Female executives discuss headwinds they have navigated over the years, and advice they would offer other women about succeeding at work.
President, Quirky, a product development company
How do you answer the question of whether women lead differently than men?
I think women by their nature have better instincts and better intuition.
I also think women are better at team dynamics, because they don't have to be the alpha all the time. There's a whole set of soft skills with people dynamics, and women have a really good sense of how to get people to cooperate and work together.
Whereas with men ... ?
I've worked with plenty of truly collaborative men, but I've also encountered those who weren't, and in those instances, they tended to take on an alpha-male dynamic. That's where you see the jockeying. I find that if men feel they can't be the alpha, that's when the fist-pounding and the chest-thumping and all sorts of stuff happens. You can watch it escalate so that people get their way, and that's a form of bullying. A lot of that goes on in the workplace today.
Other thoughts on why things don't seem to change?
Girls are taught to be cooperative more than boys. I don't think girls get the tools they need in school to get that self-assuredness. In high school, girls want to be part of the tribe, so they're not stepping out of line. The boys are often the jocks, with much more bravado.
We still don't encourage girls to speak up, to use their voice, to use their instinct, to not be afraid, and teach them how to combat the bullying. How do you trust your inner soul? We don't address that at all in school. You have to believe in yourself, but I think many women don't. And you watch some men just take advantage of that.
Group president of the Animal Planet, Science and Velocity networks
Any patterns you've seen in the workplace that suggest differences between how men and women handle certain situations?
I've seen both men and women who are uncomfortable with conflict, but I think it's particularly true of women. It can be a challenge for women in a work environment because sometimes you don't agree. Sometimes people behave in a way that makes you uncomfortable. You have to review people, and that's challenging if you don't like conflict. I've seen circumstances where the kind of feedback that a woman will give is quite different than the feedback the man understands. I've had circumstances myself where I've felt like I was being very clear about what I expected, and then I suddenly realized, wait a minute, this guy is not getting what I'm saying.
Why do you think that is?
Gender stereotypes are always challenging, but I do think that in general women are more "other focused." That's a real value in business, and without a doubt it's been one of the reasons for the success we've had. Certainly I am other-focused. I'm very attuned to body language and getting what people are saying even when it's not verbalized. The flip side is that you often have to be really direct with guys — if you're not saying it to them, they're not hearing it.
Management is the hardest job. Everybody, myself included, needs coaching on managing. Again, I'm generalizing, but because women are thoughtful about people, sometimes the process of managing and providing constructive feedback becomes very lengthy. There's lots of conversation about who the person is as a person and what's really troubling them. While that can be helpful sometimes, at other times it's useful to just be clear — this is the expectation, this is a job, and here's what you need to be able to do.
Executive vice president and general counsel; business unit lead, consumer health care, Pfizer
What are some patterns you've noticed over the years about women at work, and things they could be doing better to advance their careers?
One thing that happens at work is that women tend to hoard favors as if they were airline miles — you know, the hundreds of thousands of airplane miles that we're saving for when we really need them. But "when we really need them" may never come.
There's a parallel at work. You need to spend political capital — be unafraid to introduce people, compliment somebody when it's deserved and stand up for something you really believe in, rather than just go with the flow. I don't mean being a perennial troublemaker, but it's about having conviction and courage. Spend that political capital you earn by being intellectually credible, by being a fighter for the people on your team when appropriate, and by arguing for principles that matter. Those are qualities that give you credit.
You spent two decades working in law firms before you joined Pfizer. Any observations about the challenges women face that are specific to law firms?
In my early years as a young lawyer, much of what you're doing falls into the model of traditional female success, which is the "dutiful daughter" and it means essentially "the good girl behind the scenes" — you're not transgressing the roles that are expected of you. A good law associate is organized, methodical, writes things that other people sign, prepares draft arguments that other people deliver and is in a kind of perpetual apprenticeship role.
That's often why law firms and other institutions say, "Gee, we have all these great women in the pipeline," but then they don't become partner. Part of that is about whether the women themselves are able to gracefully transition from being the dutiful daughter to a partner.
Founder and president, Carol's Daughter
People often wonder about the differences between how men and women lead. What are your thoughts on that?
I have seen a difference, from having male bosses and female bosses, and then running a company and having male and female executives. What I find interesting is that it's not across the board, as in, men are this way and women are that way. I've had women who can be very curt — "This is how we're going to do it."
And then I've seen men who can be very nurturing. So I've seen both sides of it.
What I have noticed is that men can have a real serious debate about something and sound like they're just going at it, and you think they're going to walk out of the room angry at each other. And they go get a sandwich, and they're fine. They don't take it to heart. Women don't do that. If we're going at it, there might not be conversation for a couple of days, until the dust settles.
Anything else you've noticed in terms of the difference between men and women at work?
One of the mistakes I've definitely seen women make is crying. And I'm an emotional person. However, when you're speaking to your boss or your manager about an issue, and you're feeling overwhelmed, crying is not a good thing to do, because you don't necessarily know how it's being perceived by the person to whom you're speaking. I know from personal experience that the stigma never goes away. And you are enforcing a stereotype, unfortunately, that women are weak, and they're not as tough as men.