Women’s journey for equality has been a long and difficult one. It’s hard for me to fathom that thirty or so years before I was born, women couldn’t vote. That today’s generations consider this unthinkable indicates that our society is evolving. Conversations around the gender gap are prevalent, sparked by books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In that points out some of the barriers that hold women back. Recent research studies illustrate how greater gender diversity in companies’ management correlates to better financial performance and stock market valuation. There is a host of evidence that shows how women have grown more empowered over the last several decades—culturally, educationally, and economically.
But it’s not time to relax. Even though women have made progress, old patterns still hold sway in workplaces and institutions. Women make up almost half of the workforce, but last year they held only 14.2% of the top leadership positions in S&P 500 companies. Out of those companies, there were only 24 female CEOs. While gender equality is at a record high in the U.S. Congress, it remains a male-dominated body with only 20% of the seats held by women. A recent report by the World Economic Forum concludes that there is no country in the world where a woman earns as much as a man for doing the same job, and at the current rate it will take another 81 years to close the gender gap. And when you consider the under-representation of women on corporate boards, in elected office, or on the wealthiest or most influential lists, the journey to equality is really just getting started.
Equality is a tricky topic because it’s a personal one. Everyone grows up with different role models and personal expectations related to gender. While studies help us intellectually embrace the positives of equality, many organizations haven’t defined their accountabilities around this issue. As the future of every business lies in its ability to compete for talent, regardless of gender, it’s a necessary area to explore. As I reflect on my own journey with equality, below are a few lessons I’ve learned that might inspire women, men, teams, and organizations to jumpstart the conversations that will help them accelerate our progress toward equality.
Lesson 1: Change happens when you make things personal.
This story goes back to when I was 10 years old and went out for little league tryouts. Upon arriving at the field, I was informed by the organizers that my gender disqualified me (a rule that was done away with a while back). I went with two of my friends to the local newspaper and they wrote a story that featured a photo of us that was captioned, “Little League for Girls? Why not?” The story included our phone number (my sister’s), and over the next few days, we received over 40 calls from people who wanted to join (to my sister’s chagrin). The big realization was that while only three of us went to the tryouts, there were so many other girls out there who wanted to play. We got some parents to volunteer, and that summer we had a girl’s baseball league. This was the small victory. The bigger one came out of the feeling of not being treated fairly, and the action it inspired in me. At a young age, I discovered a cause that I could feel in my bones—one that has shaped me personally and professionally. In the work we do at Brimstone, we talk about the determination it takes to drive deep change in yourself and in your organization. Making things personal gives you the grit and the fuel required to make things different.
Is there a status quo in your organization or industry that you, personally, want to challenge?
Lesson 2: Have some heroes.
Equality might be my birthright. My middle name is Oakley and I grew up idolizing Annie Oakley, a woman who consciously chose to not act “like a lady.” When a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When Annie did it, they called it a trick. She pushed through the criticism with style, grace, and her inimitable personality. But in many ways, the Annie Oakleys in today’s organizations—the bold, daring, skilled, and irrepressible women—experience some of the derision and bias that the original Annie had to endure.
It can be hard to find women heroes—not because they don’t exist, but because they often don’t get credit for their true gifts. How often do we hear the press praising a female CEO for being the first woman in that role, as opposed to being a skilled businessperson? A big part of elevating the conversation around gender equality is to get better at spotting the talented women in business, politics, literature, the arts, or communities based on their unique qualities and skills, rather than their gender. By digging a little deeper, we can locate the essence of their heroism—the parts of them that transcend gender.
Of the women who inspire you, what unique qualities do you connect with?
Lesson 3: When things aren’t fair, swing a stick.
In high school, long before Title IX, the only sports I could go out for were field hockey and modern dance. The local newspaper couldn’t help us this time, so I decided to get good with the stick. Even today, when organizations have a mandate to ensure equality in the workplace, women don’t always get equal consideration. When you feel that the field may be tilted away from you, don’t hold back. Putting your skills on full display in every setting is what gives people a glimpse of the full range of skills you possess.
You’ve probably heard the statistic that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the requirements in the job description, while women apply for jobs where their backgrounds match 100% of the requirements. The lesson here is to have faith in what you believe you can do. A lack of direct experience is simply an opportunity to prove yourself a quick study.
Above and apart from what you have done, how developed is your sense of possibility?
Lesson 4: Create settings that make people equals.
In the early part of my career I worked at a medical center that was run primarily by men, with the exception of one female Vice President on the leadership team. The group played volleyball every Tuesday and Thursday, which provided an outlet for the informal interactions that would help them bond as a team. The female VP was invited to play as well, but as she stood less than five feet tall, the game didn’t give her the best opportunity to shine among her peers.
