How the World of Work Is Changing--and Why That’s Good News for Women
Ask for the raise. Negotiate like a man, but not too much like a man. Be helpful in the office, but don’t become the work wife. But do find a work husband. Use silence as a tool. Speak up. But don’t up-speak. Lower your voice to be really heard. Develop the all-important gravitas. Be forceful, but not too forceful, or you won’t be likable. Dress like your boss.
The advice out there for women in the workplace is dizzying, and I haven’t even gotten to the whole work-life balance debate: We can have it all! Oh no, wait, we can’t? Well, maybe we can, but only if we don’t expect to have it all at once . . . or if we marry just the right person . . . or if we have our kids early . . . or later . . . but not too late. . . .
It all boils down to the same advice: “Change.” And even “Act more like . . . you know . . . a man.”
It can’t be denied that, to quote the great Loretta Lynn, we’ve come a long way, baby. I’m proof positive of that. In my grandmothers’--and even my mother’s--generation, a woman like me at the senior levels of Wall Street, the ultimate boys’ club, holding top jobs at some of the biggest financial firms on the planet, and now founding my own digital investment start‑up, Ellevest, would have been unheard of.
But here’s the thing. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I didn’t do it by following the old rules. I didn’t do it by trying to “act like a man,” or “beat them at their own game.” I didn’t do it “in spite of” being a woman.
With hindsight I can see that I did it because I’m a woman, because I embraced and invested in the powerful and unique strengths that, research shows, can make women valuable employees, terrific team players, and effective leaders. And because I brought those qualities--unabashedly and unapologetically--to work.
Did I encounter my share of sexism along the way? You know it, and you’ll read some of these harrowing stories in this book. (For example, in the early days of my career, every day began with me finding a photocopy of a penis on my desk. Every day. Bright side: I managed to keep in shape by using the stairs to do all of my copying on a different floor.)
And was my career a straight line? Absolutely not. I’ll talk about how holding true to those same qualities meant that I also had some real--and public--career setbacks, but I’ll also talk about how those same qualities helped me bounce back from them, and even move my career further forward in the process.
Has my success as a woman in a man’s world been, in many ways, the exception rather than the rule? You can bet your bottom dollar on that, too. When I worked on senior management teams on Wall Street, there was rarely a time when I wasn’t the only woman--or one of only a couple of women--in the room. Still today, just 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women,1 and women make up less than 19 percent of the members of corporate boards.2 There are literally more men named John, Robert, William, or James on corporate boards than there are women.3 And when women do move into senior business roles, it’s still so rare--so utterly astounding--that it garners press attention, always with the tired, but inevitable, questions about work-life balance, how does she do it . . . and, too often, the even more insulting question of what is she wearing while she’s doing it.
What’s more, we women still earn just 78 cents on men’s dollar--52–64 cents if we are women of color.4 At this rate, we won’t reach gender pay parity until 2133.5 Professional women overwhelmingly report that gender discrimination still exists at their companies: some 63 percent say it is subtle and 26 percent say it’s overt.6 And after all of our hard work, we women do not invest our earnings into the markets to the same extent men do; depending on our income, this can cost us literally hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars over the course of our lifetimes. All of this can leave us financially dependent--on men.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But some things are still a little 1958.
If our economy were humming along, we might sigh and dismiss all this as a “feminist issue.” But we don’t have the luxury of throwing up our hands and declaring it something for the Gloria Steinems of the next generations to sort out. The fact is that the gender gap in business and in investing has coincided with chronic underemployment, sluggish economic growth, the retirement savings crisis, growing income inequality, and fear for the future of the middle class.
But this is all ripe for change, and that change can come fast.
I would go so far as to say that we are at a major turning point in the role of women at work. The role of women is on the brink of change because the world of business is on the brink of change--the kind of change, as you’ll read in the pages ahead, that gives us more power in the workforce than ever.
So what is driving this change? And why can it happen now?
I believe there are four key catalysts.
1. The Increasing Recognition of What We Women Bring to the Party
For years, as I said earlier, I sort of fought the idea that women are “different” from men. . . . Hey, we’re all just people, and each of us is unique. I always resisted the notion that either gender--men or women--might possess inherent qualities that made it inherently “different” or “better” at business than the other. But as a “recovering research analyst,” I always try to let the research speak to me, and when I began to drill down on these issues, what I found surprised me. The research shows that women do bring “different” traits to the office that are good for business. Okay, even great for business. Among them: advanced risk awareness; a holistic perspective and ability to juggle complexity and multitask; long-term thinking; a focus on relationships and team building; a love of lifelong learning; and acute awareness of meaning, purpose, and social impact.
We’ll spend time on each of these traits in Chapter 2, where we’ll talk about the evidence showing how these traits can make us, to put it bluntly, pretty awesome: awesome leaders, awesome team members, and awesome employees. And why that in turn means that more women, and particularly more women in leadership positions, make those more diverse companies more innovative, more profitable, and better places to work.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Study after study shows that the companies with greater gender diversity outperform others on many measures. These include: Improved financial performance, in some cases dramatically better performance, with higher returns on investment, lower risk, narrower gender pay gaps, greater long-term focus, and lower cost of borrowing.7 Better customer service and better public image.8 Increased ability to attract the best talent.9 More creative and effective decision making. The power of diversity is so great that more diverse teams outperform “smarter” ones.10 (Okay, wow.)
Benefits also include: Higher worker engagement and better morale.11 (This is a biggie.) Increased innovation.12 (Yes, you read that correctly.) Better stockholder returns.13 (You read that one correctly, too. And that’s not just true over time, but is recognized pretty quickly by the market.) And if your company is a start‑up, the benefits of diversity exist there, too. Again, not by a little: one source reports 63 percent better investment performance from companies with a female founder.14
The research is loud and clear: a company with women in leadership positions is healthier on every level, and can bring out the best in everyone.
