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Leaving the Ladder Down: On Being a Woman in the Workplace
Beth Monaghan is CEO and co-founder of InkHouse, one of the fastest growing PR firms in the nation. Named one of the “Top Woman in PR,” Beth is an advocate for workplace innovation and women’s equality who has been featured in Fortune, Harvard Business Review, NPR and more. This article is adapted from her 2016 TEDx talk at Bentley University.
I am a lot of things.
I’m a CEO, an entrepreneur, a board member, a mother, a wife and a writer.
I’m so many things that I frequently hear the question: “How do you do it all?”
It’s meant to be a compliment, but it’s not. That type of question has doubt baked in. It shouts all of the things that are wrong with a woman’s opportunity in the workplace. That question is rooted in all of the reasons why the corporate ladder is far too slippery for women.
And that doubt isn’t just cultural. It comes from all angles and in all subtle forms, until you doubt your own inherent ability and talent.
The unofficial beginning of InkHouse was when I was dry heaving into a trashcan, trying to work up the courage to quit my job. I didn’t think I could pull off launching my own agency. What if I couldn’t sign that first client? Back then, I never dreamed I was capable of having 85 employees and offices on two coasts.
If there’s any question about why I felt such deep doubt in my potential, let me give you some sobering statistics on the inequality women face in the workplace:
- Women earn 79 cents to every man’s dollar (U.S. Department of Labor)
- At the rate we’re going, it will be 2133 before the global pay gap between men and women closes (World Economic Forum)
- Only 4 percent of the S&P 500 CEOs are women (Catalyst)
- The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed in 1972 and still isn’t ratified (New York Times)
- Women graduate from college with more ambition then men, but after two years that drops 60 percent -- while it remains steady for men (Bain)
It would be easy to feel defeated in the face of this data. But there is an alternative. I’m calling it: “Leaving the Ladder Down.”
Women today have to do a lot of things the hard way. We have to ascend many corporate ladders -- many for the first time -- and those rungs can be hard to hold tightly. The way that we make a discernible difference is by pulling other women up the ladder behind us. By speeding change through intentional actions, we force cultural expectations (as well as the law) to catch up. Leaving the ladder down allows a new way for women to climb -- one where they can spend less time worrying about how they’ll “do it all” and instead, dream about everything they will accomplish.
But how do we leave the ladder down?
By being honest and open about how we’ve successfully made the climb, how we doubted ourselves along the way and how we’ve changed the rules.
(Learn about six ways companies can support women in the workplace.)
Since I’m the one making the suggestion, I’m going to throw back the curtains on how I made my way up five important rungs on the way to my success.
Learn how to leave the ladder down -- #careeradvice for #women from @bamonaghanTWEET THIS
RUNG #1: Ditch Multitasking
Multitasking is our way of life, especially for women. I had a baby, I owned a company, I did everything -- all of the time. My awakening to how destructive this is happened one day at the park with my daughter. I was so busy tapping out an email on my phone that I didn’t see my daughter coming down the slide until she collided with me at the bottom.
I realized that while I was sending out half-coherent emails to clients, I was half present with her. I was doing both jobs fairly poorly. Until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that multitasking meant I was running around half crazy, all of the time.
The solution: create email rules to help focus on the things that matter
For me, this means putting down my phone from 5:30-7:30pm, and turning off my email notifications completely on the weekends. This allows me to be mindful about when I check my messages on my laptop.
Doing this not only made me a better mother, but also a better professional. I have better ideas at work because I gave myself time to get perspective.
RUNG #2: Don’t Apologize
I used to apologize for everything -- from the ridiculous to the warranted. In fact, I once apologized to a client because I received an email to which HE had forgotten to attach a file.
I was having lunch with Diane Hessan, the founder of Communispace (now called C Space) and The Startup Institute, when she gave me a critically important piece of advice: never apologize to my kids for going on a business trip. Why? Because I should want them to aspire to do the same.
