Job Advancement

The Double-Bind Facing Aspirational Women | That’s A Good Question

elevator going up

When men put themselves out there they are rewarded for their assertiveness. But for women, they face a backlash, and are often labeled as aggressive, bossy or overbearing.

The double-bind facing women aspiring to advance is real — even in 2021. Today’s listener is a 20-something woman in a male-dominated industry and one of the youngest in her position. There are many open doors for advancement within the organization, but between her gender and age, she isn’t quite sure how to get noticed without becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of negative gender stereotypes.

In this episode of That’s a Good Question, we will explore how she can manage up, advocate effectively and gain visibility among senior management. Through active problem solving, practical advice and shared experiences, you will leave inspired, confident, and armed with tools to seize advancement opportunities without negatively impacting your reputation.


Guest Expert: Mary Beth Gracy

Mary Beth GracyMary Beth Gracy serves as the office managing director for Accenture Houston. In this role, she oversees Accenture’s efforts to expand business with clients in the Houston region and grow the firm’s impact in the community. She is also responsible for creating a strong work environment for Accenture’s 2,000 employees in the Houston market. In addition, she leads the Downstream Energy business where she focuses on bringing innovation to clients and shaping long-term strategies utilizing Accenture’s robust capabilities. After graduating from Rice University in 1990 with a BA in economics, Gracy joined Accenture (then Andersen Consulting). She is recognized as a committed professional who balances the strategic and pragmatic to achieve results. She has been instrumental in leading Accenture’s International Women’s Day events and in spearheading Accenture’s recruiting efforts at Rice University. Gracy was selected for Accenture’s CEO Circle in 2015, and was named one of Houston Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business in 2019. In addition to her responsibilities at Accenture, Gracy serves on the executive committee of the Greater Houston Partnership as well as the board of directors for Genesys Works Houston and the United Way of Greater Houston.

Our Host: Celeste Headlee

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Heard Mentality and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee


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Episode Transcript:

Celeste Headlee:

Natalie, tell us a little bit about what’s going on and where your question comes from.

Natalie:

Sure. I was recently promoted at work, and I’m one of the only women and one of the youngest people at my company. I have the benefit of working at a very flat organization where I have access to a lot of senior-level executives, but I’m just not really sure how to best get noticed, and how I can reach out to them and share my wins with them without being too overbearing.

Celeste Headlee:

Have you tried to share your wins and been rebuffed, or how has it gone before when you’ve tried this?

Natalie:

It’s almost that I have some self-doubt about approaching it in the first place and maybe overthinking about the best way to do that without coming off as annoying or, “Here she is again sharing more information,” that they might not have proactively reached out for. So it’s not at all that I’ve been shut down by anybody. I actually think they’d be open to it. I just don’t know the best way to do it.

Celeste Headlee:

So rather than responding to what’s happening in your workplace, do you think this fear kind of comes from articles that you’ve read or the stories that you’ve heard from other women?

Natalie:

I think so. And honestly, in my last place that I worked, I definitely struggled a lot more and didn’t have access to folks who were making influential decisions. And I was definitely pigeonholed for being a woman in my field that was in tech sales. I think for me, this is a new opportunity where I can kind of start fresh and present myself in a really positive light, and pave the way for the goals I have laid out for the next couple years. And I don’t want a repeat of what happened in the past.

Celeste Headlee:

Mary Beth, it sounds to me like Natalie is really sort of thinking ahead. I mean, it’s not so much that she has encountered some of these problems. Just that she seems to be aware that they could arise and she’s trying to prevent them from happening. What’s your first reaction to that?

Mary Beth:

I think the first thing that I would say is as she’s thinking ahead, and it sounds like she’s thinking about having visibility, getting feedback and coaching, and really managing her own career path, managing her own narrative, that what I’ve seen work well, not just with me, but seeing other people in my company and how they’ve managed things or sort of the frequent or routine kind of check-ins. So it doesn’t have to be I’m racing to you with this one thing that just happened as if you’re seeking out the spotlight. But more you’re there for coaching and feedback, and you want them to be aware of what’s going on. That’s kind of the first thing that comes to mind for me.

