Women in Leadership and Advocating for Yourself

If you’re not at the table, you’re not in the conversation.  Yet for many women early in their career, stepping up to a seat doesn’t always come easily, according to Susan Cates, president of Executive Development and executive director of MBA@UNC at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. To overcome these workplace challenges, her advice to women is simple:

“You have to advocate for yourself. Your voice is absolutely as important as everyone’s in the room.”

But where to begin? Taking a page from Sheryl Sandberg’s recent bestseller Lean In, which encourages women to pursue their ambitions, Cates challenged the women at a recent leadership conference to do things that might at first feel uncomfortable.

Struggling with Self-Doubt

Near the top of that to-do list: negotiating. She cited a study by Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask, in which Babcock asked men and women graduating from a master’s program if, when they received a job offer, they attempted to negotiate salary. 57 percent of men who answered did, compared to just 7 percent of women.

Margaret A. Neale, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, addressed this issue in a recent Daily Muse article. “Women are concerned about the reputational risks of negotiating,” Neale said. “If I negotiate for an increase in my salary, and I have a male boss,” Neale continued, “the research suggests that I will be penalized in a way that my male counterparts will not be.”

So, “Women don’t ask,” Cates said. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” In a similar vein, Cates talked about how, early in her career, she purposely chose a seat on the outskirts of the conference table during meetings because she felt that her opinions were less valid than those of others in the room. In this way, self-doubt causes women to become their own worst enemies, she said. Many women are walking around with a looping track playing in their minds that says, “Am I good enough?” This is often coupled with a fear of feeling like a fraud, that someone’s eventually going to figure out that you have no idea what you’re doing. “That track is not reality,” she said, encouraging women to find a way to suppress that self-doubt and embrace their own knowledge.  

The Likeability Factor

So begin to build your confidence. Take that seat at the table, earn the respect of colleagues, start to climb the ladder and consider yourself successful. Smooth sailing, right? Not so fast, Cates said. “For women, the more successful they are, the less likeable they are.” She cited a 2003 study that Sandberg shared in Lean In, conducted with business school students who were presented with a story about a successful venture capitalist. Half of the students were told the entrepreneur’s name was Heidi, half were told it was Howard. The group agreed both were competent, savvy businesspeople, but Heidi was perceived as “selfish” and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for,” while Howard came across as a much more desirable colleague. It was clear that gender greatly influenced the participants’ impressions. Cates said that when both women and men are aware of the things that might prevent women from reaching their full potential, they can work to challenge those biases and assumptions.

“You don’t have to live small just because you’re afraid of not being liked.”

Looking Toward the Future

Many women also struggle with feelings of guilt, especially those balancing motherhood with being a working professional. As a mom of a young child, Cates said she finds it easy to question her decision to drop off her daughter at daycare every morning and head to the office. She credits a supportive husband (a true “partner”) and colleagues who create a culture that empowers women for making that decision easier. She says she has benefited from colleagues who put themselves in her shoes before reacting and making assumptions based solely on her gender. While feelings of guilt may linger, Cates says her greatest satisfaction is serving as a positive role model for her daughter, demonstrating that being passionate about what you do is something to be celebrated. “We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers,” Sandberg wrote in her book. “Or even happy professionals and competent mothers…This revolution will happen one family at a time.”

  Susan E. Cates is the Executive Director of MBA@UNC in addition to serving as the President of Executive Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Learn more about MBA@UNC.