Ellen Kullman speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit 2016 at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel on October 18, 2016 in Dana Point, California.
Photograph by Joe Scarnici via Getty Images for Fortune
By Ellen Kullman
February 15, 2017

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can women be taken seriously in a room full of men?” is written by Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont.

When I tell people that a male colleague once assumed I was an assistant and asked me to get him coffee during a meeting, they aren’t shocked. Women have experienced or heard about this behavior time and time again. Being the only woman in a room can be discouraging and intimidating, but it can also be a real opportunity.

When you’re the only woman in the room, you have the power to advocate for more.

I entered the workforce in 1978, and I honestly thought things would be different by now. I never thought women would face the same issues today that we faced back then. We have come a very long way, don’t get me wrong. but with women only representing 19% of C-suite executives, we still have a long way to go.

Early in my career in the sciences, I was often the only woman, and I made an active decision not to allow that be a barrier to my advancement. Yes, there were times when others were prickly or acted like I didn’t belong, but I knew I was there because I deserved to be. To be taken seriously, you have to believe that you deserve to be there—or at least act like you believe it until you really do. If you question yourself, others will question you. At the time, I felt that it was incumbent on me not to make a situation different or difficult.

Now, I’m not advocating for putting the onus on individual women to accept, or conform to, a systemic problem. But having confidence, determination, and support is an important first step to bringing more women on board.

As female and male executives, it is vital for us to make diversity a priority; to support our staff; to continue to push our teams, our people, and our companies to be more inclusive; to strive for the best work environment; and to make sure we are performing at the highest level. Understandably, companies are more engrossed in driving the bottom line than focusing on diversity and inclusion, but those should be one in the same. Studies show that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform the national industry median.

 

While at DuPont (DD), I worked hard to make the company more inclusive and to create initiatives to promote diversity, such as unconscious bias training. Diversity programs are about talent and finding the best and the brightest to contribute to the company. I became a CEO in the midst of a generational change; we were going to find the most diverse and talented workforce for the company.

That still applies today. In December, I helped launch the Paradigm for Parity coalition. We are an organization dedicated to bringing gender parity to the C-suite by 2030 through a five-step plan that gives companies a real road map to usher in diversity in their workforce.

Our goal is to change the culture of the workplace: to make it more inclusive and stronger by including more women in leadership roles.

I’ve heard women say they don’t want to take a job because they don’t want to be the only woman in the room—but how else are we going to get in the room if there isn’t that go-getter who puts herself forward? As a former CEO, and as someone who has worked at all levels of a company, being the only woman in the room is definitely a challenge, but the only way to change that is to take the leap and be the woman in the room who works to bring parity to the workplace.

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