How do we as professional women gain the confidence necessary to speak up for ourselves in the workplace? What is the best way to break down staid gender attitudes and assert oneself as a business leader? How do we balance being the “perfect” woman who does it all with being happy and effective?
These are just a few of the questions I discussed with a group of talented women when I spoke to Microsoft’s women’s network on Friday. When I first entered the modern, spacious offices— which are now under construction to create a more decentralized, open workspace where all levels and departments sit together with no fixed desks and no “corner office”— I was greeted with a mother on maternity leave and her baby excitedly waiting for my speech. I knew then, it was going to be a great afternoon.
The group ranged from women in their 20s to their 60s, which lent to a rich breadth of personal stories describing the challenges for women 30 years ago compared to the challenges of today and how to overcome them.
One senior level manager described trying to be the perfect mother, wife, hostess and professional which eventually exhausted her and caused her to become profoundly ill. Finally, she realized perfection is impossible.
While another young women described her first meeting as a project leader: It was 13 people, 12 men and her. Of course everyone assumed she was an intern or secretary so they all presented before her without asking her if she had anything to say. When the 12 were finished they opened their iP
hones and tuned out. Then she stood up, asserted that she was the project manager and their superior, and they better listen up. That got their attention, she said.
The assertive and confident nature of Millennial women—those born after 1980— like the one I mention here, gives me so much hope that the young generation will force the workplace to change. This is the first generation to boldly assert that they refuse to just be someone’s wife. Millennials want to be mothers but want that identifying quality to be one of many comprising a multidimensional identity of woman, professional and social influencer.
The key to cultivating young women is mentorship and role models. Private companies like Microsoft are leading the way in this through programs like “Digigirlz”, which creates a summer camp at Microsoft’s offices for girls graduating grade school to promote their interests in IT and science. Microsoft also allows for very flexible work hours to aid both men and women in achieving work-life balance.
The generous and well-organized system of childcare and maternity care in Sweden coupled with the values of openness, diversity and mentorship that American companies bring is a great combination for empowering women, according to one of Microsoft’s senior managers.
As a conclusion, I shared with the group a few things I found to be helpful to me as a young woman. The first is to proactively seek out mentors. Many young women work hard and hope that a senior female will notice them and begin to mentor them, but actually I have found it is the other way around. Second, don’t be afraid to embrace women’s issues and be vocal about promoting women. Finally, always speak up. How many times have you had a great idea that you were afraid to bring up in a staff meeting? Or more importantly, why are women so scared to ask for a promotion or pay raise?
I think ultimately we all need to stop worrying who is judging us in the boardroom or as a mother, who does or does not like us and just go for it and maximize our potential because women have a great deal to offer the world.