A question was recently posted in one of my discussion groups that I expect is of keen interest to many of us in our roles as IT leaders:
“I often find myself as the only female at a meeting filled with men, including developers, upper management, and staff. How do I remain confident in an environment that does not have many females in leadership roles?”
To anyone who feels out of place on a team or in a meeting, the first step is to recognize that you belong at that table. The second step is to be clear as to the unique strengths you bring to the conversation, and not to “compete” with the others in the room.
Finding her authentic self
When I asked her if she was a “rough and tough” person by nature, she was quick to acknowledge that she was not. So we dropped that idea and focused instead on being more present with who she really was, and how to bring more behaviors aligned with her nature and core strengths into those meetings.
She was a great listener and could readily synthesize disparate points of view into more integrated perspectives. Once she recognized the potential value of those skills to her team, she explored how to share those skills in their meetings.
Gently and a bit tentatively at first, she spoke up more and more, asking interesting questions to expand conversations and to help them discover common ground. (You can imagine how divisive a group of alpha males might be. Certainly not operating as a high-performing team.)
The turning point came not as a result of her changing her behavior, but as a result of her finally feeling the power of her unique contribution, so that she could join those conversations from a place of inner confidence.
Emergence as a leader on her terms
Within a few months, she emerged as the team’s informal leader, looked upon by her peers to help them be more effective and more satisfied working together.
A critical success factor here is to choose to own these challenging situations, and not to give up the choices we have on how to behave and “how to be.” We can empower ourselves by taking constructive action and selecting supportive thoughts about these situations. Or we can choose to play the role of the victim by giving away our power of choice to others.
I’d also emphasize that in situations like this, every one of us has an opportunity to contribute to the success of the meeting and/or the team, whether or not we are the ones feeling on the outside-looking-in. We can each be sensitive to the potential for one or more of our colleagues to be hanging back from full engagement, and seek ways to bring them more fully into the conversation.
This is every leader’s challenge
Let’s also recognize this is not a “women’s issue.” This is a leadership and diversity challenge to maximize the potential contribution from everyone in our organizations. It can prevent anyone from achieving their potential, based upon differences in gender, culture, and interpersonal style.
The bottom line is, I’d invite anyone feeling this way to consider where you need to come from in these meetings and to try out being who you truly are. I understand that may feel uncomfortable and may be a risk.
But please consider the risk of not doing that, and compare that to the discomfort you may live with today by not taking that risk. Then decide what choice serves you and your colleagues the best.