Magazine article Working Mother

The Way We Work

Magazine article Working Mother

The Way We Work

Article excerpt

Nearing the close of a particularly challenging fourth quarter, Kim Nelson's snacks division at General Mills appeared unlikely to hit its year-end profit target. Her response was succinct- "It ain't over till the fat lady sings!"- and she meant every word. After the division reached its goal, Kim called a meeting to celebrate and donned a rented opera singer's outfit, complete with horns and big yellow "Helga" braids, and literally belted out a high note of praise.

Can you imagine a man pulling a stunt like that? It's certainly not a tactic recommended in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. But for Minneapolis-based Kim, now senior vice president of external relations and president of the General Mills Foundation (and a mom of two girls, 14 and 12), her Helga impression demonstrated how truly comfortable she feels in her own professional skin-and how viewing her unique style and traits as assets rather than liabilities has helped support her quest for professional success.

Embracing a more authentic leadership style is a powerful way to respond to some of the major pitfalls that continue to hamper many modern professional women. Four common types of bias that still exist, whether due to outright sexism or, more commonly, the insidious unconscious beliefs many still hold about what roles women want and will excel in, are identified in What Works for Women at Work, a new book by well-known work life scholar Joan C. Williams and her daughter, Rachel Dempsey.

"Workplace politics, quite simply, are different for women than for menand more challenging for women," says Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "Many times the strategies that women use to solve one problem create another problem. Women 'lean in' and all of a sudden, they're witches."

While there are ways to break the spell of bias, Williams and Dempsey realize that not every solution is right every time. The pair interviewed more than 125 professional women to generate a range of real-life responses to bias, "from low risk to true moxie," since the right strategy often depends on your role in the organization, stage of career, personality and professional style.

The first step, say Williams and Dempsey, is to understand the most common forms of gender bias, which they've identified based on 35 years of social science research:

The Tightrope Professional women are seen either as too assertive or too weak-and in response, must try to balance between the two.

Prove It Again Women are held to a higher standard than men and must continually prove themselves. Women are promoted on performance, while men are promoted on potential.

Maternal Wall Women are expected to lose focus on their careers when they have kids.

Tug-of-war Women sometimes judge each other more harshly than men do.

Walk the Tightrope

Who hasn't been here before? You walk into a large conference room quickly filling up with male managers and take a seat far from the boss, stacking your belongings in front of you. "I was in my little area with my binder and my pen, and the men were spread out," recalls Diane Sullivan, vice president of managed markets in AstraZeneca's Wilmington, DE, office and mom of Gillian, 15, and Reed, 13. It's an approach that telegraphed to her peers that she didn't feel on par. Indeed, a leadership coach advised her to take up more "real estate" at meeting tables. "It took a deliberate effort, but it didn't take long to realize this approach makes you more like everybody else," she says now.

The other side of this strategy: Research finds that women who adopt an entirely masculine style in the workplace are seen as competent but unlikable, which blocks advancement. Instead, say Williams and Dempsey, successful women find a way to balance the feminine with the masculine. To that end, they suggest deflecting the office tasks, committee work and mentoring that tend to be shunted to women, while claiming the profit-and-loss-oriented assignments that drive careers forward. …

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