Celeste Headlee:

Natalie, how often, at this point, do you check in with not only your immediate supervisor, but the executives at the company?

Natalie:

Honestly, probably not as much as I should it be. I have informal check-ins with my direct manager daily, which are really helpful. And I think the piece where I have the opportunity to do more is with higher level senior exec, C-suite execs, that I have access to that I’ve never had access to in any other roles I’ve been in. And I’m not doing that on any sort of regular basis.

Celeste Headlee:

Do you have a mentor at the company?

Natalie:

Aside from my boss who’s an advocate for me, I wouldn’t say I have somebody I would consider a mentor.

Celeste Headlee:

Mary Beth, what are the best ways to go about finding the right mentor?

Mary Beth:

The philosophy that I’ve always had around mentors is it’s not about finding… Or it’s less about finding the one person that checks all the boxes that you have and might be the one perfect mentor, but about having mentors, having people that you can bounce ideas off of, ask for feedback, road test things, check your thinking with. And I’ve also ascribed the philosophy that we really need to learn from all the people around us, whether they are the same gender, a different gender, whether they are two levels above us, one level above us, our peers, or even the people on our teams. We have so much to learn from people around us.

Mary Beth:

And so I’ve always thought of it less as I have one person, one sponsor, or one advocate, and that they fit into that mold or box, and more about having a diverse group. I’ve heard this described as your sort of kitchen cabinet, who’s in your kitchen cabinet, having a lot of different kinds of people. And I think looking externally from the company is pretty important too, because then it isn’t so much about my career path here and our relationship on a day-to-day basis, but really can be about Natalie as an individual.

Celeste Headlee:

And Natalie, do you have connections outside of the business? Have you networked with people who are in other companies, but maybe even in other industries?

Natalie:

In terms of other industries, yes. I’m actually really involved in my community and I sit on a local nonprofit board in my hometown. That has been great exposure to folks who are in other industries, but I think I’m lacking a piece of connecting with folks who work in the same industries as me and may have similar experiences that I haven’t connected with yet. And I don’t have any groups that I’m a part of in that regard.

Celeste Headlee:

What about that, Mary Beth, in terms of creating networks? I mean, networking is a tough thing for a lot of people. It can be hard when you’re focused on your own work, to make time for it, to know which opportunities are valuable. I mean, besides the conferences for women, of course, and which aren’t. What kind of advice do you give to someone who wants to either create or strengthen that network?

Mary Beth:

Yeah, I think all of those challenges really resonate with me as well, particularly the amount of time that you might have to do it. I do think looking within industry, it is important. What organizations are there, where are people gathering? And sometimes this can happen not at a specific industry event, but yes, it’s something around women. We’re both going to this same event has nothing to do with the industry that I am in, but we just happen to be in the same industry and you develop kind of a friendship, “Let’s go have coffee.” And really that’s starting your network.

Mary Beth:

I think of networking as just developing nothing more than friends really, but friends that are in the context of having similar maybe career aspirations or career experiences. I’ve looked for professional organizations and I’ve looked in nonprofit organizations as well for building that network. I think it’s incredibly important to have people that are actually outside of your industry.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. I got to say, Natalie, I have the same approach to networking that it sounds like Mary Beth does. And I just basically assume I can always get coffee. I can always grab a sandwich and I’ll invite this person along. And I got to tell you, I have been amazed at how often someone, that I never would’ve thought I would interact with on a professional basis, has come through in the end, either with an idea, an innovation, recommended somebody for a job. I have been shocked at how often people in completely different industries have ended up having an impact on my professional life. So I echo what Mary Beth is saying is. Just go get your coffee, have the chat. I mean, it’s usually 35 minutes, 40 minutes. It doesn’t take a huge investment of time.

