It’s not too surprising that 2016 marks the first year where a woman appears as a serious contender in the elections for the United States President. In the past few years, more focus than ever has been put on women: their rights, their voices, their ambitions, their struggles, and ultimately, their importance in societies globally. While women garnered well under 50% of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in 2015,” undoubtedly women now claim major positions in industries that are not female dominated. The world currently observes a chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, a female Chancellor of Germany, a woman CEO of General Motors, PepsiCo, Hewlett Packard and YouTube, and a female head of the International Monetary Fund, to name a few just from politics and business.
Whether due to workplace biases or to their own genetic predisposition, women have typically gravitated toward and thrived in some industries versus others (think heavy construction versus healthcare). In my own industry – finance – women still represent a minority, especially in the upper ranks. Human resource and university data show that similar amounts of women as men graduate with economics, finance, or related degrees and enter the workforce. However, whether in the 1950s or today, fewer women fill roles in upper management in these fields, regardless of the job description. In this world where there are relatively few women leaders, it’s that much harder for younger women to find female mentors who act as role models, who can inspire them with their own paths, and who also may be able to offer a few lessons from their own challenging paths.
I recently spoke to three fabulous women leaders, to learn their perspective on being a woman in the last few decades of their industries. In addition, they offered pearls of wisdom for young women, but applicable for men as well.
Meet Cathe Tocher, who has worked in the financial industry for over three decades, and is now the Chief Investment Officer for Great-West Financial where she oversees the deployment of $40+ billion in assets. For most of her career she has encountered challenges as one of the few women in the financial workforce, for example she has been asked out more than once by male colleagues who wanted “to get to know [her] better.” Years ago, Ms. Tocher was one of 10 finalists in a grueling application process with 800 applicants; after landing the job, she was told she won by her male supervisor because he “looked into [her] beautiful blue eyes and knew she could be trusted.” This was the norm then.
She feels times continue to change for the better. While women remain a minority in the workplace, she suggests that today’s women can and should use their relative scarcity to their advantage. Women stand out in a room of men, get ‘noticed’ faster, and thus can use that to ensure their voices are heard ahead of others. Of course, once they are noticed, performance is critical! Tocher says “Like it or not, women must hold themselves to a higher standard than the men around them. Work harder, more effectively and efficiently, and be more prepared.” She also points out that women often defer to their male peers, move into the back row and don’t speak up at meetings. Quoting Sheryl Sandberg, she tells women to “take your seat at the table.” It’s important that women show up and articulate their ideas well, take the lead when appropriate and make sure their voices are heard.
Ms. Tocher believes the issues with finding a work-life balance will always be in play, especially for those women who want to be career moms. Guilt can likely play a role in any working mom’s life, pointing out that working moms will always worry that they aren’t “there” enough. That said, she personally chose to sleep less in order to keep a stable family life as an equal-weighted goal with her career. Unlike many of her male colleagues, she didn’t have a stay-at-home partner who could take a disproportionate load of the household and child-raising duties. As such, time management was one of the most necessary skills, and “free time” was scarce.
Now meet Tammi Leader Fuller, the Chief Empowerment Officer for Campowerment, a “reignite your life” camp that has served several thousand women. Ms. Fuller spent decades as an Emmy winning producer for the Today Show, CBS, PBS, and later for Warner Brothers. Like Tocher, she feels the entertainment / production workplace is evolving from a male-dominated one and is achieving more balance. In the past, she and other women used to pretend their children were sick in order to leave work and attend school plays or games; nowadays, fathers and mothers both leave work for these events. At Campowerment, Fuller works in a “women only” company which serves “only women” at their summer camps, and thus has observations about an all-female culture. In these camps and her workplace, she finds that because women tend not to feel threatened by other women, their natural tendencies emerge to create an inclusive environment where most look to engage, promote, and help each other. Unlike some popular press, Ms. Fuller has found that senior women very much enjoy helping each other and mentoring younger women.