Building a better workforce: Why it’s important to advocate for yourself and others

Jan. 29, 2020
"I think that people forget that their job is so important to our everyday lives, especially in industry and manufacturing."

Erin Hallstrom, leader of Putman Media’s Influential Women in Manufacturing (IWIM) program, recently spoke with Charlie Matthews, founder and CEO of Empowering Women in Industry, and Ciana Detlot, conference co-organizer with Empowering Women in Industry. Empowering Women in Industry's mission is to connect, educate, and empower women to not only inspire the next generation of leaders, but also provide a community for those currently leading. During their conversation, the women discuss gender impression, its impact on a person's career, and offer additional insights about the 2019 Career Development and Gender Diversity survey.

EH: One of the anecdotal responses we received with our gender diversity survey spoke to how often women feel they need to prove themselves, or that their expertise is called into question, more often than their male counterparts. Have you experienced this yourself in your career, and why do you think women feel this struggle?

CM: It seems to me that women are the ones that are trying to prove themselves. There are very few men, as far as percentage, who say that, and it made me think, Are we really trying to prove ourselves or is it that we’re seeking something else? And what I think we’re looking for is approval.

I never thought, I have to prove myself. I just tried to work until I got that approval or respect that I wanted. I think a lot of it is that perception that we need to please and we need to have someone’s approval to be worthy or that our work is valid.

CD: I found it interesting that the IWIM report mentioned that leadership tracks are really for hand-selected people, and most of them are men. I feel like that subconsciously pushes women to feel like they have to prove themselves worthy to be seen as potential leaders in their companies so that they can get selected to be trained to come up through their organizations. I think that’s one of the reasons that has motivated Charlie to found this initiative for Empowering Women in Industry, especially with the content where we can work together to show, how do we acknowledge our own skills, and how do we communicate that value to the members in our organizations that can help support and advocate for us?

I would say that some level of feeling that we have to prove ourselves is probably healthy, but not at the expense of demeaning or belittling ourselves. I think it’s really important that we try to find healthy motivations as we move through our careers.

CM: The work that you do, it speaks for itself, so we don’t necessarily have to prove it. We just have to do the work.

The other thing that this made me think about was asking permission. You feel like part of that approval is, Are we doing something right? That we need permission to excel. Even in some of my writings I’ve wondered, Am I still asking for permission here? And when you know that you’re doing the right work, I think, You can be proud of that and you’re not seeking that approval or to prove to move forward. But I know that there’s also the element of people trying to voice that they don’t have to review their work.

A lot of the times, we get a call and someone is presenting an idea, but then they say “Well, let me ask your manager or someone else to verify what you’ve said.” So, I know that that happens, and maybe that’s the mindset of proving, but I think if we just know that our work is correct and valid, then that kind of goes away.

EH: What is your opinion on the likability factor and do you feel that there’s merit to it? And why do you think this likability is such a big deal when it comes to women and women leaders?

CM: For one, it’s real. I grew up in sales, and they teach you to be somebody that they know, like and trust. So, I don’t believe it’s just a women’s issue. I believe it’s something people struggle with and especially people who are in leadership and trying to make a difference. I think that you do have to be liked, I don’t think that you need to have your value and believing whether you’re doing a good job or not tied to whether you’re liked. But, I think you have to know that you are being judged, you are being challenged in a way that people are going to want to work with you versus they think you’re sweet or not. Are you doing a good job? Are you reasonable to work with? Likability and defining that for ourselves, I think, is very important, but I definitely think it’s a challenge for both men and women. If they want to be successful, then they do have to be liked, but I would say that women grow up and our society tells us to please people, so it’s a little bit harder for us to understand what that means as we grow.

I would also say that I’ve found that men are very competitive with each other in nature, women are, too, but it’s not that we want to be liked by others in this male industry. It’s more like, okay this person knows what they’re doing, and therefore I like them. So, I think we just need to redefine what likeability means for women in the industry, and say, "Okay, is she good to work with? Is she getting results? Therefore I like her." Not, "Is she pretty and sweet? And therefore I like her."

CD:  If you’re going to define the factors that make someone likeable, then let’s make them equitable for women and men. Let’s start evaluating managers and leaders of all gender identities according to the same standards. If you’re going to talk about likeability factor with a male leader versus a female leader, shouldn’t we be measuring them to the same standard? So, I think creating that equitable factor is really important, and I think that’s going to come about as part of our culture shift.

EH: There were a couple of talking points that came up during the Empowering Women in Industry conference in September and also during our IWIM award event in October, that were really important about advocacy and inclusion. Not only is advocacy for yourself important, but also advocating for those who may not fit a perfect mold. Maybe the person who hasn’t traditionally been seen or considered for a role, let’s say. Can you speak to why it’s important to advocate for those who can’t always advocate for themselves?

CM: I think that there are two things:

  • People that can’t advocate for themselves - they don’t have a platform or a voice, and so we need to do that for them
  • People that don’t want to be the advocate for themselves, that find it uncomfortable or don’t understand why they need to promote and advocate for themselves.

For me, I really love doing that, where you have these people who work so hard behind the scenes that don’t really want to take that risk to be out in the public or public-facing, or they’re just too busy doing their work all day and that’s all they have left at the end of the day is the work that they did.

I think it’s important to recognize people who are doing the work behind the scenes. I also think that it’s important to recognize the people who are in the spotlight who are doing the work, and say, “Way to go, good job. Have you seen what this person is doing?” I think that people forget that their job is so important to our everyday lives, especially in industry and manufacturing. We couldn’t live every day in the comforts that we live without these people and they are happy doing the work and the job. The people who have different audiences and can really reach the masses need to explain that and really need to show how important their work is so that we can keep them there, so we can grow our industries, so that they get the resources that they need to improve their work-life balance, for example.

I think it is important to identify those people. I always love to use the example of an engineer, because in my life, I've walked up to engineers who wouldn’t talk to me. Then I ask them about their product that they’re working on, and then they come to life and they can share so many details about it, but they’re just not comfortable sharing the personal details about themselves. So, I dig deeper and say, “Tell me why you wanted to be an engineer.” Those types of things I love to do because they are fascinating people and they're doing fascinating work. Same for the factory workers that are behind the scenes. Once you get them to tell you about their day, the things that drive them, that help them keep their passion every day, that’s worth sharing with everybody. And that, I think, is our role as media and marketing people, to get out that message of how amazing it is to have so many people, not like you necessarily, working on your behalf.

Click here to listen to the entire interview.

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