based on the room. And I think women are particularly good at reading the room and being able to do that.
Regal: Diplomacy is an asset. Honestly, I have never felt held back as a result of my gender. It doesn’t mean gender didn’t impact my career path. And I think owning that and being self-aware, but playing to your strengths — the empathy, the diplomacy — actually helps your career accelerate.
Clark: Kenzie made her point on her idea being stolen and my answer to you would be — I never worry about someone stealing my idea. Because then that means your idea will live in the world and will create impact. And that’s ultimately the reason why you had it.
Kenzie Biggins: I had to get to that point. (Laughter)
Regal: We often say in meetings that the quickest way to get ahead is to not look for credit. Because then people want you around the table, they want to collaborate with you. Then you get the access.
McClure: Yeah, but: The “but” side of it is sometimes we’ll play the team role so much we don’t get credit. And we don’t ask for the credit for the things that we should get credit for.
Jane Smith: What we see in higher education is this: The women in higher education are mighty and ready. They’re warriors. And the reason is because families have said to these young people, “You can do anything. You can be anybody.” But then what happens is that when they go to work it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a gender issue here.”
Regal: It does feel generational. I think there were categories that men saw women in. They were either mothers and sisters or potential dates and wives. And I’d like to think that the next generation of men, like my sons, also know confident, relentless or passionate women who are going to make a difference.
Q: Fewer than 25 of the Fortune 500 corporations are headed by women, and no Fortune 500 company in Georgia is headed by a woman CEO. Why should men care?
Cole: From a purely business perspective, the research shows that gender-diverse leadership provides the best financial results.
(There’s also) the decision-making power and the spending power that women have globally. Understanding your potential consumer and employment base — How do you connect with the people who are buying your wares and are filling the roles that you have open? Men should care because they stand to benefit from the returns that come from that activity.
Then there is this really holistic view of embracing diversity. It’s diversity of thought— having the most voices and the most talent and thought brought to the table to lead most intelligently. And so we all have a stake in it.
Yates: Wasn’t it Warren Buffett that said he succeeded but he was only competing against half of the population? Why wouldn’t you want to tap into the talent of the other half of the population? Regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do, there’s 50 percent of the talent pool out there.
Cole: I was having a conversation with a male executive in this city, a top firm in this city, about Sheryl Sandberg’s book a couple of weeks ago. His problem with it was he had overheard a conversation at his company where the leadership made a proclamation about the percentage of women that they wanted to see in leadership roles. I said, “So, do you have a problem with that percentage?” He said, “No, what I have a problem with is a hallway conversation I heard about them giving an opportunity to a woman, even though she was less qualified and known to be less qualified.”
That’s the danger we have with these discussions — people misinterpreting them and not making it about results and doing the right things for the right reasons. And like any issue of diversity where you’re trying to push the envelope, if you over-correct for the balance, people misinterpret it.
Smith: That used to bother me, not what you’re saying but the perception. All of my life I have been angry because people thought affirmative action meant I was not qualified. I am and was qualified. I got access.
Clark: Our stated ambition at Coke is to have a 50-50 environment. It’s not about women over men, it’s about women and men.
I have two daughters and a son, and at the end of the day I want to be able to look at my daughters in the same way as my son to know they had exactly the same opportunity as he had. That’s it. And they have to earn it and they have to be smart and bright. But I don’t want any other factors to contribute to why he had an opportunity that they wouldn’t. Just an equal playing field.
Coming Thursday in Living: Readers join the conversation about the challenges women face in the workplace.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Kelly Yamanouchi has been a business reporter for the AJC since 2008. She joined the paper from the Denver Post, and has also worked at newspapers in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Honolulu and other cities.
Yamanouchi grew up in San Jose, Calif. She graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in English before getting her master’s in journalism at Northwestern.
ABOUT THE BOOK
In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” the Facebook COO discusses challenges facing women who seek to climb the corporate ladder — not just externally, but also within themselves. She argues that women should “lean in” and be more aggressive to advance their careers, rather than dropping out of the running.
Some have voiced agreement with her advice. Others have questioned the merits of her message for working women who may not have the same means and flexibility as she has to pursue a demanding career path. They argue that more of the focus should be placed on changing workplace practices.