Earlier this month, I had the honor of moderating a panel of nine spectacular women at the White House’s first-ever United State of Women summit. The panelists come from a wide range of fields—including tech, finance, sports, and more—but they all have one thing in common: They broke through the gender barriers that have traditionally kept women out.
Given that unifying experience, it’s perhaps not surprising that there were also some shared threads to the participants’ advice for women who aim to follow in their footsteps. Here are the six biggest lessons I took away from their inspiring words.
The importance of having the courage to stray from the “safe path” was one of the primary themes that emerged from the session. Carla Harris, vice chairman of Global Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, kicked off the panel by encouraging the audience to take risks. As she writes in one of her books, Expect to Win, “there is never any real danger in taking well-thought-out calculated risks….Most people look back and regret not taking a risk.” It’s clear that women’s progress and advancement are strongly linked to our willingness to embrace smart gambles.
In a profound example of risk-taking, Erica Baker, build and release engineer at Slack, discussed having ignited something of a revolution inside the walls of Google during her time at the tech giant. Baker made headlines when she exposed pay discrepancies by creating a shared spreadsheet on which Googlers could share their salaries with their peers. Baker’s risk—though perhaps not popular with her former employer—established her as an up-and-coming talent and helped bring the issue of tech’s the gender wage gap into the public conversation.
Build diversity from the inside out
Baker and her colleague, Slack VP of policy Anne Toth, spoke about their experience helping their employer build diversity into the company from day one. They credit the support of their CEO, Stewart Butterfield, with supporting policies and practices that have helped the make the startup more diverse than many of its Silicon Valley neighbors.
For example, Slack has systematically eliminated “years experience required” from job descriptions because they understand that qualified women may shy away from applying if they don’t fit the exact requirements—perhaps because they took a break from the workforce to raise children or care for an aging parent.
Deborah Rosado Shaw, SVP and chief global diversity and engagement officer at PepsiCo (PEP), shared a story about the challenges of building global diversity across the company. PepsiCo is a leader in diversity practices, yet the company finds itself in uncharted territory when it comes to encourage female workforce participation in parts of the world—such as the Middle East—where working women are not the cultural norm. Shaw talked about how tricky it can be to integrate women into an office when they are a minority, and how by encouraging, recruiting, and hiring many more women, the team achieves a tipping point. With the right practices, she said, it’s possible to build an office in which gender equality outpaces that of the broader community.
Shaw’s advice on how to build diversity from within: “Helping other women doesn’t mean being nice. You might need to say something or share feedback that helps [your colleague] to stand taller.”
How do you command the attention and respect of men in a world where women have been all but non-existent? That’s exactly what Jennifer Welter, the first women to coach in the NFL, had to figure out. Her advice: “Be authentic.” Welter said that the best way to command authority is to be completely true to yourself. You won’t make a dent in a “man’s field” by impersonating a man, she said, or playing the role you think you’re expected to play. Instead, she believe success is all about revealing your true self.
Along similar lines, Sensei Jaye Spiro, a seventh-degree black belt in Karate, advised that success and confidence are best built on the foundation of empowerment. Spiro, who has taught Karate and self-defense to thousands of people, came to the practice after having been a victim of violence. Her message to the group: “You can feel empowered, strong and protected from the inside out. Build your confidence from within, and you will face other challenges with more strength, patience and resilience.”
Bring men into the fight
TV personality Alexis Jones recently founded ProtectHer, a campaign designed to address the ongoing issue of sexual assault and domestic violence in sports. Through ProtectHer, Jones says she has been invited to speak in high school, college, and professional locker rooms around the country. She says the key to being heard in that male-dominated environment is to makes her message personal, and address the audience as her allies. She hopes to give these men the tools to help become advocates for women among their peers.
In addition to her day job as CEO of Joyus, a video shopping startup, tech veteran Sukhinder Singh Cassidy built theBoardlist, an organization committed to placing more women on the boards of tech companies. Sukhinder told the crowd that despite a clear case for improved ROI when boards are diversified, approximately 70% of privately funded tech companies still have no female board members—in part because the male founders’ networks tend to be largely comprised of men. So she set out to make a difference. By building theBoardlist, not only did Cassidy draw attention to this important cause, she also helped facilitate the solution.
While listening to these trailblazing women was inspiring as well as informative, I walked way from the panel with the words of Slack’s Anne Toth echoing in my mind: “We look forward to the day when these events are no longer about celebrating firsts.” I believe that if we can heed their suggestions, that day is may not be so far away.
Romy Newman is co-founder of Fairygodboss, a job and career community for women.