"Susie" No More

When I worked at State Street Bank in Boston, I was still a young "southern girl" one might say. Though someone else might take offense to this, I did not. Not too long into my time there, a friend in the business volunteered to "reinvent" me. I was surprised at the suggestion and curious about the notion. I said, "Sure, I'm game." With that, she calmly proceeded to, like Luther, list ninety-five things that needed change. As I sat there listening intently, wide-eyed and jaw-dropped, I realized, "She is trying to help me fit in. I need to be more like the power structure to succeed here." 

As you might imagine, the power structure was created and sustained by rich, white men. Well, the only thing I had in common with them was the color of my skin and frankly, I like being a woman. So since the one thing that I aspired to change was money. Yes, I wanted to earn money. I knew that there was money to be made in financial services so I did as I was told and "reinvented myself." Here are the top five lessons she imparted:

Lesson #1: I was "Susie" no more. I was born "Susan" but everyone called me "Susie" from the earliest days of my memory. Looks like I had to go by "Susan" to be taken seriously in Financial Services.

Lesson #2: No more "big hair." As a proud "Southern Belle," I had the "big hair" and wore it well, like the Leo woman I am. Roar!

Big hair -- and long red nails.

Big hair -- and long red nails.

Lesson #3: No more bright colors. Yep, she told me to march myself over to Talbots and invest in pantsuits of brown, navy, black and gray. No questions, just do it. The time for red skirts was over.

Lesson #4: No more, "Please and thank you, sir. If you don't mind could you, would you, ma'am?" Nope. It was time to change from sheepish passive voice to strong but non-emotive active voice. Some of my friends from the South might say I was simply being polite but in business, there are other forms of politeness. If you don't want to be seen as Julie, the cruise director from the Love Boat,  drop the girly charms. I had to change the content of my message.

Lesson #5: No more excited high pitch in my delivery. Even if changing the content of my message, I still delivered it in such a way as to be confused with Minnie Mouse, I needed to lower my voice an octave, at least. I had to change not only the content but also the delivery of my message.

As you see, I was trying my level best and then some, to fit into the white man's corporate world. Financial Services is as corporate as it gets too -- still, to this day. There have been changes made and great strides in recent history. If memory serves me correctly, banking has more female General Counsels and CXOs than any other industry. Bravo for progress...but at what price?

Glass Ceiling

Glass Ceiling

Two surveys taken in the 1990s found women in only 5% to 6.5% of executive-level positions in the largest US corporations. Women fail to promote their achievements, and their supervisors often don’t note their performance.

Women tend to favor using unobtrusive, proactive methods for preventing obstacles, but men sometimes favor the “white knight” method that allows problems to erupt and gives them an opportunity to save the day spectacularly. Studies from the 1990s show that, at that time, most women adapted their behavior to mimic the way men act.

Linguist professor and best-selling author, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., uses case histories to demonstrate various social tendencies and trends. For instance, she says female professionals often speak tentatively to soften any emotional blow in the message they’re delivering. Men often see this way of speaking as a sign of insecurity or incompetence.

Dr. Tannen also found that the narrow limits of a professional man’s wardrobe – dark suits, pale shirts – allow him a degree of freedom because uniformity resists cultural labeling or “marking.” The multiple choices a professional woman faces in her clothing, hairstyle, and makeup leave her more vulnerable to being categorized. In this way, cultural expectations label a woman’s fashion style. 

It seems for all the success women have enjoyed in climbing that corporate ladder and shattering the glass ceiling, they have done so by becoming the men they fought so hard against in order to succeed.

The percentage of women running companies in the Fortune 500 is still solidly in the single digits, but the proportion is slowly growing, and just reached an all-time high.

Fortune Magazine released its 2017 Fortune 500 list, which ranks major U.S. companies by their fiscal 2016 revenues, and still, only 32 of the companies, or 6.4 percent, were run by female CEOs. The magazine said that number was the highest proportion yet seen in the 63-year history of the list. Last year, it had just 21 women CEOs on the list and for the 2014 fiscal year, there were 24.

Females in authority often conform to a toned-down style that erodes the respect they receive, because asserting themselves invites disapproval. Female conversational rituals emphasize equality and emotional support, risking that a male who can’t read his female colleague’s signals may assume her to be incompetent, unfit for promotion or domineering. And without a doubt, a  businesswoman who takes a role formerly held by a man faces challenges from male subordinates.

Tannen explains that ambiguous behaviors by both genders can hold double meanings that comment on both status and connection:

  • A friend who grabs the check may be flaunting his or her wealth and simultaneously showing generosity.

  • Using first names may exude amiability but suggests a lack of respect.

  • Giving compliments implies holding a superior status that enables one to make judgments.

  • Making others wait is a power play, often male.

Tannen exposes the communication minefield of meetings. Cultural boundaries that hamper a woman’s job performance also restrict her in business gatherings. Many women pepper their suggestions with humble disclaimers. Speaking at a low volume, they speed through their ideas to save others’ valuable time. If interrupted, they wait to continue. If met with groundless opposition, they compromise or retreat altogether.

Gender-based styles continue to hold women back today. Daily headlines demonstrate the truth of Tannen’s observations about how and why an ambitious commanding woman risks ostracism from peers of both genders. The paradigm of a powerful man is one who subdues a woman.

Soaring higher

Soaring higher

Cultural expectations about gender can fuel ambiguous behaviors including sexual harassment. The paradigm of a powerful man is one who subdues a woman. In the 1990s, Tannen found that this may take the form of sexual taunts and mock threats of sexual violence that denigrate women’s status. Whether that remains as true today in a world of sexual harassment laws and lawsuits, of more empowered women, one does not know but one can hope not. Yet, sexual harassment today, compared with the 1980s and ’90s, appears more outrageous in light of modern awareness efforts. Only a few of the most blatant offenders seem to face consequences.

There are undercurrents swirling through offices and professional interactions and a wide range of issues involving cultural and gender diversity. Willingness to cooperate with people who have diverse conversational styles can allow “more truly powerful ideas to emerge.”

Every professional, male or female, needs to appreciate navigating the spoken and unspoken social cues that can lead to success or sabotage it. Some may think it is unfortunate that we must abide by such cultural norms and I might agree. Many millennials are throwing the rule book out and embracing authentic selves in the workforce. I have to admit, I find that a quite refreshing paradigm shift. I do believe Financial Services and Legal are two industries that may be slow to adopt any "just be me" in the workplace. We shall see.

I might add that State Street of today leads the world in supporting women and naming women into positions of real power and influence where change can be made. Their "Women In Finance" movement celebrates strong women in all corners of the financial services industry who are using their talent and power to drive the industry forward and set an example for future women. Read more here: https://listen.statestreet.com/detail/2018/women-leaders.html