Last week I went to the 25th annual Professional Businesswomen of California conference in San Francisco. Usually I’m leery of all-women activities, but it was an excuse to visit friends in town (and because Arianna Huffington was one of the keynote speakers). The conference convinced me that there are certain issues that require gathering thousands of women in one place and educating them, but also that more men need to be involved in the discussion.
The main takeaway from the conference was that women feel stressed and overburdened, because they take on too many things and want to do all of them perfectly. That certainly resonated with me. When women don’t do everything to perfection, they lose confidence and hold themselves back. Being aware of these differences is the first step to doing something about them.
Arianna Huffington focused on burnout. She likened valuing money and power for success to sitting on a two-legged stool; it’s unstable and prone to failure. She encouraged us to get more sleep (something I’ve already improved over the past two years), and take time to relax, disconnect, and reflect. Her most shocking and memorable part of the speech was when one day, sleep-deprived and exhausted, she collapsed onto her desk and woke up in a pool of blood. She had broken her cheekbone and had to get stitches. That’s when she realized, “If you come to in a pool of blood and nobody has shot you, that is not success.”
Three other quotes from her speech that I particularly liked were on not internalizing stress and not feeling victimized when things don’t go as planned: “Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen,” “Live life as if the world is rigged in your favor” (Rumi), and “Our eulogies have nothing to do with our resumes.”
Another powerful keynote speaker was Charlotte Beers, who is apparently known as “the most powerful woman in advertising” and “the queen of Madison Avenue.” It was obvious that she had extensive experience and wisdom in succeeding in male-dominated corporate environments. I was so intrigued by her that I bought her book, I’d Rather Be in Charge. She advised us to “go for influence instead of the corner office.” She pointed out that women are too modest, and to “Burn ‘modest.'” Women apparently focus on knocking things off their to-do list and getting their work done instead of building relationships like the men do, so she snapped at us to “knock it off!”
One of the break-out sessions I went to was titled “Gender Differences in Saying ‘No'” by Dr. Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor in the University of Pittsburgh. Much of Vesterlund’s recent research focused on how many promotable and non-promotable tasks that women and men work on during their careers. Non-promotable tasks are trivial assignments that add little value to a person’s career in the long run, but are things that need to get done. The nature of the task varies on the industry, but in an academic career, examples include sitting on university committees, taking notes in meetings, and organizing holiday parties. In a certain university, she found that female professors performed 8.5 hours less research per week than male professors due to their undertaking “non-promotable” tasks.
Through surveys she found that when women consider turning down requests for non-promotable tasks, they focus on the negative career consequences and how people will perceive them, whereas the men evaluate whether or not it’s a good use of their time. As a result, women feel more worn out and worried when making these decisions.
Through a series of experiments that involved clicking a button in groups of three (eliminating the ‘competence’ factor), these three conclusions slapped me across the face:
1. Women volunteer more for non-promotable tasks.
2. People (both men and women) ask women to do more non-promotable tasks.
3. When asked to do a non-promotable task, women are more likely to say yes.
The finding that was most surprising in the experiments was that when no women were present, men stepped up and perform just as well in the group setting. So it’s not like the women were saving the day or anything. Therefore, we should recognize that just because someone says they will and can perform a task does not mean that they should perform the task.
Vesterlund’s research was illuminating and has been the one thing I’ve been preaching to everybody who’s asked me what I learned in this conference.
Vesterlund and a few colleagues have started a “No Club” where they get together once a month over wine, talk about decisions they have to make, and discover what triggers them to say yes to things. That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea!
Fran Zone‘s “Smart Out Loud” seminar gave us a taste of what she means when she says: “Don’t do more; be more.” She rejects what she calls “sweat equity.” She gave us tips on how to make a better first impression, how to leave a memory, and how to appear more credible. She encouraged omitting the words “trying” and “hoping” from our vocabulary and instead using “focused on” and “committed to.” Finally, I liked her play on words when she said that women “audition” for roles whereas men act with “audacity.”
One of the final highlights of the conference was the panel of representatives from Chevron, Genentech, HP, Walmart, Silicon Valley Bank, and Oracle. I won’t go into all the details, but I will share the one striking thing I heard in this panel: that we need to recognize when we need help and ask for it. There were several anecdotes of women resigning from their companies because they didn’t see part-time or flexible hours as an option, and didn’t think to ask for it. The companies ended up finding an arrangement that worked for them. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Coming out of the conference, I commit to the following:
– Take more risks to stretch myself, in areas that would improve my career.
– Think more critically about the purpose of every task I’m doing, both in and outside of work, and be less afraid to say ‘no.’
– Recognize when I feel self-doubt and learn to ignore it.
– Pass on what I’ve learned to more of my coworkers and friends, both male and female.
– Bring more people with me to this conference (or a similar one) next year.
Finally, if you want to read more, the keynote speakers in the conference recommended that everybody read the recent article The Confidence Gap. Having read it, what will you change in your life?