I was shopping for a gift for my almost four-year-old niece and was bombarded with princesses, pink and glitter. Very few options captured the spirit and lessons I want to impart on her – in essence that she can be anything she wants to be. But as we all know well, the mixed messages don’t stop when you enter kindergarten.
As a woman in my early 30s who has been in the workforce for about 10 years, I’m barraged with (and yet still seek out) articles and studies about how to succeed as a corporate female, when to Lean In, where to find mentors and how to advocate more successfully for myself. While, of course, nurturing my personal responsibilities and interests, starting a family with my husband and fostering strong friendships. But women are used to multitasking.
So when Lean In and McKinsey & Company recently released their annual Women in the Workplace report, I dug right into it. This year’s study shows that women fall behind early in corporate America and continue to lose ground at every level along the way. We miss out on initial promotions, have less access to professional opportunities and have few female role models at the top tiers of company leadership.
From the start, women are hired at lower rates than men and their representation continues to drop through the corporate pipeline. I’ve worked at four public affairs and political agencies and have found that while women are highly represented in entry level positions, the roles quickly become male dominated as you rise in the company. Women may be given the opportunity to be an assistant, but are less likely to hold roles where they manage client relationships, budgets and strategy. The one exception I’ve experienced thus far is at my current firm – SKDKnickerbocker – where our company leadership is majority female or people of color.
At every turn in my career, whether I was pursuing a raise, an internal promotion or a new job, I’ve proactively and at times aggressively advocated for myself. I haven’t been called bossy (that I know of), but I have questioned if these opportunities would have come more smoothly if I was male. Or if I was damaging important internal political capital when pushing for these advancements. The data from Women in the Workplace suggests that if I were born male, I might have progressed faster, made more money and not have had to argue quite so hard to move up the corporate ladder.
I’ve also been lucky to have numerous mentors throughout my career. However, besides my mother and grandmother, both incredibly high-achieving women who blasted through their own glass ceilings, all of my professional mentors except for one have been male. They have given me priceless advice, coached me through tough conversations and client interactions and served as my sounding boards and references.
I’m incredibly grateful to these mentors and realize their presence makes me luckier than most, but I also wonder how I would have approached things differently if I had access to women who could have guided me through my career – women who could have shown me from the beginning that different styles of leadership strengthen an organization, that you have to negotiate to come close to getting your worth and that diversity of voices benefits everyone. What could we all achieve if we didn’t feel like we had to alter our work style to fit a male-dominated corporate environment?
And now, a decade into my working life and as vice president/chief of staff of SKDK’s Los Angeles office, I find myself near the tipping point of being in a position to change these statistics and outcomes. I can influence staffing decisions, impact our culture and advocate for females in the workplace – but what’s the best way to enact this needed change?
Women in the Workplace included four recommendations:
- Make a compelling case for gender diversity
- Ensure that hiring, promotions and reviews are fair
- Invest in more employee training
- Focus on accountability and results
On top of these I would add that we should all guide by example (being strong self-advocates and making sure we sit at the literal and metaphorical table) and work closely with women in lower positions to give them a step up. Even if you’re just one year out of school, there’s an intern or classmate a few years younger than you that can benefit from what you’ve learned.
One person, one study, one firm can’t change years of corporate inequality. But I’m optimistic that things can and will change. And I’ll do my small part to help make that happen. As for my niece? She received a gear set and a paper doll with outfits ranging from doctor to firefighter – and she’s got years of pep talks from a loving aunt in her future.
Shira Fine recently relocated to sunny California, after spending the last decade working as a strategic communications professional in Washington, D.C. She is a vice president and chief of staff in SKDKnickerbocker’s Los Angeles office, where she advises a range of corporate and non-profit clients.