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 Julie Krouse, northeast head of territory at Farmers Insurance.
It took me nearly 10 years to get through business school. I was going to school at night, working full time during the day in a senior position at a large company, and raising a small child with my husband, who worked nights. The only way I kept going during those years was by taking my goals very seriously and making sure others knew how serious I was about achieving them. I just didn’t have time to waste being ineffectual. I had to learn how to be taken seriously by everyone, including my male team members.
Women only hold about 25% of executive and senior-level positions in S&P 500 companies, according to nonprofit Catalyst. And traits that might seem as advantageous for men in the workplace, like establishing dominance and being talkative, don’t necessarily work for women—and can even backfire.
It can be especially hard for women to be taken seriously in an industry like insurance that has traditionally been known as a male-dominated field. I’m now in my 36th year in the insurance industry, and over the years, I’ve seen many opportunities open up for women. But there are still a number of skills that many women may need to master in order to be heard:
Decide to participate, even if it’s daunting
According to a study about women in the workplace conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, only 67% of women feel they’re able to participate meaningfully in meetings, compared to 74% of men. I can relate, as I long struggled to find the courage to jump into conversations with a roomful of people. I’d stay quiet, and then someone else would express my exact thoughts and get acknowledged for doing so. I finally realized that when I didn’t speak up, I was showing a real lack of confidence in myself, and in my opinions as a professional. I decided to stop letting myself down and to speak up, despite my fears about how others might react.
Take responsibility for your career
Building the confidence to be taken seriously begins with the realization that in order to succeed, you will have to do it yourself. It’s great if someone wants to help, but your success will depend on your own efforts. You have to be ready to dig in, take chances, work hard, seek out new projects, and really learn your business. And when you make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, use what you learned from the experience to move forward.
Recognize the value of collaboration
Companies are always talking about the importance of having “diversity of thought” at work, but I see its importance every time I sit people down around a table and ask for their thoughts about an issue. I’m not afraid to make decisions—I do it all day long. But decisions often come out so much better when you seek out a variety of views and opinions. In general, women are good at eliciting different viewpoints and finding solutions through a collaborative process, so try to move your company toward making decisions by consensus, rather than by majority rule.
Practice, practice, practice
You can’t get ahead in your career simply by delivering strong presentations. If you want to be taken seriously, you must be ready to participate in open discussions. As counter-intuitive as it may sound to practice for spontaneous conversations, it’ll help you build the confidence you need when defending your opinions. Develop key talking points, as well as rebuttals for the likely criticisms. And don’t end your sentences with a question mark.
I wanted to be taken seriously because I wanted to achieve my goals and move forward in my career. But this drive was always grounded in my commitment to moving the enterprise forward. Women often worry that voicing their opinions with confidence will make them seem bossy or aggressive. But it’s not self-serving if your fundamental goal is to make a better product, offer a better service, or serve the client better. You never have to apologize for wanting to be taken seriously, especially when your motivation is to be part of the business solution. That isn’t being self-serving—that’s being a servant to a greater good.