presentation tipsAs the founder and owner of Duarte, Inc., I never had to worry about a glass ceiling because I got to set my own ceiling height. I can’t control every experience — the women on my staff may have felt gender bias from clients or vendors — but I’ve worked hard to maintain equality within the firm.

In my journey to success as a female in the Silicon Valley, I never cared for the “support my company because I’m a female” mindset. I don’t want clients to use my service because of my gender; I want them to hire my firm because we do great work. Because I can control my own work environment, I never had much exposure to women who had suffered from a reality very different than mine.

I dove into Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, assuming it would validate what I was doing, so I could scratch, “Build a workplace that gives opportunities to women,” off of my to-do list. I was confident that I had built a firm where the women are empowered to “lean in.” I purchased Lean In for everyone on my staff that wanted a copy. Almost as many men as women requested the book.

A month after the books arrived, I hosted a Lean In book club at my company. Out of 120 employees, 25 joined, and 3 of them were men. Several of the more experienced women launched into personal tales of oppression, harassment, and lost opportunity that happened at other companies due to their gender. The stories were riveting and insights palpable.

Here’s a quote from the discussion that particularly resonated with me: “We must advocate for ourselves and stop expecting management to hand us rewards. Women think that by working hard, they’ll rise to the top, but men understand that you must ask for what you want. Therefore, women should speak up about what they want and where they want to grow.”

After reading the book and listening to the book club conversation, it dawned on me that I spend a lot of time facing outside the organization. My calendar is filled with phone calls, speaking engagements, and meetings with clients. Reading Sandberg’s book, I realized that I wanted to spend more time with people inside my organization. I was determined to spend more time with my high-potential female employees, collecting feedback on their direction and how to make the organization stronger.

At our weekly all-staff meeting, I announced that, because of reading Lean In, I wanted to formalize mentoring my staff. “I’ll mentor anyone that asks. All you have to do is e-mail me.” I got three requests for mentorship. All were from guys.

Why weren’t the women advocating for themselves like they said they wanted to in the book club?

I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I identified high-potential women in my organization and have begun meeting with them. I want to get feedback on the organization and hear what they love to do and how they want to grow.

To continue the conversation, here’s what I plan to do:

  • Meet with high-potential women. Check in to see if they enjoy what they are doing, confirm that their next career steps are clear, and open the door for them to chat with others who can help with career questions or roadblocks.
  • Build a team of internal advisors. Connect the younger professionals with women who’ve walked the executive road less travelled. Assign advisors who can encourage the women to speak up and participate.
  • Create an open atmosphere. Continue to facilitate group conversations around this topic. Brainstorm how to create programs that will help gracefully transition women in — or out — of the workforce during childbearing years.

Yes, that last bullet said “transition women out of the workforce.” Out? Yes, not all women want to move into positions of influence. Several women from my firm have decided to stay home after having children. Others have chosen to come back part-time. My own sister-in-law is a lawyer who works part-time as an office manager so she can “lean OUT” while her son is young. Leaning out is great, too, as long as the decision is made by choice and not because the employer lacks interesting opportunities for women. I want to help the women on my staff feel comfortable, whether that means leaning in or out.

As leaders, we play an influential role in the career trajectory of employees in the workplace. In the end, it is up to the employee – they must step up and do the work— but we have the opportunity to create an atmosphere where everybody feels empowered to lean in.

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