Robin Strongin

Rock Health’s Halle Tecco, one of our very own Disruptive Women, is kicking off XX in Health Week today. Here’s my take on Disrupting Gender Inequality in the Workplace.

In the spirit of the Olympics, let me explain my fascination with the long distance runner’s strategy of drafting.  Drafting takes place when a runner chooses to stay just a few steps behind one of his or her competitors, letting the front runner absorb the brunt of wind resistance.  The strategy works when the trailing runner, having let someone else deal with nature’s adversity, has the energy for a quick burst before the finish line.

As an athletic strategy, this makes sense.  As an approach to one’s life and career, not so much.

I get as frustrated and outraged as anyone when it comes to the unacceptable gender inequity that exists in virtually all economic sectors, particularly as it relates to wages and career advancement.   Progress is painfully slow.  Labor Department statistics released just last month showed that women working full-time had earnings 79.7 percent of their male counterparts.  If you’re not the slightest bit indignant about that fact, you’re just not paying attention.

There are women (and, to be fair, men) battling every day to close that gap and to bring genuine equity to the workplace.  My message to young women at early stages in their careers is that they can’t ‘draft’ behind the efforts of those who are toiling to break through the glass ceiling.  They can’t use the gender gap as either an excuse for underachieving or as a rationale for pay increases and career upgrades they haven’t earned.

In other words, sometimes success and failure has absolutely nothing to do with gender-based discrimination.

When I have the opportunity to counsel or mentor young women starting out in the workforce, I offer two pieces of advice.  The first is simply this: work as hard and as smart as you possibly can.  I’m not talking about the cliché that you must work harder than a man just to achieve the same career advancement.  No, I’m talking about putting in the effort required to make you absolutely indispensable to your employer.

In my firm, I’ve chosen men over women for promotions and didn’t consider myself a traitor to my gender for doing so.  I’m an employer, and the best way I can put my own cracks in the glass ceiling is by making my company as strong as it can be.  When it comes down to effort and commitment versus chromosome makeup, I’ll choose the person who works harder and more effectively every time.  My feminist leanings don’t give women a pass when it comes to earning their way forward.

The second bit of advice, developed from years of experience, boils down to one word – ask.  Ask, propose, find a solution to a problem your boss (or client) didn’t realize she had.  Polish your skills, sharpen your strengths, and go for the gusto.  Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and think you deserve.  Don’t be shy about submitting a proposal when there was no request for one.  Don’t be shy about being proactive and making yourself vital to the team. No one is going to give you a job, a piece of business, a promotion, or a raise out of some grand philanthropic gesture to close the gender gap.  You have to thrust yourself into the mix for consideration.

A study by the employer branding firm Universum found that females, even as college undergraduates, have expectations that they will make less money than males.  Thus, the gender gap has multigenerational roots, fortified by young women who don’t ask for more because they don’t expect more.  Don’t let others define you.

My philosophy at Amplify (my public affairs firm) has always been this:  if a potential contract that fits my firm’s strengths is out there – no matter how big, how complex, how tough the competition – I go for it.  I won’t always win, but I always ask (and all of that asking, and proving your capabilities, gets you more wins than you might ever anticipate).

The bottom line is that young women shouldn’t count on ‘drafting’ behind those who are trying to pioneer a new era of equity in the workplace.  To get ahead, you need to get out front and break through those barriers yourself.

Disrupt, don’t draft.

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