Women Leaders

Published October 13, 2017

As published in the Sacramento Bee – October 12, 2017

The Harvey Weinstein story is awful. But there’s another struggle for women that doesn’t make headlines.

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein have focused all eyes on how sexual harassment impacts the careers of women. It’s a raw, awful story about a phenomenon that can be crippling.

But that kind of bullying is just one obstacle that prevents women from realizing their full potential. Just as insidious and omnipresent – and deserving of our collective attention – is the internal lack of confidence that I see among young professional women every single day.

Girls are taught at an early age they can do anything. Kindergarteners are told they can become an astronaut or doctor. In high school, they’re taught self-empowerment on social media. In college, they live in a rarefied bubble of gender equality.

They graduate and step into entry-level positions and are thrilled with newfound independence. Then they hit what I think of as the “middle years” in the workplace.

Young professional women often hit a wall in their early 30s, and don’t get appropriate support – a missing link that can make or break a career. I’ve spent nearly two decades running a public relations and political consulting agency in California’s highly competitive market, managing some amazing women. I’ve learned that a support system, often so present in the early years, is paramount for young professional women ready to jump to the next level.

Culturally, men have it reinforced every day that it’s natural to be ambitious, and appropriate to seek recognition. But that reinforcement too often drops off for women just as they hit a make-or-break point in their professional development and career trajectory.

Here in the “ideologically advanced” Golden State, I have a handful of female colleagues who own or are CEOs of agencies, and who understand both dynamic politics and communications and the scary bottom line of a P&L. I actively seek out their guidance. I also have spent countless hours mentoring young women.

I want the capable women around me to succeed in ways they always wanted or perhaps hadn’t even envisioned. They are incredibly smart and work so very hard. But, they often need encouragement to lead, negotiate, decide and challenge with confidence – skill sets sometimes outside their comfort zone but necessary in order to take that crucial step into positions of senior leadership.

How to speak confidently in a meeting and drive decisions forward. How to present publicly. How to negotiate a financial deal or a pay raise. How to lead a team.

How to proactively advance your ideas and celebrate your successes. How to give frank feedback or criticism. These skills may seem simple, but poor execution can have devastating consequences as competition increases for senior level positions and higher pay.

Sheryl Sandberg arguably set the dialogue moving. But all of us should be thinking about how we can help promote and groom talented, well-qualified women. Leadership isn’t an inherited trait. We have to identify talent and propel it forward. It has to be cultivated and nurtured.

I had some early mentors – male and female – who provided invaluable feedback during my career, both in how I conducted myself as a young career woman and in how I learned to physically run my business. They are now a treasured “kitchen cabinet,” and I seek their guidance every day.

What I learned from them was that it’s not enough to just “do.” You have to “drive.” You have to take ownership of your path. I challenge the talented young women I know to do that. And, concurrently, I challenge all of you in leadership positions to think about the young women working in your organizations.

Seek talent. Talk frankly. Provide these young professionals a platform to rise and flourish.

The conversation about leadership can’t stop in high school and college or reside just in professional publications. And the role of confidence and its development shouldn’t be sidelined as we grapple with the other cultural factors underlying the shortage of women in positions of power.

Workplace atrocities like Weinstein’s aside, it’s in this day-to-day struggle for inner empowerment that the rubber meets the road in the real world. Sexual harassment in Hollywood is far from the whole story, grateful though we are that it is finally making some meaningful headlines.