For so long, women have determined career success by their ability to adjust to the male-dominated culture and business processes in their field. Women try to play by the existing rules in the workplace and have the additional hurdle of society's perceptions of how women should act and be seen. While education and practice are reducing some of the invisible angst of being a woman in a leadership role, there are still challenges to face and overcome. It rests on current women leaders to embrace their role-model status and address those challenges head-on with action and execution.
To that end, more and more women in leadership positions are pushing the boundaries of gender equality by utilizing their strengths and leadership qualities – in skill, knowledge, experience and emotion. They are pursuing the things they want from their job and their career, not waiting for it to come to them. The key is confidence in all your resources and abilities, not just those represented on paper.
"Once I heard that I shouldn't expose my feelings at work, because this represents weakness, especially coming from a woman," said Mayra Attuy, a marketing head at Verizon Media. "I see emotion, passion and compassion as valuable assets, not things to be ignored or hidden."
The importance of leaving your comfort zone
A commonly cited Hewlett-Packard study on internal hiring practices found that men often apply for a job when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them. There is an unconscious belief that unless a woman meets the criteria exactly, she won't be considered. Changing that belief starts with the individual woman. Each one must believe she is capable of doing the work and proving it through the interview process, instead of not throwing her hat in the ring for consideration because of self-doubt.
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, said that while girls are taught to play it safe, smile pretty and get all A's, boys are taught to play rough and swing high. "In other words, we're raising our girls to be perfect, and we're raising our boys to be brave," she said in a TED talk. Even when women are ambitious, the socialization of perfection often leads them to risk aversion, Saujani said.
Devoreaux Walton, owner of Distinct Personal Branding, believes success is found outside of one's comfort zone, but is often hindered by the fear of the unknown.
"Every successful entrepreneur and business leader did what they were afraid to do instead of just letting the fear rule in their personal and professional lives," she said.
She said the best way to overcome fear is to acknowledge it: Recognize the fear is there, but do it anyway. If you're too rigid, you could miss one of those serendipitous "aha" moments that could inspire a creative solution or force a different approach.
Angie Hicks, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Angie's List, had to face her fears when she was approached about starting the now-national customer review service as an introverted college graduate.
"My biggest challenge was combating the fact that I was really shy and quiet," said Hicks at the inaugural American Express OPEN CEO BootCamp in 2013. "In starting a business, you have to get out and talk to people. I was doing door-to-door [subscription] sales, which was the last thing I ever thought I would do."
Leaving her comfort levels paved the way for Hicks to take advantage of opportunities that never would have arisen otherwise.
"Don't miss out on opportunities that come your way," she said. "Put yourself in a position to have those opportunities; know when one is facing you and take it."
The mindset of equality as a reality
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that in 2018, women earned 85 percent of what men earned, based on an analysis of the median hourly wage for both part-time and full-time work. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau found that women earned 80 percent of what men earned when analyzing full-time wage data.
Many women have felt the effects of the gender gap during their careers, whether it was a pay dispute, a lost promotion or just a snide comment from a co-worker. Even if your work environment champions equality, it's not uncommon to encounter people who have faced some kind of discrimination, subtle or not, because of their gender.
It's difficult to think this way when cases of gender inequality are talked about in the news and on social media every day. However, if women want to be viewed as equal in the workplace, they must stand their ground and demand the respect they deserve – and it starts by behaving as if the gap has been closed, said Paula Stephenson, director of marketing at Smoke's Poutinerie.
"I have noticed that if you act like there's equality in the workplace, then there will be," Stephenson said.
That's not to say that people should pretend inequality doesn't exist. Acknowledging the need for change is important, but more important are your actions and attitudes in the workplace. Encourage yourself and others, and don't let perceived detriments rule the day.
"Being a working mom in the corporate world is a daily challenge," Attuy said. Despite the struggle to find balance, she considers her proudest professional moment to be when she returned from maternity leave. She believes her simultaneous personal and career success has made her a stronger marketer.
Women as leaders for other women
For women just entering the workforce, Attuy recommends leading by example while being open, supportive and collaborative with others. Look for, bond with and become role models for other women to follow. With advancements like the #MeToo movement, discussions have been ignited, but there are still many barriers to overcome.
Natural attributes normally assigned to women can be big differentiators as leadership qualities in the workplace. Women can help others set goals and attain them, emphasize teamwork, and invest time in training, mentoring and personal development. Women are less likely to have the "lone wolf" or "leader of the pack" mentality, lending themselves naturally to developing and helping others.
Emily He, former chief marketing officer at Saba Software and now the CMO at DoubleDutch, discovered that women are driven more by intrinsic motivations about work than by what their jobs or employers demand from them.
"In contrast to men, who tend to be career-centric and want to maximize their financial return from work, women view work more holistically, as a component of their overall life plan," He said. "Therefore, they're more likely to approach their careers in a self-reflective way and value factors such as meaning, purpose, connection with co-workers and work-life integration."
When women bring this strength to bear for their teams and employees, it has long-lasting implications. It improves employee retention, creates stronger team players, and develops the next generation of female role models. As each woman in the workplace does her part to work toward gender equality in her workplace, the gap will slowly but surely close over time. It isn't a matter of the different strengths that men and women bring to their careers, but instead how we accept the meshing of those strengths to drive companies forward in meeting their goals and setting new ones while achieving individual success.
"The big challenge is to keep our perspectives top of mind in conversations at the corporate level, and also among family and friends, so the mindset shift can happen," Attuy said. "Be resilient that change will come."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon and Carlyann Edwards. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.