How Women Lead

From time to time I get asked to emcee events. Or, as I prefer to say, be the Mistress of Ceremonies. Minus the whips and leather. But last night I was the moderator of a panel that included a sort of insane lineup of women:

  • Libby Schaaf, Mayor, City of Oakland

  • Robin Hauser, Director, Finish Line Features

  • Julie Hanna, Special Advisor, X (formerly Google [X]); Former Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship

  • Jenny Lefcourt, General Partner, Freestyle Capital

  • Blye Rocklin|Faust, Film Producer

  • Sandra Lopez, VP, Intel Sports


So I'm on stage doing what I do, introductions, sharing an anecdote, and then getting the show on the road. Very welcoming and friendly crowd at the Julia Morgan ballroom. Mostly women, all stages of their careers. We have a list of questions to help move the conversation along--and we showed clips from Robin's film "Bias" which is an insightful documentary about how we need to recognize our inner prejudices and figure out how to overcome those negative biases that make for a crappy workplace/world.

I'm oversimplifying but that's why you have to see the film. 

It's fantastic getting a chance to facilitate a conversation between highly successful, generous, insightful women. For a journalist who is naturally curious to be allowed to hold a microphone and sit next to a set of women I'd never otherwise meet--it's sort of nirvana. I'm on stage peppering the conversation with questions, quoting Beyonce, "Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check/ Or pay me in equity/Watch me reverse out a deck (skrrt)" and taking notes so I can share with you what left an impression on me. 

The panelists answered questions about everything from increasing the number of women and minorities in the circles of power to how they negotiate salaries. I don't know if a recording or transcript exists of the event but here are some of my takeaways from the night. 

1. When negotiating salary, know your data. One panelist said a junior member at her firm circulated an anonymous survey to encourage everyone to enter their jobs, experience level and salary. Obviously that's not going to work if you work in a tiny office, but it's one way to get info that can be awkward to find out face to face. Of course, if you're Asian like me, you grew up with everyone asking everyone how much they paid for everything so those money conversations aren't so foreign. And then everyone buys the same gray Honda Accord. 

2. Also, don't go to the meeting only with the mindset of "Let me convince you why I should make this." Keep in mind you can challenge the decision makers with: "The other people/partners/staffers who are at my level make X and get X benefits, can you tell me why I shouldn't also receive that compensation?" It puts the challenge back on the manager instead of forcing you to be the person who has to build an impenetrable case. Again though, you need to have your facts straight before you make this statement.

3. Enlist the men, enlighten the men, the men are not the enemy. Meaning: it's OK to bring family into the conversation. A male manager/co-worker is going to become a dad? Ask him how he plans to balance his work and family. Is he planning to take time off? These are mini shifts in the conversation that can be 'teachable moments' because these are questions women get asked all the time that men rarely consider. 

4. Ask the women. Sometimes managers think they're doing "Jenny" a favor by not considering her for the promotion because it requires travel and weekends away from home and "she has two young kids at home." Don't assume that! If she's just as competent and qualified, offer the oppportunity and let her make the decision. 

5. Call out jacked up behavior or statements but find a way to do it without making someone defensive. The example: a guy said something to one of the panelists that was well intentioned, but had the wrong impact. She took him aside and said, "I know what you meant, but this is how it landed. I know you, so it's cool, but if you said that to someone else, consider how it might be taken." Obviously this is not a one size fits all but that's a great approach when possible.

6. Built a trusted network. Knowledge is your power and you can only get that when you talk to others and swap stories. You can find those people, and you must.

7. We are all products, perpetrators, and victims of bias. Let that one sink in.

8. It's not enough to just be a role model. Great, you're there. But what are you doing to help those coming after you?

9. Add value to the bottom line. You have to motivate by greed, not fear. Basically, what's good for business is always going to be the best way to appeal to your bosses in any situation/negotiation. 

10. Stop thinking about promotions and growth and providing more opportunities for a diverse group as a power equation because power is a zero sum game. Popele freak out if they think giving opportunities to others takes away from them. Think of it as a talent equation. Mayor Schaaf gave the analogy: Your loved one is sick. Wouldn't you want everyone possible to be looking for that cure? Why would you keep half of the talent pool out of the mix (ie women). 

11. Diversity will lead to more complex but potentially more complete solutions. It's annoying to be in a meeting with a bunch of conflicting viewpoints vs a room with all the same people with the same background who say "Yep" and move on, but you'll probably come up with a way better finished product. I know that firsthand whenever I work with a producer who challenges 97.8% of everything I say and do. It raises my blood pressure at least 7 points but I will say Kevin makes the work better. He will never win the conversation about why I don't wear flats to work though.

12. Praise publicly, criticize privately. An oldie but a goodie. 

13. For my young women interns and mentees who always ask me how to be a woman in news and also have a family, I always tell them they have to go after family and finding the right partner with the same fervor as they go after the next job in a bigger market. But Sandra from Intel also had a great point about prioritizing. Sometimes your kids will be the priority and sometimes your work will be the priority. It's such a simple point but she synthesized something I do all the time without ever thinking of it that way. I will be at the Spring Sing, but I had to miss the hip hop dance. I will see it on the $40 DVD (highway robbery). Is it easy? No. But in the long run, your kids will know they matter, and that work also matters. I think that's A-OK. Because how else can I buy that freaking $40 DVD?

14. #dadguilt is so not a hashtag. While my husband and I can have a healthy debate over that, by and large, it's not a thing. So let's move past #momguilt too.

15. Celebrate your discomfort when you're the only person in the room who is black/Asian/female/gay etc etc. I think this is an interesting point and one that is definitely nuanced. NEVER use your difference as an excuse or for leverage. At least, I never do. I could definitely related to what Sandra said about feeling like, "WTF are you talking about?" when a white dude asked her, "What's it like to be a Latina woman in your job?" because it's not how she identified herself. She's a boss because of her work ethic, her achievements, her value to the company. She's not there BECAUSE she's a Latina woman and in fact for a long time she tried to avoid bringing that dimension of herself into the boardroom. But then she realized she should embrace it because it added to her company's value that she knows the Latin comsumer, how they interact with technology, what sports they care about. 

I can relate because I'm not running around consumed with what it's like to be an Asian/Vietnamese female investigative journalist. But when I'm at a conference packed with white men, I do realize, oh hey, this is a thing. And I make a point of saying how my life experiences are different and how that translates to how I do my job. I think there's a balance between being open about how you, the whole you, relate to your profession because of your life experience versus constantly flying your minority banner when it's not relevant.

16. Sometimes the dudes just don't know any better. Loved this point from Jenny, who works with a lot of rich bros in her venture capitalist world. Many of them have wives who stay home full time, sometimes with the assistance of the nanny. When they ask, "How do you work AND be a mom?" it can be a legit question because their brains can't process how you can possibly do the job they see their wives doing at home AND the job they also see you doing at work. It's like you'd need to be TWO people. So just gently help them understand how you prioritize. (See point 13) And then ask them if they're going to their kid's Halloween parade (see point 3). Then try not to roll your eyes hella hard when everyone applauds them for being such an involved dad while turning to ask you why you're taking time out of your day to attend a children's event. :)