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 do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written by Jill Angelo, founder and CEO of Genneve.
Back in 2003, I was a product-marketing manager at Microsoft, and was in a pretty normal meeting about our partner channel program. One of the managers asked all of us for our opinions on how we might incentivize partners to acquire certifications that would improve their customer satisfaction while deepening their relationship with Microsoft. Mind you, I was the only woman in the meeting. And when I spoke up with a solution, I was blatantly ignored—except for the head-nod I received from my manager.
I was floored, silenced by my own shock and disbelief. There were five men in the room, and none of them were ignored. In fact, we were about 30 minutes into the meeting and they had been problem-solving right and left. I had the experience and had been working with the partners on a daily basis, but no one was acknowledging my insights or ideas. Finally, the guy running the meeting asked my then-manager for his thoughts on the topic, and without missing a beat, he replied, “What Jill said.”
The idea that men and women could be treated differently for a reason as irrelevant as gender honestly never occurred to me until this moment. My first professional job was at a software company in Fargo, North Dakota. There was a difference in behavior (and language choices) between the men and women, yes, but nothing ever felt oppressive or interfered with my work or career growth—at least not that I was aware of.
But ever since the meeting incident, I began noticing the reports of lower pay among women, and the fact that women weren’t always heard in the workplace, no matter the industry. I read more about sexual harassment in the headlines. I began to see some of it play out in front of me, mostly through stories shared by girlfriends who worked in administrative roles or alongside engineers. And this was happening at all types of companies, so it was hard to pin down “likely environments.”
So, what did I do? I tolerated it—until I landed a leadership position at Microsoft a year later as a director of marketing. Almost overnight, I changed my voice in meetings to be more founded in insights and data so that it was hard to argue with my logic. I asked more questions vs. feeling like I always had to have the answers. I watched for opportunities in meetings where women might be glossed over in their contribution, and I’d circle the conversation back to them so that we thoughtfully heard their idea. I even called out a few situations where a woman was put down or laughed at in a meeting by her male counterpart. If it’s happening in such a public arena, what must be happening in inter-office conversations? I realized the power I had to help carve a better path for women in the workplace, and I used my position of leadership to model what a more diverse, unbiased work environment looked like.
I’m now running my own company, and credit my experience at Microsoft (MSFT) for teaching me how to become the best leader I can be. And that doesn’t mean trying to be more like a man or sacrificing my way of being a leader.
It’s about becoming more aware of differences, so that I can see the value in someone who doesn’t think, look, or act like me. It’s not easy. I’ve got to be more patient and open to ideas that I want to quickly squash and move on.
This new awareness has opened me up to feedback without getting defensive. More than anything, I deeply appreciate the women around me who are brave enough to tell me the truth about me, my business, and what I’m doing well or not so well.
I became aware of my audience. My company is still in startup mode, so I’m often pitching to investor groups, and that means I’m pitching to men. Awareness here means “know thy audience” and tailor your message accordingly. And you better believe I present my women’s hormonal-health company differently to men than to women. I don’t see this as an act of suppression or accommodating men—I see it as an act of being a smart business leader who knows my audience and wants them to want to be part of my vision.
I became more aware of women’s voices. This has been a huge help to me as an entrepreneur, especially in my line of work around women in menopause. I’m better equipped to understand my customers’ struggles simply to be heard when the topic is so taboo and their voices are already marginalized by their gender and age.
Best of all, I became aware of myself. I learned my strengths and limitations, and knowing those made it so much easier to fight for my ideas, for promotions, for respect, for my rightful place at the table, and now for my business.
I truly believe there’s never been a better time to be a woman in any type of leadership position—or a woman at all, for that matter.
That might sound ironic given the current threats to women’s health services, unequal pay, women-owned businesses not getting a higher shake at investment dollars, or the lack of women leaders on boards. But news creates awareness. And awareness is a gift. It’s truth. And it empowers people to act.
If you feel oppressed, shut down, or treated differently, pull in a few trusted truth-tellers (not the people who will tell you what you want to hear) to get their take on the situation. When you see blatant oppression happening to you or someone else, call it out. Be someone else’s truth-teller. But maintain a leadership attitude throughout, use the experience for learning, and move on.
The women around me are incredibly strong, smart entrepreneurs, mentors, and advisors, and that’s not by accident. We all know the importance of building a culture of women helping women—something we were never successful creating in a competitive, corporate workplace.