Celeste Headlee:

But I want to get to the discussion, especially about the difficulties, the specific difficulties women have in promoting themselves because it’s real. It’s not just a gut sense that you have. This is backed up by statistics. Women are less likely to get promoted overall. They’re less likely to be seen as a fit for management. They’re less likely to get credit for the work that they do. And when they do promote themselves or talk about their own accomplishments, they’re very often seen, and we know this through decades of study by both women and men, as unlikable, unfriendly, overly aggressive, and unfeminine. And I wonder, Mary Beth, if you have some ideas on how to get around that? I mean, some of it is unavoidable. It’s unconscious bias.

Mary Beth:

Right, yeah. There’s no real silver bullet, or one right way, or a wrong way. I do feel like when I’m trying to do the same thing, I am conscious of blunting the effect of I’m here to tell you how great I am by saying, “This is what the team I led did, so I’m putting myself in the picture. I was the leader, but it is my team.” I am advocating to go make the case, tell the story, be the champion, but you also can do that in a way that I think it seems less self promoting, but you are promoting yourself. You are talking about your role, what y’all achieved, saying you’re the leader. But I’m with Natalie’s gut, which is to sort of blunt that a little bit and not just walk in and let me tell you how great I am.

Celeste Headlee:

Natalie, do you find yourself having to cover or change the way you say something or what you say because you’re concerned about this?

Natalie:

I feel sometimes I’m not being as authentic as I could be because I’m so hyper, aware of being a woman in her 20s who’s sitting down at the table with a lot of male decision makers that are twice my age. And so when I sit down, a lot of times before I speak, I’m thinking, “How can I articulate this in a very specific way that makes me come off as mature and thoughtful?” And sometimes I think I lose a bit of my personality that gives me the edge, that people are so attracted to, the charisma. I feel like sometimes I’m more subdued than I would naturally be. And that’s solely because I want to come across as somebody who can be a trusted advisor to folks who are much older than me and seem like I know what I’m talking about.

Celeste Headlee:

I mean, just remember, keep in mind that you kind of have to work a little bit harder on this front. Again, I hate to fall back on statistics and research, but that’s kind of what I do. We know that when somebody thinks, “Okay, who would be great in this executive spot?” They’re almost always going to default to a male. And again, we’re talking about unconscious bias. We’re not talking about someone who’s like, “Oh, I want to hold back all the women in the world. Hahaha.” No, we’re talking about implicit bias that is just making them feel like number one.

Celeste Headlee:

It makes them more likely to notice when men achieve things. It makes more likely to give men credit when something goes well. And so to a certain extent, you have to find the way to be more vocal about these things without threatening their view of you as a female, because you will get penalized for that. Mary Beth is 100% right here, there’s no silver bullet for that. You have to find the way to present and talk about your accomplishments in a way that’s sort of matter of fact, where you’re updating people on your common purpose in bringing success for the company rather than tuning your own horn. And let me let you jump in here, Mary Beth.

Mary Beth:

The thing I would add to that is I think it’s a great idea to talk about your career aspirations, career expectations, where you’re interested in going. The more that you talk about yourself as a long-term player that does want to progress to the next level and the next level and have a big impact on the company, the more likely they are to now have you in that same bucket they were talking about, of people that should be considered for promotion or where my mind would naturally go.

Mary Beth:

That’s probably the difference between the situation women face and men is that I think we have to go tell people we want to be considered. That’s where we are wanting to go. We are doing these things because we want to achieve great things and progress. So I think that should be part of your conversations, not just what I’ve done, but also telling them what your aspiration is.

Celeste Headlee:

That’s a really great piece of advice there. Natalie, any questions or comments on that?

Natalie:

I think that’s very true and that if I share with folks more openly, that I envision myself here for a long time, which I do, that they’re more likely to invest resources and time into developing me as a leader in me and my role. So I think that’s definitely something that I should share with the powers that be on my end.

Celeste Headlee:

Let’s say that you’re in a meeting either with a client or within your organization. Do you get interrupted? Do other people take credit for your ideas?

