It’s not impossible.
The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you overcome unconscious bias in the workplace?” is written by Kim Metcalf-Kupres, vice president and chief marketing officer of Johnson Controls.
Though I’ve never been denied an opportunity because I’m a woman—to my knowledge, anyway—I have experienced unconscious bias throughout my career. However, I’ve never dwelled on that or let it interfere with getting things done.
I remember interviewing for a job many years ago. I could tell that though the meetings went well and the hiring managers were impressed, they were hesitant. They stressed that they liked me, but were really hoping to hire someone who had “industry experience.” While preference for a candidate with deep industry experience was legitimate, it also meant hiring a man, because there were very few women in the industry at that time. Reading between the lines, I threw their literature away and assumed I would never hear from them again.
Six months later, they called and offered me the job.
I didn’t get the job because they swept aside unconscious bias to welcome a woman and industry outsider into the fold. I got it because they couldn’t find a candidate with my qualifications within their industry, ultimately becoming convinced that my skills were transferable. They saw that I had built a strong, relevant skillset, and I demonstrated my abilities in a way that resonated with them. My prospective employers needed to see the kind of results that come from taking a risk on someone with lots of potential. In the end, they were able to step out of the box and make a non-traditional hiring decision that worked out well for everyone.
Over my career, I’ve learned from these experiences and gained new skills to handle increasingly complex responsibilities. Here are a few valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Have passion for your work
I have always been motivated by a sense of purpose and opportunity for personal growth through my work. As a result, I have been drawn to assignments that offer a chance to build something, create value, and leave things a little better than I found them. These haven’t always been obvious opportunities, and while important, haven’t necessarily been projects that other people were lining up to do, since they weren’t part of an established career path in the company. Many aspiring leaders make the mistake of assuming there is only one way to the C-suite. My advice is to find fulfillment in your work and be willing to take the road less traveled.
Celebrate what makes you different
Hone your unique strengths that are particularly valuable to the business. Having a different background or perspective that doesn’t fit the established mold can allow you to think beyond existing norms and see opportunities to create value that others may be missing. Think about skills and experiences that are transferable and how they can be stretched to accomplish the task at hand. Keep an open mind and understand the value that alternative insights can bring.
Find your voice and speak up
In addition to producing strong results, you also have to speak up to build credibility and respect for your accomplishments and ideas. Be assertive in taking on assignments and staying accountable for results. Communicate effectively and directly. Be a team player, but also be visible and make sure your contributions are recognized. Raise your hand when you know there’s a great opportunity, and if you aren’t successful, find out why and invest in development plans to be ready the next time. This is all especially important when working in organizations or industries with succession paths that traditionally favor incumbency, because those are the places where old habits and unconscious biases thrive.
Pick the right battles
Fight for change when it matters and learn to let lesser issues roll off. While gender parity continues to improve in traditionally male-dominated fields, the reality is that we all have preconceived perceptions of how things should be, and culture change does not happen overnight. In these moments, especially if they involve unconscious bias, it is essential to educate others and provide your perspective in a kind and respectful manner. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
At the end of the day, excelling comes down to your ability to get results. Take pride in great work. Don’t be afraid to take risks, maintain perspective, and keep your sense of humor.