I came from a time period where women thought they had to act like men, talk like men, and even dress in a more masculine fashion, in order to blend into a male-dominated environment and get a seat at the table. I have witnessed the change in norms and a movement towards gender equality, and this progress has largely been for the better.
Having spent the past 37 years in a professional career, I am heartened to say that women have had many more opportunities to succeed in leadership positions and are getting much more comfortable being themselves, as opposed to trying to “blend in” to a male environment.
While I was a senior in college, I had my first interview – it was for a junior accountant position in a CPA firm. I was already working as a bookkeeper during school, so I had a pretty good foundation for getting to the next level and an advantage over students without any business experience. I remember walking into the room, as confident as a 21 year old student could possibly be. However, within the first 5 minutes of the interview, a partner at the firm told me that they did not hire women accountants because they had clients in bad neighborhoods and did not want to send females out to do field work. He did say that they were in need of a “gal Friday” and thought I might be interested in that position as well. For those of you who do not know what a gal Friday is, it is a “faithful female assistant.” The term is a play on the phrase “man Friday” – a name for a devoted male servant, or assistant. As appalled and insulted as I was, I thanked him for the opportunity but declined the position. All I could think about as I left the interview was that I went to four years of college to be an accountant and this is what I am being offered, solely because I was a woman.
37 years later, not only is the term “gal Friday” no longer being used, but a growing number of companies are seeking out woman professionals to work and grow within their companies. Diversity has become a key initiative for many businesses, while recruiting and retention has developed into change in policies and procedures to adapt to the modern essentials of success. Have we finally achieved equality? Of course not. What we have accomplished, however, is creating opportunities and providing tools to open doors for women to advance their own path, at a pace that fits their life choices.
A look at the statistics in this chart is showing great strides for women, but there is also more that can be done to increase some of these numbers and accelerate the speed of progress. Women need to seek out mentors, role models, and sponsors. They need to hear the stories of how others have succeeded and also create opportunities to discuss their challenges with other women. Women also need to ‘take the wheel’ – to take charge of their career and establish a career plan that works for them in the context of their individual life. Ultimately, as long as the door is opened, the responsibility falls on us to walk through.
During the 37 years of my career, I made decisions that worked for me; I had patience, and I understood that business must continue even while I am focused on other things. I also did not compare myself to anyone else. I knew my choices would impact my career, but I took ownership of my choices. Even though I know I was fortunate to work with supportive people, I believe that all choices come with uncertain outcomes, and that the onus was on me to push through those doors. We do not have to “blend in” and be like men. We need to “shine” and use our unique value to our advantage.