This year’s International Women’s Day theme is about balance – specifically building a gender-balanced world. Throughout my career, I have seen and felt the unspoken gender norms in the workplace and in society. I came out of college twenty years ago proudly wearing the F-Word Label (Feminist!) and worked hard to unflinchingly demonstrate that I earned a place at the table just like my male counterparts.

I was fortunate enough early in my career for that chip on my shoulder to be smoothed through some fantastic experiences with both female and male mentors. These leaders taught me to think clearly and speak my mind no matter the circumstance. I was also taught that I had growing to do; that honest feedback intended to hone my craft was a gift – and I was fortunate enough to work alongside fantastic male and female peers where we all grew stronger together.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. I’ve been in those meetings where I was asked to go fetch coffee in a roomful of equally capable male consultants; I’ve found myself cleaning up the conference rooms after meetings and doing ‘hygiene’ out of habit, and I’ve seen it when an idea I propose in a meeting is later suggested by a male and accepted widely from him. And I have, on occasion, caught myself treating females differently than males – like the time I found myself gravitating to female employees for networking opportunities for up-and-coming professionals; or the time I realized I had highlighted contributions of males to an internal research assignment more so than their female counterparts. When these things happened – I admit, I have been ashamed. 

One book I read about 10 years ago really changed my perspective. It is called ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ by Lois P Frankel.  What I recall from this book includes building skills around Noticing. Notice how others around you treat genders in an unbalanced way; notice how you behave differently based on the gender mix in the room; and notice (please!) when you find yourself diluting your value. I did. And then I started to speak up. When I heard someone re-state an idea I had that was ignored – I called it out. I sought ways to speak my mind more assertively. Now I intentionally balance my requests for support from both male and female consultants. PS - I no longer clean up after others and I seek opinions in meetings from a balance of genders. 

I’ll never claim to be “gender-blind.” In fact, diversity in all our experiences is too valuable to ever ignore the unique contributions of all genders. Some of the best meetings I’ve attended or decisions in which I’ve participated were well-considered, hotly debated, and included a diversity of thought and perspectives. After all, that’s what we should all be seeking – to take in the best information available; to remove internal biases; and make the best decisions possible. To do so requires a balance of perspectives from a variety of voices. This is critical.

I suppose you could say that my mantra is that there's no better measure of a leader's worth than the magnitude of growth in their team that one leaves in their wake. So I ask... how are you destroying old norms? How are you teaching the next generation that they can do amazing things, no matter their gender?  How are you instilling a common sense of purpose and opportunity for all that you lead? 

 So here’s my challenge to you…  notice the gender norms around you; strive to understand the under-represented voices; and consider a better balance of perspectives on all fronts.