Recently, I lunched in a cafe with an inspiring young woman who was about to launch a great new roommate app. She shared her experience of being an ambitious woman in a predominantly male environment. Her business partners are men, and her board of advisors is comprised mostly of men. She told me how they show up for meetings in suits, while she prefers casual Converse. They have grey hair, she has braids.
I told her that when I was her age that would have scared the you-know-what out of me. I would have been intimidated and on guard. But she didn't seem too fussed about it. If anything, I felt it empowered her. It made her a badass, who knows how to create and build in a "smarts and structure" world.
I was about her age when I found myself in a similar environment. Mine was the corporate world of advertising, not a tech startup, but back in those days ad agencies were the fun, fast moving industry. I worked for men, surrounded by men, learning from men and competing with them for my next promotion.
Unfortunately, at the time, the only way I knew how to compete was to become more like them. I began dressing like them, in corporate suits with padded "power shoulders" to give me the appearance of strength. I began addressing them with a broader stance and a more forceful voice. I learned the same war tactics they applied to "winning" and made sure not to talk about my family in an overtly "feminine" way.
What I became was the stereotypical "bitch" that you hear about so often. I was strong. Forceful. Competitive. Intimidating. But underneath it all, I was miserable. I cried my way home everyday and became angry with my lack of career progress. I worried that the tactics my male colleagues applied to their careers were making me into someone I didn't want to be: The Bitch who is good at her job, but not someone you want fronting your business.
Thankfully, I met a wonderful and successful woman who, with one question, changed my outlook on work and set my professional life on a whole new trajectory. She asked, "Why do you want to be a man, when you are such a fabulous woman?"
The advice shocked me. I didn't think of myself as a man, but I see now that I did assume I was doing what needed to be done to succeed: imitate and emulate my male counterparts.
Not that long ago, there seemed only two female leadership styles. You were either the nurturing and caring person who, while valuable, was not seen to be "driven" enough to lead the company. Or you were the bitch who could get the job done but was not liked by the broader team.
Fast-forward to today. The topic of gender diversity is at the forefront of our industry. And while there's certainly no lack of finger-pointing, data sharing, and the rare feature profile of female leaders in business, I worry whether we've lost sight of the larger, more important goal: finding and supporting the best talent available.
I wonder whether this focus on "bitchiness in business" signals a passive acceptance of another kind of stereotype, rather than a call for professional excellence.
I question whether rewriting job descriptions to include code words like "collaborative," "team builder," "genuine" and "flexible" will attract truly, fiercely effective female leaders to our industry.
Charlotte Beers, one of our industry's most successful and inspirational CEOs, posed the question beautifully. "Of course you are a collaborator. Of course you are a team builder," she told me. "You are a woman. How does that make you any different than any other woman out there who wants the same job you want?"
I did not like being a business bitch. I wasn't my best when I was. And while some women are good at it, and may even enjoy it, I believe that I believe that bitchiness shouldn't be our objective. It's not fun. It's not inspirational. And it makes getting the job done a whole lot harder.
I am a badass that has chosen my career success. I have done it my way. I have never wavered from my beliefs since the day I took off the weight of those shoulder pads. My clients and colleagues know I will always tell the truth whether they like it or not. It means I know how to build a team, but just importantly have their back when they need it most. It means I can be beautiful and still have the undeniable power to command a room. Being a badass means I can put my family first and still get the job done better than anyone else. But it also means I can smile more often, which at the end of the day, makes me exponentially more powerful.
—Sandy Thompson is global strategic planning director at Young & Rubicam.