By Working Together, We Shall Overcome

For every woman who succeeds, I succeed a little.
For every woman who fails I fail a little.

Women need to learn to work together if we are to move forward, as a group or individually, said Gail Evans , keynoting the NACWAA 2006 convention in Sacramento in October.

Author of the best-selling book Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman, Evans has been a force for change throughout her career. She was a pioneer in the White House during the 1960s and 1970s, and later an executive vice president at CNN. Today she’s a visiting professor in the school of management at Georgia Tech, specializing in cultural diversity in the workplace. Her latest book is She Wins, You Win.

Welcome to the golf game

Evans said the first question she’s asked after she speaks is usually, “Do I have to play golf?”

She’s a huge advocate of athletics for women. A field hockey goalie in the 1950s, she credits athletics with teaching her a great deal. When her daughter wanted to be a cheerleader, she made a deal with her that she could cheer only if she continued to play other sports.

That said, she disputes the notion that golf is crucial, especially for women in business. “Golf states from the minute you get there that as a woman, you’re different,” said Evans. Women use separate locker rooms and start from a closer tee. Evans compared it to dressing professionally in the 1960s and 1970s, when women executives had to wear navy suits and floppy ties, making them look and act like junior men.

“The way we’re going to win is by being smart and strategic about what we do,” she said, adding that we need to reframe our thinking. “It’s not us vs. them, but us vs. us. We need to think, ‘For every woman who succeeds, I succeed a little. For every woman who fails, I fail a little.’”

When Senator Hillary Clinton was sick and had to be helped offstage during a speech, the New York Times headline was “Mrs. Clinton Faints.” Not Senator Clinton. When the coach of the Chicago Bears fainted, the headline was “Coach K Collapses.” The message was that women are weak. Presidents and nations collapse; they don’t faint. We are looked at as a group, and our “I can do it” mantra needs to be changed to “We can do it,” she said.

“The whole idea that we celebrate the first and only woman to do something is ridiculous,” she said. “We need three or four women in place to have a conversation switch to what we can do together, collectively, to make real change.” She once suggested a woman keynoter to a conference planning group. The reply: “We already had one.”

What can we do?

Mentor. Women are twice as apt as men to have a mentor. Mentoring is not about being powerful, seeing someone in your image and thinking that they could be you someday; it’s no longer “the son he didn’t have.”

Women today, said Evans, need to become peer mentors for each other. We know the answers, but we don’t tell each other. Women know the politics and the power structures. Why not share the info with our sisters?

When people approach a table, their beliefs about themselves dictate where they choose to sit. Women who know they belong sit at the front. Other women sit on the periphery. Men see an open seat at a table and just take it. In a classroom, women fill the middle to back rows. Men fill the middle to the front. The latecomers have to sit in the front.

Too often in meetings, a woman says something profound and is ignored. Half an hour later, a man saying the same thing is heard. A peer mentor needs to step in and say “You gave it away.” We need to be agents for change. It’s not that we don’t know how to be heard, said Evans, pointing out that our kids at home certainly hear us.

 When a woman is told she does a great job, and replies, “It was nothing,” a mentor needs to tell her instead to respond: Thank you. “We’ve got to be there to help each other,” said Evans. “It’s the obligation of every woman to mentor a young woman. Men can’t teach us. They’ve never walked in our shoes. Women need to make it easier for the next generation of women.”

We all struggle with work-life balance. It’s a ridiculous term, she said, pointing out how many women make calls to doctors from their offices. We have to understand that it’s one life; work and life really aren’t separate. We spend most of our lives at work, and can’t separate the two. We need to work to make life easier for women with children. Take time to point out what great value they provide.

Retention of women and minorities is a huge problem, she said. The problem is that women see all of the unfulfilled expectations placed on others, and hear them say, “Why am I killing myself?” They don’t say “I did it. You can too.” We need to teach them the tricks, said Evans, so they can stay longer in the job/game/issue.

Network. “I find it unbelievable that women have to go to events to network,” Evans said. “If five women walk by one with a great purse or earrings, they’ll stop her on the street to tell her and ask her where she got them. Women have no shame in their personal lives. Then we come to our business lives, and we have no knowledge of how to do it. We need to bring that sensibility of our personal lives to our business lives.”

Evans was on a train in the Atlanta airport when she overheard one woman ask another when her baby was due. The other responded with her due date, and soon the two women had shared their life stories. “I knew more about them than the men I’ve been playing golf with in a foursome for years,” said Evans.

Part of our casual chitchat has to be about who we are and what we do for a living. We have to script it. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to be a conversation stopper, so we only mention it when we’re sure it’s OK. But it needs to become a part of who we are. It’s a fundamental of networking. You have no idea who you’re talking to professionally until you bring that personal element into the conversation. Make it a part of your essence.

Networking is not just about “you and me.” It’s about paying it forward. If you meet someone and think she’d be a great contact for someone else, put them together on a business blind date. “We put blinders in front of us, and call it too difficult,” said Evans. “We need to relax, and do what we do naturally.”

Consider a woman. Begin by looking around and giving other women a chance, in both your personal and professional lives. This applies whether you’re hiring a new cleaner or just buying new mugs for work. Ask yourself if you gave a woman the opportunity to build her business. These are opportunities, even if you’re working with the token woman. “There are a whole lot of women in business who don’t do big business because they didn’t get a fair chance,” said Evans.

Women are afraid of being known as a woman who supports other women, in case they support someone who doesn’t work out, leading to a black mark on the supporter’s record. “We hold each other to such a perfectionist level, such impossibly high standards,” said Evans.

Studies show that a woman may perform a job’s duties for years before finally getting noticed and promoted into the job, while men are promoted much earlier based on their potential. Recommendations to promote women are based on performance, describing the women as “hardworking” and “dedicated,” while recommendations for men call them “visionary,” “superb” and “excellent.”

As a result, women aren’t comfortable in a position if they can’t do everything perfectly at first. Men think, “I wouldn’t have been promoted if the boss didn’t think I could do it.”

It helps to share information with each other. Inequity persists; women still make 78 cents on the dollar. The reality is that everybody makes deals, for salaries, support and more. We need to stop being secretive about it. Find a group of three or four other women for lunch every month. Share information about what’s happening at work. Learn to laugh, not to get angry or frustrated, and that you’re not crazy.

We also need to teach younger women to work with women. New studies show younger women prefer to work with male coaches and bosses. We need to educate them, and explain the implications for themselves and their futures. “When they see women helping each other, we’re going to see their numbers increase,” said Evans.

After her speeches, Evans wants the first question to be, “When are we going to have a woman president of the U.S.?” Her answer: “The day women decide they want one!” Her most difficult decision was at CNN. As chair of the program committee, she told a team of 14 men that she “hated” their new pilot on women, refusing to even help them fix it. “I claimed myself, not doing what I was expected to do, even though it opposed their opinion,” she said.

Evans said the most influential person in her life was her mother, who told her she could do anything and be anybody she wanted, and helped her to be okay with being herself. “Show up every day and play the game,” she said. “You’re good enough. If you don’t like the game, change it.”

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