Natalie:

I will say it’s more externally meeting with folks. I have been interrupted before, and I find that it takes a good chunk of the beginning of any meeting with a new client or a new prospect to earn their trust and support in that I know what I’m doing. I feel like I sit down and they see somebody who’s really young, “She hasn’t been doing this that long.” And I kind of have to say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this for four years. I have $20 million of sales under my belt. I’ve done 180 of these transactions. You’re in good hands. You can trust me. We’re going to get through this together.” But I feel like I have to spend the beginning of every meeting kind of asserting myself, and that doesn’t always feel great for me.

Celeste Headlee:

Is that what you say to them, what you just said to us?

Natalie:

Not that strongly because that seems, in my opinion, a little blunt. But I mean, those are the facts, so maybe it should be.

Celeste Headlee:

What do you think, Mary Beth?

Mary Beth:

Well, some of what I’ve done in those… Maybe not in those situations, but sort of in this area is sometimes use humor to sort of address it. Not head on, but address it, which is saying something about… You may say something about your youth age and then you’re getting in that, “This is everything that I’ve done. But don’t be worried because I’ve actually done this, this, and this.” So then you’re not saying it as, “I’m so great. Let me tell you all the great things.” But kind of, “Let me address the elephant in the room.” And, “Hey, don’t worry folks. I’ve got this.”

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. Natalie, what job do you have in mind? I mean, what is your goal when it comes to rising through the ranks?

Natalie:

My goal would be to eventually be one of the only woman in my organization. Well, not be the only woman. I’d love to have other women with me, but I would be the first woman in a position of leadership in a sales role. And that would be something where I would feel like I’ve made it, so that’s the track I’m on now and I’d love to be there five years from now. And that’s really what I’m working towards is getting up to that C-suite level sales position and be the first person in my company who’s a female who has done that.

Celeste Headlee:

And how many promotions away is that?

Natalie:

Well, because I work in such a flat organization between myself and the CEO, there’s really only three people. Not too far if I can ride this out.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. That’s not too bad. And have you thought about what you might do, should something go wrong at that organization? Let’s say that for whatever reason, you can’t stay with that company, do you have options?

Natalie:

I haven’t considered that. And I think one of the things Mary Beth said about networking outside of my company is something that I should consider, so that I have options. But something that I think about regardless of what company I end up is I’m getting to the age where a lot of my peers are starting families. I’m not there yet and that always makes me nervous. I feel like that’s a whole another conversation, but that always feels like something that could derail the plans that I have regardless of what company I end up at.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. So Mary Beth, that gets us into new territory, which is the sexist remarks of, “Are you coming back to work after you have the baby?” Or all of those questions that women get that men do not get. Any advice here?

Mary Beth:

And there’s also the flip side of that, which is assuming you aren’t going to come back when you may fully intend to.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Mary Beth:

I think, again, your friend here is bringing these topics up yourself, not waiting for what someone’s going to say to you or not say to you. In that, whether it’s getting married, having children, whatever it is. If you’re already having the conversation about what your aspirations are and you’re having that regularly, then it’s going to be easy to have the conversation, which says, “I’m going to take three months off and be back,” or whatever it is you want to communicate at that time. But I think this just all points back to it’s a great idea to be proactive on the career path, the career aspiration conversations, instead being reactive or responsive in the moment.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, absolutely. And Natalie, how is it going with your direct supervisor? Have you brought up any of these concerns with that person and what have they said?

Natalie:

She’s been a great advocate for me, so I think a lot of things that give me pause are self-imposed. I know my manager will advocate on my behalf if I share these things with her. It’s just how do I do it in a thoughtful way? And I think starting that conversation with what my long-term goals are is probably the first step, and I’m honestly a little embarrassed that I haven’t really done that yet.

Celeste Headlee:

I don’t think you have to be embarrassed. I mean, you’re kicking butt for a 20-year old. I mean, holy cow. I will say just a couple things based on research, which is when you are having these conversations, a couple things, make sure that you always touch in on that common purpose. Even it’s just a quick toss off, “I know we’re both on the same page. We both want to really see this company hit a billion dollars,” or whatever it may be. Always touch off there because when people feel that they’re on the same team, they’re much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and not interpret what you’re saying in a bad light.