The fact that this research exists in the first place is a sign of the growing recognition of the power of women in the workplace and in the economy and reflects an emerging understanding of the qualities we women bring to the party. It’s evidence that the view that closing the gender gaps at work can be good for everybody (not just women themselves) is beginning to take hold.
So this is good.
But is this recognition enough to drive real change? Is it enough to convince those already in power to work to toss aside whatever gender stereotypes or misconceptions they adhere to (you know, such as that women aren’t “tough enough” to succeed in the cutthroat, high-rung world of business, or are “too emotional” to make strong leaders)? Is it enough to persuade them to further open the doors for people who are not a lot like them? Is it enough to convince the boss to promote Susie instead of Jimmy (even though Jimmy reminds him so darn much of himself when he was younger . . .) in pursuit of the positive ripple effects of diversity?
But also maybe not.
And it may not matter. Because here’s what else is different going forward.
2. The Business World Is Rapidly Changing . . . and So Are the Drivers of Success--in a Way That Makes the Skills We Women Bring to the Workplace More Valuable than Ever
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that technology is fundamentally changing the workplace as we know it.
Remember when gathering information was costly and took forever? Remember when the only ways to engage with the customer at scale were through magazines, newspapers, and broadcast TV? Remember when you could dictate to the customer, and they had no way to talk back?
Well, all of that has changed, and the pace of further change is only increasing. Success at work now is less about having and hoarding information and more about the ability to analyze and synthesize that information with acuity. It’s less about simply building the best product and hoping for the money to follow and more about building the kinds of relationships with customers that sustain profits over the long term. Business is more complex, and so it requires the ability to make and understand connections, the ability to see the forest through the trees.
The ability to see problems holistically, emotional intelligence, communication--things we females can be awfully good at--thus matter more every day. So the workplace is changing in ways that, research shows, play to women’s innate skills. And in turn the more that we invest in these skills--skills like empathy, love of learning, and acute awareness of purpose--the better positioned we can be to succeed.
But that’s not all.
3. Technology Is Also Increasing Our Career Options . . . and Thus Increasing Our Power
When I ran Merrill Lynch, we had in place an investment platform (the most whiz-bang, the most advanced one in the industry) that cost more than $1 billion to build.
Today I run Ellevest. We have built an investment platform that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Merrill’s, and uses as much third-party software as possible as its building blocks, but accomplishes the same fundamental functions--at a tiny fraction of what Merrill spent to put its platform in place. Teeny tiny.
This is but one example of how, thanks to technology, all kinds of barriers to starting businesses are coming down--and fast. As recently as five years ago, if you wanted to start a business, you had to rent long-term office space, buy expensive servers, hire coders and programmers, figure out how to put in place HR systems, and so on. Today you can store information in the cloud, hire freelancers, and rent short-term space at a WeWork, all for a fraction of the cost. While venture capitalists don’t “get it” on women (and particularly women of color), the sources of capital for starting businesses are expanding--think crowdfunding and angel investing groups. So while it’s by no means easy to start a business (trust me on this), it is easier, and cheaper.
That is why more and more people--and more and more women--can leave the more traditional, corporate career path behind for the world of entrepreneurship. Just look at the businesses that are being built by women, like Jessica Herrin at Stella and Dot, Julie Wainwright at The RealReal, Jennifer Hyman at Rent the Runway, Alli Webb at Drybar, and many, many more. So not only do we now have the tools to make the plunge into entrepreneurship easier and are able to start businesses more easily; we’re also getting a critical mass of role models who are making this career path feel more attainable than ever.
Thus, it may be no wonder that women are now starting businesses at double the rate of men.15 (And the bonus is that a good number of these businesses are themselves focused on the female customer, making our lives better and, in some cases, more fun.)
I get that throwing yourself whole hog into starting your own business isn’t for everyone, nor does everyone have the financial resources to do so. But today’s technology also offers us an intermediate step, since these same tools are also enabling the explosion of flexible and part-time work, to the point that these forms of employment have become true career paths; and these can be ones that can coexist with the demands of family in a way that many full-time corporate jobs still don’t.
1. Catalyst.org Knowledge Center, “Women CEOs of the S&P 500,” February 3, 2016.
2. “2015 Key Findings,” 2020 Gender Diversity Index, 2020wob.com, retrieved February 6, 2016.
3. Jena McGregor, “There Are More Men Named John, Robert, William, or James Than There Are Women on Boards Altogether,” Washington Post, February 25, 2015.
4. Rebecca Leber, “The Gender Pay Gap Is Bad. The Gender Pay Gap for Women of Color Is Even Worse,” New Republic, April 14, 2015.
5. Global Gender Gap Report, World Economic Forum, 2015.
6. Ellevate Network poll, April 2014.
7. Research outlining these and other benefits appears in, for example, Michàlle E. Mor Barak, Managing Diversity: Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005).
8. Marisa Lauri, “Diversity as a Competitive Advantage,” Barrett Rose & Lee Inc., barrettrose.com, retrieved February 18, 2016.
9. “Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce,” Forbes Insights, July 2011.
10. “Better Decisions Through Diversity,” Kellogg Insight, October 1, 2010.
12. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, December 2013; David Feitler, “The Case for Diversity Gets Even Better,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2014.
14. Ronald Barba, “Women Founders Outperform Men and 9 Other Industry Insights from First Round Capital,” Tech.Co, July 29, 2015. The original research can be found here: http://10years.firstround.com.