Never apologize to your kids for going on a business trip! #careertips from @bamonaghan @DianeHessanTWEET THIS
Her words gave me the permission to stop apologizing for all sorts of things, especially when it came to clients. Not a fan of my ideas or my square business card? That’s OK, you don’t have to work with us.
The solution: only apologize when you make a mistake
The truth is that the only time you owe anyone an apology is when you make a mistake. When I stopped apologizing, no one blinked. In fact, they respected me more for being decisive, which reads as confidence.
Make this part of your personal brand.
RUNG #3: Learn How to Say No
The low down, dirty truth is that as much as being busy makes us feel crazy, it also makes us feel important. We talk about how many emails we get each day and how there’s simply no time on our calendars to do the things we want. There’s never enough time.
The solution: fullness, not busyness
When we stop trying to do everything, there is room to do anything. As my friend Maia Heymann, senior managing partner at Converge Venture Partners, pointed out, it’s about fullness, not busyness.
If we want fullness, we need to choose the things that fill us up, not the things that make us feel frantic.
How? Determine your goals. I carry mine with me -- three personal and three professional. I use my goals as the benchmark against which I measure competing interests.
Once I started doing this, saying no became infinitely easier. I started having room to do the things I’d always dreamed of doing, like writing a book.
RUNG #4: Find Your People
When you’re a busy mom and CEO, it’s easy to feel lonely. I wanted to know where the women just like me were hiding. And that meant I had to go find them.
I know -- who has the time for that? This is one of those things for which you must make the time -- for the sake of your happiness.
The solution: the magic of one good question
I realized I knew a good number of women who had amazing careers and interesting personal lives. I decided to invite them for dinner at my house to meet each other. We broke the ice by coming prepared with one question, something thought provoking and personal.
- What is the biggest problem you are facing right now?
- What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
- What is the most important question anyone has ever asked you?
- What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever overcome at work or in your personal life?
- When did you have to stand up for yourself?
That was two years ago. This group has become a support group not only for me, but for all of our members. It’s where we go when we need to negotiate for salary increases, ask for paid maternity leave or stand up to sexism in the workplace.
Our group is easy to replicate. You need a list of good questions. After that, all you need to do is sit back and listen. The magic will happen. Find people who are willing to face the adversity they see around them and overcome it through openness -- this is what leaving the ladder down is all about.
RUNG #5: Be Brave
As a woman on the way up the ladder, I have second-guessed far too many of my gut instincts. Women often lack the belief that our ideas matter. We think we’re not qualified.
Sound familiar? The imposter syndrome has some seriously sharp teeth.
Not long ago, I only felt confident in my ideas if I had plenty of other people validating them. But then I got a call from Jesse Mermell, communications director for the former Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick. I’d been appointed to the governor’s Women in the Workplace Taskforce and it was going to kick off the next day. Jesse wanted to know if I would like to speak on stage with the governor.
Note: When you get asked to speak with the governor, the answer is always YES.
But I only had hours to write and rehearse my speech. Panic began to set in. I didn’t have time to ask for anyone other than my husband to weigh in on my speech. What if it wasn’t good enough?
The solution: dare to trust your voice
The next morning, I was nervous. I was speaking with four very accomplished women, who were funny and insightful in their remarks. But while they were speaking, I realized that I had something unique to say. My words were different and I found the courage to speak them confidently. Up on that stage, I said that being a woman in the workplace is hard, and I wasn’t born confident.
Because I trusted my own words, when I finished on stage, there was a line of people thanking me. An elderly woman told me she wished someone had said those things to her when she was starting her career.
The Final Takeaway
As a woman, the corporate ladder is steep with bias and doubt, and the rungs can be slippery with outdated notions. Once you climb your ladder, find the courage and vulnerability to leave it down. People are going to need it to follow in your footsteps.
Learn more about Bentley’s PreparedU Project, which examines challenges facing millennial workers, the companies that employ them and the colleges and universities that prepare them.
The Yawkey Foundations have recognized Bentley University’s longstanding commitment to service-learning and awarded the university $500,000 to educate students to effectively lead nonprofit organizations and expand student efforts to help community groups.