No Longer The Only Woman In the Room — Women Leaders Share Their Experiences

Photo Credit: Krisanne Johnson

By Fairygodboss

READ MORE: Discrimination, Gender equality, Women in the workplace, IBM, Sexism, Time Inc.

What’s it really like to be a mover, shaker, and glass-ceiling shatterer for women in the corporate world?

On Wednesday (November 1), women leaders provided insight into just that during Fairygodboss’ first-ever summit, “Galvanize: Making Women’s Employee Resource Groups Powerful.”

Led by Laura Brounstein, director of editorial and business development for Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines, Galvanize's “Only Woman in the Room” panel discussion focused on some of the real issues that pioneering women have faced, and continue to face, in the workplace. The panel’s four leaders — SoVonna Day-Goins of Credit Suisse; Amber Grewal of IBM; Meredith Kopit Levien of The New York Times; and Karen Kovacs of Time Inc. — spoke about their experiences of being the only woman in the room at some point in their careers, and the ways they’ve striven to bring up more women alongside them.

“They are all warriors, like so many of you,” Brounstein said to the panel’s audience. “Persist together, and amazing things will happen.”

Kovacs, who serves as Group President of Brand and Category Sales at Time Inc., spoke about joining her company’s leadership team. Kovacs said she benefited from the previous female editors and CEO, who helped pave the way for her.

“There were women to look forward to, and there were male sponsors,” Kovacs said. “It was helpful in navigating.”

When women don’t have predecessors to advocate for them, however, it can be difficult to find one’s way into a leadership position that can then be leveraged to spur change. The New York Times’ COO and EVP, Kopit Levien, acknowledged that when she started her current role, she wasn’t popular amongst the staff. “For six, eight months, I was unpopular in the office,” she said. The reason why? “We weren’t changing fast enough.”

Kopit Levien was vocal about the need for change, especially in strategy. Many of the changes she wanted to institute received internal pushback, as well as external criticism. While she was working toward implementing change, in fact, a prominent venture capitalist wrote an article detailing everything The New York Times had done incorrectly and what they could to do change it.

“We had done just enough to survive,” Kopit  Levien said. For her, the article was a wakeup call. “Change requires belief in the possibility of your own oblivion, no matter who you are, what business you're in, or how long you've been there.”

While women are able to support each other when they try to instill change, leaders are looking to new technologies to help fill this need, as well. Grewal, VP of Global Talent Acquisition at IBM, uses some of IBM’s most prominent technology to make sure that IBM continues to add diverse voices to the room.

Grewal acknowledges that she’s “very fortunate” that IBM’s culture is so diverse. “There’s a lot of training that we do to make people aware,” Grewal said. She also acknowledged that unconscious bias is still an issue — for both male and female employees.

One surprising solution to that issue? Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform. Since Watson has been incorporated into IBM’s job search portal, candidate engagement has grown exponentially, especially with Watson’s help in recruiting diverse voices.

“What have we defined as a success profile?” Grewal asked. “What defines success at IBM?” For Grewal and her team, Watson helps answer those questions.

Watson is also used to identify internal talent that should be further recognized. Grewal explained that Watson can take data and thoughtfully make cognitive decisions without the unconscious biases we struggle with on a regular basis.

Using data to make decisions is even more important when looking to add more voices to the room, said Day-Goins, Managing Director at Credit Suisse. Day-Goins addressed the panel audience, calling on all attendees to sponsor diverse and female voices.

“Black women are, more often than not, not in the room. So if you are in the room — remember that,” she said. “It’s somewhat incumbent on those in this room to lift up women of color. You have the numbers, we don’t.”

Despite being in a leadership position, Day-Goins said that, due to people’s unconscious bias, she’s still often perceived as an admin when she enters a boardroom.

“The help, people who serve you most of the time — that's the impression that people are going to have of me coming into the room. They don't believe that I have power, position, or vision,” Day-Goins said. “So I sit down at the table — that freaks them out. And then, what happens is my male counterparts have to introduce me as the person that is the primary reason we're having this conversation."

Having male allies is beneficial, but it isn’t enough. “Hire more women,” Kopit Levien advises. “Hire more women of color.”

“2186 is the year we will reach gender equality,” Grewal told the audience. “Be bold for change. We have to lead it, otherwise that’s how long it will take to get there.”

“Be there for your female counterparts,” Day-Goins advises. “Make sure you reach her and that she knows that somebody else walked the same road and that you’re there as a resource.”

“You gotta show up,” Kovacs summarized. “You’ve just got to.”

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