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 Mellody, executive vice president at Powerplant Strategies.
While working at a large company whose C-suite leadership was by-and-large dominated by men—not unlike that of most companies—I received a valuable piece of advice that I will never forget. I have since passed this advice on to other professional women numerous times, after watching them make the same innocent mistake I had made years earlier in a room full of men.
I arrived early to a senior staff meeting to discuss a serious matter that I had a prominent role in overseeing and resolving. I took a seat in a comfortable leather chair at a large executive conference table that offered a beautiful view overlooking the city.
As the start of the meeting approached, the room became more crowded. By the time we kicked off, the meeting was practically standing room only. Fifteen minutes into the meeting, a male colleague who was only marginally senior to me arrived. Making eye contact, I covertly signaled to him that I was willing to offer up my seat if he wanted it. He graciously declined with a wave of his hand, and grabbed one of the last remaining seats that ran along the perimeter of the room.
After the meeting ended, my mentor took me aside and pointed out why I may want to think twice before offering up my seat to a basically equal male counterpart at the executive conference table. She told me a story about a woman she knew who was given the regrettable label of “binder girl.”
This rather senior executive would walk around carrying a big black binder full of all of the latest information she had harvested. She would rapidly thumb through the binder during meetings to track down statistics that were needed during important conversations. She was the kind of person who would jump up and run down the hall to find a chair for a colleague. She would track down a tissue after a sneeze. In a nutshell, she was way too accommodating—most likely because she wanted to be polite.
As time went on, binder girl’s actions started to marginalize her status among her peers. Her concern about everyone else’s well-being prevented her from being able to fully participate during meetings. She wasn’t sitting back and soaking in all the information she could. This came to be seen as a flaw of hers.
My mentor’s story showed me that as women, we can’t afford to give up our seat at the table after we’ve worked so hard to earn one. If we are to command respect from our male counterparts, we must remember to always respect ourselves and shouldn’t feel guilty about taking what we've rightfully earned. To stand out in a room full of men, we need to remember to project confidence, listen carefully, and then offer our valuable strategic input.