How Remarkable Women Lead: Some Reflections

A former classmate of mine invited me to a presentation last Friday morning. The presenter was Joanna Barsh, author of How Remarkable Women Lead, and it was sponsored by the NYC Commission on Women’s Issues (which I hadn’t heard of before receiving the invitation).

It was a really wonderful presentation, and it was empowering to be in a room with so many professional women on International Women’s Day (which I also didn’t remember until it was mentioned that morning. Oops). Barsh was a wealth of information and anecdotes from the hundreds of executive women she interviewed for her book; she made some great points not only about the obstacles facing women in the workplace, but the obstacles that women themselves put in their own way.

One exercise in particular brought this point home, and I wanted to share it. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is below. Of course, all credit goes to Joanna Barsh.

The scenario: Mayor Bloomberg (insert local authority figure here) has hired you for a major project. After spending six months (nights and weekends included!) putting together a solid proposal, you are scheduled to meet with some powerful city executives to present your proposal for two hours.

You arrive, and are told to sit at one end of a long boardroom table. Bloomberg is sitting on the other end, and as the minutes pass, said executives file in and sit in between.

When the time comes to begin your presentation, no sooner do you open your mouth than each of these executives begin peppering you with questions. Question upon question upon question, they hit you without relent, before you can even present the work you have done. After about half an hour of this, Bloomberg stops making eye contact and starts looking at his paperwork and phone. Shortly after you notice this, he gets up and leaves without a word.

What is your gut reaction?

Barsh asked us to discuss this with the people we were sitting near, and when we reconvened, she asked for our reactions. People expressed that they felt like crawling into a hole and dying, that they had a pit in their stomach, and that they didn’t think they’d be able to focus on the presentation after that. One person, however, said something different: she said that since she was confident in her work, perhaps Bloomberg felt she had it under control and that there wasn’t anything to worry about.

That is what we need to focus on. As women, we are more likely to jump to the worst case scenario rather than honestly assess the situation. When we are called into our boss’ office, we are more likely to get worried than to assume we are being thanked for a job well done.

But we can change this way of thinking, it just requires us to refocus:

  • Separate fact from fiction. The only fact in this scenario was that the mayor left the room. Any reason for his action (legitimate or otherwise) is pure speculation.
  • Take a few deep breaths and feel the solid ground beneath your feet. You haven’t fallen into a pit of despair, you haven’t died, you haven’t actually gotten sick all over the boardroom table.
  • Reaffirm. You were chosen for a reason, you are prepared, you have the information you need to tackle the questions being asked (or any other obstacle).

We don’t have to jump to the worst conclusion. Women face a lot of difficulties in their road to equal pay and equal recognition in the workforce, they don’t need their own always-the-worst-case behavior getting in their way too.

Barsh had a lot of other great points about other topics (trust in the workplace, etc), that I may save for a later time if anyone is interested. As someone looking to get to the very top of my profession and education, it was inspiring to listen to a woman who has accomplished so much, and has been able to have a family and a fulfilling life on top of it all.

Also, if you live in NYC and are interested in the Commission on Women’s Issues, you can find their website here. They have a bunch of events on their calendar, and you can sign up for their newsletter for updates.

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