Celeste Headlee:

And I would also say a couple of things that we know. Number one, try to have these sort of meetings in the morning. Even for night owls who don’t like getting up in the morning, we know that their brains actually work better before noon. So try for the morning time. And one other thing I would say is that when you’re having conversations in which you have to ask for something, or you’re protesting something, front load the conversation with the bad stuff. You can start off by shaking hands if that’s appropriate. Deals that begin with a handshake are way more likely to end and successfully. Remind them of a common purpose and then allow them to think about their best selves. You can ask them, “What’s the best thing you’ve done over the past week? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you?”

Celeste Headlee:

Anything like that will help put them in the frame of mind of thinking about themselves at their best, which is what you want. And then immediately get to the sort of negative thing you want to say, and then continue the conversation. A lot of times, we don’t want to say the bad stuff, and so we hold off until the end. But the things that you say at the end are the ones that are most likely to remember, so try to make that a positive thing. Mary Beth, anything else to add here in terms of how to deliver these messages?

Mary Beth:

Well, I think I picked up a few things as you were talking actually less than that I haven’t done this purposely, and I can see how that’ll be really, really helpful. I think, Natalie, who wouldn’t want somebody to come to them and say, “I really want to be part of making this company great and be here a long time.” So don’t feel like that is putting yourself out there and aggressive. As somebody who supervises lots of people and has lots of people reporting to her, everybody welcomes hearing that from somebody who’s accomplished, and motivated, and enthusiastic about that on purpose. So really, I’m echoing everything that Celeste said.

Celeste Headlee:

I feel like we’re kind of echoing each other. And remember Natalie, that you can always approach these conversations as you solving a problem for them. “Hey, I’ve noticed that we may be missing an opportunity here. Can I get 15 minutes to tell you how we might improve this one thing?” And if you’re bringing them in on that, if you’re working together on something and you’re bringing someone on a solution instead of a problem, executives love that. They really like that. Any other questions for Mary Beth while she’s allowing us to sit here and pick her brain?

Natalie:

No, it sounds like I have my work cut out for me. I’m ready to go.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, absolutely. Any last thoughts, Mary Beth?

Mary Beth:

Well, just something that I heard recently that I haven’t been as good about doing, but I thought was a great tip, was keeping track of what your wins are, what your good stories are, not because you’re going to go march into somebody’s office and go rattle them off. But honestly, when you’re preparing that elevator pitch for yourself, sometimes it’s kind of hard to remember what are all those things? So in the moment, kind of keeping that real time list for the point when you are wanting to give your elevator pitch to the new person that you’re meeting at the networking event that we were talking about, or when you’re having coffee with them. I think that’s another great tip that I need to start incorporating.

Celeste Headlee:

Oh, yeah. Natalie, that is such good advice. It’s really hard once you actually get down to saying, “Oh, I need to make this pitch or I need to apply for this promotion.” It’s really common to not be able to remember all the great stuff that you’ve done. So if before you are done with your work for the day, just jot down what you’ve done. You can even keep track of the things that have not gone as well, because those can be examples of things that you’ve learned from, and that have allowed you to evolve and improve.

Celeste Headlee:

And make sure you’re keeping a folder that’s full of all your praise. Every time an email comes in from a client, every time somebody calls you on the phone and says something really great, keep track of that. Not only so that you can include it in these interviews that you have with people, but also so you can look through it on your bad days. On the days when you’re feeling down, you can go back through that praise and it will lift you up.

Natalie:

Yeah, I love that. I think that’s something I need to start doing. Especially as reviews come up, I feel like going into the conversation, having concrete things I can point to, and praise from clients is just going to elevate my asks.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much to both of you. I really appreciate your time and all of your wisdom.

Natalie:

Thanks, Celeste. Thanks, Mary Beth.

Mary Beth:

Thank you. It was a great conversation. I enjoyed it.

 
Themes: Job Advancement, Podcasts, Women Amplified: A Podcast from the Conferences for Women Tagged: , |
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