Friday, August 13, 2010

Gandhi for Gals – the Beauty of Thick Skin

New on my firm's trading floor, I was glad to know at least one person. Derek had been a year ahead of me in college and was now a junior T-Bill trader. One day, I walked up behind Derek's desk to ask a question. His head was turning from side to side checking the multiple screens in front of him. Suddenly, he shouted an expletive. Expletives continued to erupt for the next several seconds. Derek's boss walked up, less worried about the money being lost than something else. "Derek, don't talk like that in front of a lady," he said. The boss was 30. I was stunned.

On trading floors, like navy ships, colorful speech is standard. I was accustomed to bad language: it was a vice I suffered too. Letting off steam with a few foul words came quite naturally to me and seemed harmless. Derek's boss didn't know that I, for good or ill, shared more with Rahm Emanuel than Scarlett O'Hara when it came to cursing. "It's an honest mistake," I heard myself saying, "but I am NOT a lady!"

While a true statement (I flunk Miss Manners daily, on many counts), my response looked nutty. The boss was only trying to be kind. But I was so mad, I couldn't help myself.

I've huffed and puffed about many things I should have blown off. So I could only nod when I heard this wisdom from an executive recruiter for C-suites and board seats: "Thick skin. That's what more women need."

But not just one layer. To get to the top, women likely need three.

Let's start by shedding the soft veneer we're encouraged to grow as girls - for something more battle-ready. This month on Harvard Business Review's site, management expert Jeff Pfeffer points out that women won't get equal power until they project equal toughness.

"We've ruined her," said a male friend about his tween daughter. He explained that while he and his wife bred a love of grit in their sons (rolling in mud, staring down bullies), they had indulged their daughter in little-girl-ness. Her nose was always wiped, her clothes never dirty. When the playground was rough, her parents would come to school and sort things out. "She spends hours crying about wisecracks, what's she going to do when someone yells at her at work!"

I assured my friend that most girls find their inner-street-fighter soon enough; that like many of us, raised to value niceness, she'd learn its drawbacks and find the ability to push back or laugh it off (though I'm still learning). In the name of kindness, we should nurture as much "tough guy" in our daughters as we do in our sons.

Girls also need a layer that boys don't - added protection to be successful outsiders, until we finally get comfortable with females wielding power as overtly as men do. Not long after I snapped at Derek's boss, I was assigned a mentor. This woman was the rarest of breeds, a female proprietary trader, Wall Street 1988. She took me to drinks and said, "You're going to be lonely. But you'll succeed if you want to." At the time, this wasn't particularly motivational. But the words stayed with me because they were true. And, unless progress accelerates, they will still be true when my daughter goes to work in 15 years.

While a lack of gal-pals is survivable, the second thick-skin layer is about more than warding off loneliness.I've always hung out with guys as much as women, so it never occurred to me that spending my career in mostly-male places could be a problem.

But when you're the only one of your kind in the room, there are no standard expectations - no one knows what they want from you. I got advice on all the many things I shouldn't be. "Young women should not be funny" - when I tried to ape (perhaps poorly) witty male superiors. "Try to be less squeaky and talk slower," was my colleague's brotherly prompt as we walked into client meetings. "Cut the 'professor' voice," said a favorite guy friend, when I carried on about topics I knew well. All good feedback. But how to be is hard to navigate when you're stuck zig-zagging between male and female norms.

As one of two women at an off-site, I watched my only female peer present to the group. Her approach to striking the right tone was to remove all affect from her voice. Predictably, no one listened. I got up to speak next but had forgotten to breathe. My fear of being a female flop rose so high I almost fell over. I clung to podium, painfully plodding, and jokeless. I've since learned to find the humor in these moments - and now know others share my sweaty palms.

Researching Getting to 50/50,
we found this issue has been well-studied. Columbia professor Claude Steele recently conducted a study showing that even female engineers (no strangers to being outnumbered by men), have higher heart rates, temperature and distraction when they are less than 25% of the room. Make the room gender-neutral and group results improve - women perform well and men perform no worse.

This isn't an argument for quotas in engineering or anywhere else. It is simply to point out that some environments will enhance our chances of success while others won't. Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, a creator of the Implicit Association Test, offers even more usable advice. If you can't fix your workplace, if you can't recruit your way to a more gender-neutral team, find other ways to surround yourself with evidence that you are not alone. To escape the cultural swamp, the one in our minds, Banaji puts famous women scientists on her screen saver and fills her office with reminders that human greatness is not bounded by sex or color.

Now, it's at that pinnacle - big power, money or fame - where women need a third shielding layer, like chainmail. What do I have in mind? How about Sarah Palin. I agree with Palin on very little, but her raw ambition makes me smile. As does her ability to walk right through flack - untouched by bi-partisan detractors and inconvenient facts. Let's get that super-strength body armor on the many talented women who lack it.

Jane, a neurosurgeon, was an expert in her field and held a big position at a major teaching hospital. She got pregnant at 40. Her male colleagues thought she'd lost her mind - that child creation and brain surgery didn't mix. She took six weeks off to recover from the birth and returned to the hospital game to resume her full schedule. But her boss had a different plan. "Your colleagues had extra work while you were out, you need to pay them back. I'm doubling your call schedule until that happens." You could see his point - her peers needed a break and she had caused the problem. But was this the optimal approach? With a six-week-old baby, feeling betrayed at work, Jane quit. What if she'd had Sarah's skin? She might have done a Mama Grizzly, bear hugged her boss and assured him she'd pay the time back - in a year, when she could see straight.

Women don't need a child to need the chainmail layer, just a man-sized set of dreams. The dean at a major professional school said, "It awes me how the knives come out. When a woman here is poised to beat out a male peer for a big job, some men will say things that just aren't true, it makes them uncomfortable that a woman could win."

Who wants to believe this? I don't. But then you start to see little things that say it might still be so. In liberal northern California, I watched my son's soccer game, in a league divided by age and gender. One parent said, "hey, wouldn't it be fun to have the boys play the girls?" Another replied, "yeah, but look at the girls, they're more focused - they'll clobber these guys. And some dads just won't deal well if their sons loose to girls." (Check out data collected by the National Science Foundation on the resistance we still have to seeing women as winners.)

What's the cure? Keep at it - think Gandhi for gals. A small man with a very thick skin moved minds (re-moved an empire) by helping people like him stand up for themselves, in the right way - again, and again, and again.

Leadership expert Jean Kahwajy tells women to "assume people are doing the best that they can." The trick Kahwajy says is learning to "receive," to hear what you don't want to hear and react in a positive way. So you have the energy to stand up for yourself - and for others.

"The senior guys I work for didn't want to promote Lynn to run a simple, local business," said a female executive who'd built her career (and sturdy shell) working at a big company. "They said Lynn didn't have enough experience to be in charge. But, weeks before, they'd made a man named Jack the leader of a complex, global business that he knew nothing about. So I said, 'Hmm, I'm trying to follow the logic here. Is it just that Jack is much smarter than Lynn?' The guys stopped, laughed, and gave Lynn her promotion."

With a strong hull, you feel safe to act on Gandhi's maxim: "An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching."

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