At the core of being on a team is the commitment to prioritizing your peers. Part of this means creating settings where everyone has access to the same experiences. We’ve witnessed the transformative power of teams working together in community service projects because few things help peers see each other on the same level more clearly than performing acts of service. To strengthen the bonds within a team, bring them together in settings that are inclusive and challenge everyone equally.
What are some activities where men and women in your organization can engage in experiences as equals?
Lesson 5: Take the shot.
I have two sons, but throughout my adult life I’ve coached girls’ basketball. I’ve always felt a need to teach girls to compete because their first instinct on the court is to pass the ball. They apologize for aggressive behavior because they don’t want to be perceived as rude. I used to drive the girls to practice, and we would talk in the car about the game and how they could push themselves to try new things on the court. As the girls got to know each other better, their confidence rose, they started taking more shots, making more instinctual plays, and bringing more energy to the game. They also continued to pass the ball when it made sense, but they let go of their hesitation to assert themselves on the court. Conversely, boys are trained to show aggression—to push, shove, and put their warrior mentality on display. Aggression doesn’t win games, but it does help individuals and teams get into action quickly and put the opposition on the defensive.
A successful team needs all of these qualities—the vulnerability that builds relationships, the confidence that allows each person to play their role, and the assertiveness that breaks through barriers. The key is for women to realize that it’s okay to embody all of these qualities and not defer to men or pass up their shots. The people on a team who know how to operate on all of these levels are the true MVPs.
What shots are you passing up—in your work and in your life—and why?
Lesson 6: Top leaders can be strong advocates for women.
Here’s a situation you may have seen before: a woman presents a good idea in a meeting that doesn’t get acknowledged in the flow of conversation. The idea resurfaces later in the conversation, but the woman doesn’t receive any credit for it. While women need to learn to be more aggressive, top leaders also have a role to play.
Gender equality needs to be built and reinforced on teams continuously. A skilled leader does this by listening carefully and pausing the conversation when provocative ideas emerge. The result is that people stop competing for attention, and turn their focus toward building on each other’s ideas. The best solutions emerge from the alchemy of open, trusting conversation. Having women as participants in creating this alchemy is important. And it only happens when they are confident that their voices will be heard.
What can leaders do to make sure that everyone in the room has an equal voice?
Lesson 7: The gender thing will always be there.
One of the biggest things I’ve realized over the years is that gender will always be an issue we have to actively manage. Our job as leaders, regardless of our gender, is to have the conversations that make our biases more visible and our conversation more explicit about how to make equality a goal we all share. Organizations are always looking to recruit the best talent, but when old ways of thinking prevent the best people from either wanting to join or receiving consideration, everyone loses. Women and men are different, but learning to mine their diverse approaches to solving problems, forming teams, and driving progress is how organizations learn new ways to innovate and change.
What has gone unsaid about gender equality in your organization?
Lesson 8: There’s much to learn from the people who came before us.
I live in Maine, on a peninsula with a population of just over 700 people in the winter. The generations mix easily, much like on an island, and my local friends range from 10 years old to over 90. Of the elder set, there are three women who each live alone. I have dinner with them from time-to-time, and as I’ve learned their stories I’ve come to realize that these women were rebels in their own right: entrepreneurs before anyone had coined the term, and confident self-starters who had the courage to defy conventional thinking around what a woman could or could not do in the 1930’s and 40’s.
For example, one of these women owned a lobster pound with her husband. He died in his forties, and instead of selling the business, she stepped into it—pumping diesel fuel at the dock for the boats and unloading the lobster when the boats came in. Through her grit and business sense, she gained the respect of the lobstermen, many of whom never imagined that a woman could do that job. She expanded the business with a few picnic tables where people could enjoy “lobster in the rough,” and her business became one of the more successful on the coast. Now, at over ninety years old, she still lives in her cottage by the sea, volunteers at the school and the library, is a member of a very active book club, does her own gardening, and walks 2 miles a day. Even though I’ve met some truly amazing women in the corporate world, this lobster pound owner remains one of my most influential role models.
Who in your life has stories to tell and wisdom to share that you don’t find in books?
The quickest way to solve the gender equality issue would be for everyone to have a daughter. But short of that, something that men and women alike can do would be to mentor the next generation. By helping young leaders understand that gender equality will make everyone more successful, we’ll continue the journey forward. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is coaching women leaders because I come in contact with so much potential. My desire is to help them unlock it—so our world has more heroes, role models, and positive examples of women striving for greatness.
I’m sure that nothing above is any news to the women reading this. And for the men, I hope it offers another window into the experience of your mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and friends. Women want to be equal players in the game. This may change the game, but I believe it’s a change for the better.
Dyan Dyer (click here to read bio) is a Managing Director at Brimstone who has led initiatives focused on strategy development, cultural change, organizational redesign, conflict management, and cross-functional project teams.