As a millennial entrepreneur, I was once asked by a journalist about the challenges of being young, African-American and female. Admittedly, I was taken aback; in my career — I’ve grown a “one-woman” startup blog into a leading global business media platform — none of these perceived challenges ever held me back. I was simply executing on my vision.
“I see it as a triple-threat,” I replied with a laugh, “certainly not a challenge.” While she applauded my gusto, our conversation made me keenly aware of gender parity. She, like many others, still saw my success and advancement in media as an outlier.
I get it.
The U.S. Department of Labor says that in 2014 57 percent of working-age women participated in the labor force, compared to 69 percent of men. Writing for the McKinsey Global Institute, Laura Tyson reports that, “Women continue to lag behind men in economic participation and opportunity by 15 to 25 percent.”
Tyson, a former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, went on to suggest that “taking bold actions now to increase the economic participation and advancement of women is critical to ensuring a strong foundation for rising prosperity in the long run.” I couldn’t agree more.
So how do we, the leaders, entrepreneurs and professional game-changers, boldly and pragmatically normalize what it means to be a woman in our respective industries? Can we truly get past being the “first woman to do X”? Here’s a refreshing approach every woman can take, both personally and professionally, to claim a seat at the table, and even own it if you dare.
1. Flex your strengths.
Quiet Power Strategy founder Tara Gentile asserts that finding the confidence to lead is not beyond reach. “Confidence is about tapping into my own strengths and finding ways to exploit those strengths,” Gentile says. “So I try to … infuse more of my strengths into every aspect of how my business is represented.”
2. Shift the dialogue.
How do you stop a runaway horse? Genie Z. Laborde, Ph.D., the author of Influencing with Integrity, says, “You can't yell ‘stop.’ It does no good to stand in front of it and wave your arms. You have to match speeds with the steed and slowly bring it under control.” Instances and conversations where we face gender inequality — which can often feel disarming and angering — resemble that same renegade horse. But the quickest way to match speeds is to find common ground.
Look to shift the dialogue using a technique called the Ransberger Pivot. Instead of arguing, listen and seek to understand how they feel and why. According to Listverse, “Use that as a starting point to explain your position. This makes [a person] much more likely to listen to what you have to say, and allows you to correct them without them losing face.”
3. Become an artful communicator.
Have you ever conversed with someone who had a great message, but struggled to communicate it? We all have. You just want to grab a sleep mask and melt away the anxiety their babble is causing.
Take a lesson from the true virtuosos out there. They masterfully communicate their value with strong actions and few words. Jennifer Berson, founder and president of Jeneration PR, has found that well done is better than well said. “I worked harder, and was more prepared than my male counterparts,” Berson recalls. “[I] allowed my hard work to shine, and [did] not let anyone’s gender bias overshadow the great job I was doing.”
4. Own the first impression you make.
“Shoot first, ask questions later” isn’t a reliable approach. Paying close, undivided attention — the heart of effective communication — is.
Laurie Davis, founder of eFlirt, an online dating concierge service, admits that while gender bias is rampant in her industry, but she says she has overcome it: “I am a woman and I own a dating company. Sometimes when men hear that, they stop taking me seriously — I become a cliche to them. To counteract this, I often go in asking questions first … and we're able to have an intelligent conversation. And when I describe my company, I focus on the incredible growth we've achieved, so they see me as an entrepreneur first and a dating coach second.”
5. Send the elevator back down.
Aung San Suu Kyi — an activist turned presidential hopeful in her home country of Myanmar who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize — has said, "By helping others you will learn how to help yourselves." How can we apply this idea to business? As successful women, we can provide access to the trails we blaze. We must ask ourselves, “In my current role, how can I foster more inclusive growth and bolster the advancement of women?” Asking the right questions can create a domino effect of beautiful breakthroughs.
As I look back at that conversation with the well-meaning journalist, I realized that I too can play a meaningful role to promote gender parity. And so can you. Let’s not wait decades and decades for the economic gender gap to narrow. Your contribution is powerful. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, I may come as one, but I rise as ten thousand.
Unilever believes in creating a bright future. Learn more about the work Unilever is doing today — from gender equality and women's empowerment to fighting hunger and building environmental awareness — to create a brighter tomorrow.