A new study by IBM, “Women, Leadership, and the Priority Paradox,” reveals a harsh truth: advancing women in the workplace still, in 2019, just isn’t a priority. IBM polled 2,300 executives and professionals from around the globe, and within those organizations, women hold only 18 percent of senior leadership roles. But it’s the “why” that’s the kicker: 79 percent of respondents didn’t see the value of fostering gender equality. 65 percent of surveyed male executives underestimate the magnitude of workplace gender bias. And few organizations feel any sense of urgency to do anything about it.
For women, this study reveals a tiring, ongoing battle in the workplace. It’s a battle that requires courage.
Courage, fortunately, is a teachable and learnable skill. Specifically, there are four distinct types of courage women can bring to their workplaces every day:
Women who make waves in business take chances when opportunity knocks, even if success isn’t guaranteed—and even when they’re afraid. It’s what I refer to as “Try” courage.
A good example comes from Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. Blakely graced the cover of Forbes as the youngest self-made female billionaire. Much of her success can be traced back to her willingness to move forward despite being afraid. As she explains, “In every situation where I was ever courageous, you could substitute the word afraid for courageous. I was afraid when I
- started Spanx with $5,000 in savings.
- knocked on the doors of textile mills begging them to manufacture my new footless pantyhose.
- traveled to Dallas to meet the buyer at Neiman Marcus to interest her in selling Spanx products.
- was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Courage means to act in spite of your fears.
Trust takes courage, especially if you’ve been betrayed in the past. And who hasn’t? But trust is essential for forming the bonds and pivotal relationships that make or break careers. Without trust, relationships can’t progress. Trusting others is particularly challenging for women who fall prey to the “superwoman” myth, believing they have to “do it all” to be successful.
In workshops, I ask people to raise their hands if they’ve ever been described as controlling. Many hands go up. Then I ask, “Raise your hands again if you absolutely love to be controlled by other people.” Guess what? No hands go up. People like to be in control, but they don’t like to be controlled. Having trust courage requires letting go. It means being vulnerable and open despite knowing that you could be betrayed and hurt.
If you identify policies or workplace practices that exclude women or cause them to be overlooked, it’s time to speak up. Inflexible work scheduling practices, for example, often make it difficult for working mothers to succeed and advance. Applying tell courage can help instigate positive change.
Speaking up, sharing your ideas, asking questions, and delivering constructive feedback all require courage. Tell courage requires being a truth-teller.
Too many people react defensively to constructive feedback, as if their identity is under assault. Take-in courage involves being able to listen to feedback without feeling threatened or punished.
For example, some women dismiss positive feedback by saying things like “It really wasn’t a big deal” or “Anyone could have done it.” Accepting feedback from others may be uncomfortable, but it’s essential to growth and development. Olympic athletes, such as Gabby Douglas or Hope Solo, may not have always been happy with the feedback they received from coaches and trainers, but without it, they wouldn’t be gold medal winners.
So how can you dial up these four types of courage? By looking to the traits of women who are already blazing the trail:
They listen to their dreams, not their fears.
Everyone experiences fear. It’s what you do with that fear that separates you from the pack. You don’t have to magically flip a switch in order to feel brave. You simply need to prioritize your dreams over your fears. By keeping your dream or big goal in focus and pushing down fear, bravery will naturally rise up and help you take the next step.
They don’t mind standing out.
Courageous women aren’t afraid to be labeled as the “black sheep.” They don’t think twice about choosing the road less traveled. Doors open when you close others. That means you’ll need to say “no” to opportunities that don’t feel 100 percent aligned with your goals. The more you draw boundaries while pursuing the path that’s right for you, the braver you’ll feel with each passing day.
They take time to reflect.
In order to take the right risk, courageous women take time to be still. Whether through meditation, walking, or sitting in a closet like Oprah Winfrey, use this time to center your mind.
They love a reality check.
Courageous women ask themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?” They take the time to write down these worst-case scenarios. When you get these thoughts out of your head and onto paper, a potential choice and its outcomes can turn out to be, well, not as scary as you thought.
They pave the way for others.
Courageous women don’t just accept the red carpet or cleared path; they roll it out or bushwhack it for the next group of women. By taking what you’ve learned and sharing it—by teaching, mentoring, or simply opening the door—you help strengthen your core purpose as you see your journey reflected in others.
They don’t let fear drive the car.
Courageous leaders know how to move forward with their fear, rather than allowing their fear to become a dead-end roadblock on their journey.
Courage won’t eliminate fear or risk, but it can help women (and men) counter fear and assess risk. Elizabeth Gilbert says it best: “Fear should always have an opinion, a say, in what’s happening. But its proper place is in the backseat, buckled up tight and along for the ride. It doesn’t get to navigate (your life) and it sure as hell doesn’t get to drive.”
This guest post was authored by Bill Treasurer
Bill Treasurer is a workplace expert, courage pioneer, and author of Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results. Founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a consulting and training company specializing in courage-building, he advises organizations—including NASA, eBay, Lenovo, Saks Fifth Avenue, Spanx, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates—on teaching workers the kind of courage that strengthens businesses and careers.
Learn more at GiantLeapConsulting.com.