Lessons to learn from successful trailblazing women.
What does it take for women to succeed on unfamiliar turf or in nontraditional fields? Certainly a love for the work and a high level of self-confidence, but you don't have to boldly go where no woman has gone before in order to benefit from the playbooks of industry pioneers. You can adapt their revolutionary strategies to your work ethic, no matter what industry you're part of. Consider the following trailblazing qualities that make for great leaders as well:
Embrace Change: When you're the only woman in the room, you're likely to be perceived as an emblem of change, so blending in may not be even an option. Instead, follow the example of Carly Fiorina. When she took over Hewlett-Packard in 1999, she saw herself as a "change warrior," tasked with shaking up a complacent corporate culture. Seize the role of change agent and look to innovate by questioning the status quo and longstanding ways of doing things.
Trust Yourself: Recent research has proven what female pioneers learned first-hand: women are regularly held to a higher standard than men when it comes to assessing competency. Consider the case of financier Muriel Siebert, who faced fierce opposition in her successful attempt to become the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. "Take stands, take risks, take responsibility," she has said. "The real risk lies in continuing to do things the way they've always been done." This phenomenon even occurs in areas (such as science and technology) where one would expect evaluations to be based on purely objective criteria. What's more, women and men internalize this phenomenon. Men tend to over-estimate their own competence, while women underestimate it. The bottom line: Do what your male colleagues do when presented with an opportunity that stretches their current capabilities. Dive into the challenge confident that you will grow into the position over time.
Focus on Performance: If there is a common thread among those women who paved their way into industries that were all but closed to them, it is their single-minded focus on performing to the best of their abilities without succumbing to preconceived notions. Edith Clarke, the first woman to earn an MS in electrical engineering from MIT (in 1919) and an early pioneer in computer development, once said, "There is no demand for women engineers, as such; but there's always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work." As a leader, you should keep this spirit in mind when evaluating employees: The more objective your criteria when evaluating employees, the fairer will be your review processes--and the likelier that you will be focusing your development efforts on those with the greatest potential, no matter their gender.
Pay It Forward: Finally, just as industry pioneers opened the doors for those who followed, there is strong evidence that as women continue to blaze trails into the upper echelons of business leadership, they increase gender diversity at all levels of the organization. To wit: A recent report by Corporate Women Directors International revealed that women-led companies have nearly twice the percentage of women in senior management (24.3%) than their peers. Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State, put it bluntly: "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
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