Don’t Thank Your Mother (on Womens’ Day)
On International Women’s Day last year, a well-meaning and pretty well-known CEO sent an All Hands message to his organization, thanking each of his female relatives (including his ex-wife) for their positive influence on his life. He went on to credit them as the source of his energy and enthusiasm for achieving gender diversity across the company. It struck me as the wrong message to send and I’m going to suggest that you take a different approach to your messages marking International Women’s Day on March 8 this year.
What hit a wrong note with me? This executive has led a successful, almost 40-year career across several, large organizations. His company employs thousands people and industry-leading percentages of women. But his well-intentioned message triggered a singular, strong reaction for me:
How is it possible that — - after decades in the workforce — - there’s not a single female employee, colleague or mentor that’s had a noteworthy impact on his life? Really? None?
I know, if pressed, he’d name several. But the fact that not one of those women made it naturally into his message served to reinforce the stereotype that women’s primary — - or only — - impact on society comes through their personal lives and relationships. And he missed an opportunity to support and amplify the reality/message that women are highly influential through their work lives…as key employees, bosses, and advisors wielding informal and formal power.
In her 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Challenging our Gendered Idea of Mentorship, author Rania Anderson states that the scarcity of publicly-shared stories on the positive impact of women leaders on men’s careers, “…reinforces the negative bias about the ability of women to lead and contributes to the scarcity of women at the top.” Tellingly, Anderson was apparently only able to find one in the recent public record: a one sentence shout out by incoming PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta’s to his predecessor, Indra Nooyi. Anderson does share five compelling stories of female mentorship… including that of Ewan MacDougall, a former-Marine-turned-diplomat, who credits former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as a mentor, role model and inspiration. But it’s Anderson who sourced and published these stories…not the men who gained from the mentorship.
We know that humans learn best through story-telling. So this year,
I’m challenging all leaders looking to publicly celebrate Women’s Day to do so by telling the stories of the female colleagues, and professional mentors and role models who have supported, influenced and advanced their careers.
It’s a simple enough ask, and doing so will advance the true narrative: female leaders are today active and successful in mentoring and driving excellence across male (and female) colleagues and mentees. And, in doing so, they’re demonstrating key traits that qualify them for more seats in the C-Suite and all other positions requiring development, empathy and inspiration.
We’re making stubbornly slow progress in increasing women’s representation in corporate leadership roles: Board room parity in 2050? C-Suite parity in 2115?2. We can help close that gap faster by sharing the stories of women making a positive impact on their employees’ and colleagues’ professional lives today…so more women can have the opportunity to do so in the future.
Post script: Now look, as a mother myself, I could never in good conscience recommend that you miss any opportunity to publicly recognize your Mom. So, maybe don’t just thank your mother.