We are at this incredible juncture when women’s career achievements are becoming historic milestones at an increasing pace. From Kamala Harris, the first female U.S. Vice President, to Gitanjali Rao the teenage innovator recently named by TIME as its first “Kid of the Year,” women and girls have never had so many role models to embrace.
These success stories, however, belie the slow progress towards true gender equality. In the past 12 months, the pandemic has widened the gender gap in the labor force, with women being 24 percent more likely to permanently lose their jobs compared to men.1 At our current rate of progress, it will take us nearly a century to close the overall gender gap across key areas like health, economic opportunity and education.2 These data points should give us pause and lead each of us to act now to help pave a way forward from whatever perch we occupy.
For me, my career would have turned out very differently were it not for the sponsors who took a chance on me. Long before diversity and inclusion became part of our workplace lexicon, I had the fortune of having allies who bet on the potential value I could bring to the business – even though I hardly fit the mold.
So, for this year’s International Women’s Day “ChoosetoChallenge” moment, I call on us to step outside of our safety bubbles and dare to take the road less traveled. Consider the possibility of advocating for someone who is cut from a cloth that is altogether different from your own. For those in search of opportunities and mentors, think about how you can raise your visibility while doing everything that’s asked of you.
Risk-taking by any other name
I started my manufacturing career in America’s heartland, working on the factory floor of Eaton Corporation in Shawnee, Oklahoma. As Eaton was a large diversified manufacturer spanning many teams and divisions, I was able to advance through different roles within the company following my initial stint as a shop floor supervisor. To take on these new challenges, my family and I packed and moved around the States and overseas. Along the way, I got to work on many initiatives and projects that were foreign to me. As scary as it was at times, I jumped in, tried to figure things out and learned all that I could.
The truth is that I could explore these different opportunities and challenges because people were willing to sponsor me. They chose to include me at the table where I could join the conversation and participate in the decision-making. In those days, corporate leadership was overwhelmingly white and male. Being female and Indian, I was as far away from the prototypical executive as you could get. For the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be different, an outsider and understood how intersectionality could impact one’s career path. Appearances aside, we also didn’t share common interests. I didn’t play golf and couldn’t tell the difference between a hunting rifle and a shotgun. But none of that mattered; my sponsors checked out of their biases and took a chance on me.
Reimagining the next normal
Twenty years on, the takeaways from my career trajectory are as true as ever: we need sponsors of all stripes at every organization who are prepared to advocate for those that have been sidelined. To close the gender gap, we need leaders to commit to changing the representation at the table to reflect the diversity of our society. We need people to champion the less championed with intentionality and an openness to look beyond differences in background, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. This means those of us in a position to invest in others must be ready to take a risk. We must be willing to open doors for those who have yet to develop a robust track record owing to their lack of access to opportunities. This includes women bringing along other women as they advance in their careers.
What does this all this look like? When an untraditional candidate enters the hiring pool for a coveted role, can you push the boundaries of comfort and take a risk on this person even though he or she looks or feels unfamiliar? Are you willing to suspend your biases and predispositions? Do you see a promising but quiet woman who shows signs of potential but may need some coaxing to speak up? These kinds of conscious intentionality can lead us to unlock all kinds of possibilities. If diversity can bring long-term benefits to organizations, imagine the advantages that can be reaped by multiplying that diversity – to say nothing of the personal growth opportunities that are being sown for everyone involved.
By the same token, those in search of advancement and sponsorship opportunities also have a shared duty to take risks. For many of us, it will require more than hard work to climb today’s organizational ladder. Consider raising your hand to meet a challenge that others are wary to take on. Size up the project’s success factors against your own abilities, then take a calculated risk. Develop a novel point of view or a fresh way to solve an old problem. Then speak up. Your idea may be different, but if you have conviction and can defend it, keep your voice alive. Someone will notice your creativity and the next time there’s an opportunity, you just might be the most memorable candidate around.
As we look to the next normal, we should also be mindful of the women who stepped back or out of the labor force in order to care for family members who are in need during the pandemic.
So today, I ask us to open ourselves up to challenging our comfort zones and dare to make a move that feels uncomfortable in the name of closing the gender gap.
As I rose through the corporate world, I never framed the pivotal moments of my career as an outcome of risk-taking; to me, it was always about jumping in and taking on the tough jobs. But looking back, I did much of this on leaps of faith, and today I do consider risk-taking to be one of the vectors of success. By going outside of our comfort zones, we can give ourselves the room to imagine what’s possible. To close the gender gap, we must choose to challenge ourselves to think and act more boldly while pressing harder on the gas.