As the welcoming guest of honor articulated it, she once walked into a meeting with a center round table and hesitated, not knowing where to sit. After sitting on the outside of the room, not at the center table, her boss beckoned her to join him at the table and she realized none of the men in the room had worried about what their place was – they made a space for themselves at the table, even if there wasn't one already there. Women have the skills and value to have a space at that table; they just need the confidence to make a space for themselves.
While women have faced oppression and discrimination throughout history and still face a wage gap (when are we going to fix this guys?!), this symposium focused not on how society or businesses can change to help women, but on what each woman can do for herself to advance in her career and secure her “place at the table.”
The first speaker, Erika Schenk, started her talk with a story about how she used to model her work life after a school-like reward system: do good work, get an A. It took her a long time to realize that she needed to do more than just do good work; she needed to advocate for herself at work. She needed to make sure that she was receiving the credit that she deserved for her good work and that her managers knew about what she did for her law firm. She preached the concept of assuming you have the ability, the value, and the talent (because it isn't a question of whether you do; it's a question of whether you believe you do) and later speakers followed with their own renditions of this concept. The problem does not come from women who are incapable of doing the job or moving upwards in their careers; the problem is that these women don't believe they are capable of doing the job and moving upwards in their careers and when they do believe it, not knowing what to do next.
Karen Jordan, another panel member, chimed in with a story of her own: she was always seen at work as a “team player” and a “good citizen.” She always saw this as a positive attribute of her personality, but after years of taking on the extra assignments and responsibilities in the office (as a team player and good citizen would do), she realized that her value was being, well, undervalued. Her workplace liked her as the person who would take on the extra tasks, but for her that came at the cost of not advancing in her career. She finally realized she needed to own her own value and presented her management with an ultimatum: a promotion or she takes her value to another company.
The symposium was comprised of the four panel members and a moderator, yet they encouraged participation and discussion amongst the 30ish women who attended. A large discussion was sparked by a combination of Karen's story and the next presentation, by Stephanie King, which covered taking advantage of opportunities. A question arose in the audience about how to identify productive opportunities, since the extra assignments and responsibilities Karen took on in her office were certainly opportunities (to learn new things, be involved in different aspects of the business, show her management that she is willing to help out). Yet, these “opportunities” actually worked to Karen's disadvantage instead of helping her advance. So how should one decide which opportunities are productive and which are not? This discussion was one of the most lively ones of the morning. Several women had good tips for being strategic about what opportunities to accept and how to effectively say no to ones that couldn't be managed.
Dusty Diekman followed with her own experience of wanting to please everyone and not wanting to say no to opportunities, even if she wasn't getting recognition or was doing too many things to complete them all well. She had discovered three things to identify to help women overcome this problem:
Identify your values.
Identify who you are or who you want to be.
Identify what legacy you want to leave.
All three of these things come down to authenticity – being who you truly are and letting that guide your decisions and growth. When you're able to know your values and stand up for them, believe in who you are and your abilities, and know what is important for you to accomplish, you can get rid of the burden of trying to make everyone happy and focus on what's important for you to accomplish.
The final speaker, Karen Jordan, covered finding a sponsor: someone who is credible and willing to advocate for your advancement within an organization. While knowing your value and making sure upper management knows your value are key, you often need to align yourself with someone who can help you help yourself advance. The question of value came up again in the audience – a younger woman worried that she would not be attractive to a sponsor because she didn't feel like she had value to offer. Several women countered her and brought back the message spread throughout the symposium: she does have value – her experience and hard work are valuable and being young is valuable in itself because she has a different view on the world.
Dawn Wheeler, the welcoming guest of honor, started the morning by recounting her feelings after the last (1st) Women's Leadership Symposium. She remembered feeling affirmation as she heard women going through the same problems she faced and inspiration as she received advice and instruction for conquering those problems. As I watched the women in the room support each other with stories of their own faults and discoveries, it was apparent that the stories were affirming each woman's own actions and decisions. Most important, however, was the feeling of inspiration that buzzed around the room as the women stayed after the end of the event to talk further, request information about future events and thank each other for their help and support.
The Women's Leadership Symposium is held by the National Diversity Council. They are committed to enhancing the appreciation for and understanding of the value of diversity and inclusion in today's global society and strive to transform workplace communities into environments where people are valued for their uniqueness and differences, and are confident that their contributions matter. They are currently forming a functioning council in Missouri. If you're interested in attending future events, keep updated here: http://www.nationaldiversitycouncil.org/what-we-do/events/