I came across a quote recently that struck a chord with me about the attitude to women at work. Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank, said business women are treated like “boiled eggs” by male colleagues:
They are either too hard or too soft, but never quite right.
At the Salesforce Trailblazing Women Summit this week, a group of senior technology saleswomen came together to try and unpick some of these issues facing women, and offer their own advice on getting ahead in what is still a male-dominated environment.
First up was the notion of women being able to have it all – a myth that was swiftly dispelled by the panel. LaShonda Anderson-Williams, EVP and CRO for Healthcare and Life Sciences at Salesforce, explained:
Having it all is a fallacy. If you try to put the pressure on yourself to have it all, to have the right car, the right house, the right brands, you're going to overwhelm yourself.
You can have it all, just not at the same time.
When she started out in her career at IBM, Anderson-Williams’ plan was indeed to have it all, working her way up to become CEO. However, a conversation with a female executive changed her mind. She shared what her life was - planes, trains, automobiles; never seeing her kids; stressed out:
I realized, is that what it takes? So before you aspire to be that, educate yourself and make yourself aware of the trade-offs you're willing to make, and at different points you may decide differently.
Anderson-Williams said there is no way she would have been able to live the life she has now when her three children were growing up – her youngest is now 16 years old:
I would have had to trade off being the mother I wanted to be, the wife I wanted to be, being me.
Instead, she made the time to take her kids to lunch and birthday parties, and to play a part in her parents' life:
But it comes at a cost, because the time I spend with them means I'm not doing something else. This idea of having it all in sales with the flexibility is helpful, but it's not real.
Rather than striving to have it all, Anderson-Williams’ advice to working women is to focus on having different things that matter at different points in your life.
The outworking challenge
For Hilary Headlee, Head of Global Sales Operations & Enablement at Zoom, climbing the career ladder entailed “outworking” people, something she was able to do as she didn’t have children until she was 35:
I just worked really hard, 70 or 80-hour weeks. I did the work of two people and was recognized for that and promoted. When I had kids, I realized I really needed to backpedal on that, to change my scope from 70-80 to 40-50 hours a week.
Headlee shared the one thing she would have done differently in her career - realizing you don't actually need to have children or a family to stop working so much:
I wish I would have given myself that at 25, to travel and see my parents or my grandparents at the time. I just worked. I wish I would have realized that sooner, and started to scope in what I needed to do, because you don't need to have kids to slow down. You can have your own life.
One of the main obstacles women face in technology and sales is a lack of representation at more senior levels, something that initially proved a challenge for Kim Smith, VP, US West Region Technology Sales at IBM.
When Smith, who has now worked in sales for 28 years, became a line manager, her first role was managing 13 white men:
Now that we're more aware and we know terms, I know what I had - imposter syndrome. You're thinking all of a sudden that you can't do the job.
It's so important to have representation, to see yourself and others in management positions. When you can't see yourself and you're getting hard questions thrown at you - remember I'm a new manager and I'm managing legacy, senior men - that's so hard.
Smith resolved the situation by doing a lot of self-help, reading a lot of books, and having a lot of conversations with mentors and coaches. It was also important to get some success and experience in the role, which led to a confidence boost and change in self-belief.
However, as she progressed in sales, Smith hit a wall because she felt overwhelmed.
In the black culture, most of us are taught to run faster, be smarter, go harder, because we start off not from the same vantage point. I was overcompensating for everything, I was doing everything I could to be number one and I was burning myself out.
Smith's lightbulb moment came at a women's summit, where a very successful sales executive was discussing calendaring and how to not get overwhelmed. This involved accepting you cannot get everything on your to-do list done in one calendar day, so instead you do your best - if you have 20 things on that list and you get five done, that’s a great day:
Once I heard that, it spoke volumes to my soul. The next day I woke up, I checked my list, I was able to close my laptop and walk away, I didn't sleep with my pager. I went to sleep and I let it go. I realized that I can't do everything and be everybody, but I'm going to be the best Kim I could.
Another ongoing issue the panel discussed is the perception that women are not suited to leadership roles. This relates back to Boden’s ‘boiled egg’ reference - women are viewed as either too aggressive/bossy or too nurturing/emotional. Research from The No Club, also reveals that the average woman in business spends about 200 more hours a year on non-promotable work – cleaning cups after a meeting, mentoring the new starter, organizing the office birthday party - than men.
Women themselves can help dispel this perception by their actions in the workplace, according to Salesforce's Anderson-Williams. She shared an example from a recent call she was on with some young women, and one of them offered to take notes:
I said, 'You absolutely will not. As women, we're not the note-takers, we're not the coffee getters, we're not the table fixers, we're not the party planners - we're leaders!'.
It was not because she saw less in herself, but she just thought, you're the senior leader. No, it doesn't work that way. We all have technology. There's a record button on Zoom, so don't volunteer.
Sometimes we put ourselves back in that box. Get out of the box!