I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think much about gender differences in the workplace as I moved through my career. I never saw things through a “male” or “female” filter and didn’t experience blatant gender stereotyping at work. Perhaps the reason I didn’t have this filter was because I grew up with a single mom and a strong-willed grandmother who were tougher than anyone else I knew. They certainly didn’t let being female stop them from succeeding. With this mindset, I have worked hard to stay true to who I am and become a woman leader.
However, I know that my own experience is unique. Women rising to leadership positions are still relatively uncommon. For example, look at S&P 500 Companies in 2017; women hold only 25.1% of the executive/senior level manager positions and only 5.8% of the CEO positions at these companies. The numbers tell a very clear story. High-potential women are still not equally represented at the senior level.
So what can be done to tackle this issue? While there is no simple solution and everyone’s journey is different, there are four pieces of advice I have gained along the way.
1. Be authentic. It can be challenging to be authentic as women. We’re constantly pressured to change to fit in. I’ve seen the stereotypes people expect to see in women leaders. And people can be uncomfortable when we don’t fit the mold. There was one instance at a work fundraiser when a woman asked me, “Do you have a house manager?” I laughed and said, “No, but I need one.” She was surprised to hear this response, but we connected by laughing about it. Yes, I too was a working woman managing my home life and career without much help. Being authentic breaks down walls, so don’t be afraid to just be you.
2. Be true to your priorities. There is power and control in claiming what is most important to you. I’ve talked to women who didn’t apply for higher-level roles even though they were qualified because they thought it would ruin their life’s balance. This is a mistake. If you make your expectations clear, balance is possible while still getting the role you desire. When I applied for chief administrative officer, I made it clear that I needed to be home for my kids each night as they are my priority. But I also committed to getting the results that my division needed. By owning my priorities, I gained power, maintained integrity and earned respect from others.
3. Be open to learning, but show appreciation for the experts. Some men in my division believed I wasn’t qualified in my role because I hadn’t “grown up” in IT. Hearing that feedback, I immediately took the opportunity to expand my knowledge base. I took a course, got a certificate and committed to ongoing learning. During this period I also made sure to show appreciation for the experts who had “grown up” there. This proved to be a key step in overcoming negative perceptions. I owned the fact that I wasn’t an IT expert, that was their role, but I was open to learning, and most importantly, I showed them why I was the qualified and supportive leader that they needed.
4. Keep moving and get results. Early in my career, I would tell my grandmother about work and would often talk about things that weren’t going right. While she would listen and let me vent, she would eventually say, “Fair is the condition of the sky. Get over it.” This stuck with me. There are always negative distractions that hold people hostage, but successful people step out of the “herd” and focus on moving ahead to get results. Results will win every time.
While progress is still being made, there is much work ahead for women to gain equal representation in senior positions. Individually women can take the first step to gain career power by being authentic, owning their priorities, expanding knowledge and focusing on results to catapult their career. I hope that together we can change the numbers so that future stats tell a different story.
As CAO of Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, Cathy Mahone is responsible for Operations, IT, Sourcing, Re-Engineering, Suitability and Digitalization and Global Infrastructure Projects. During her time with the company, Allianz Life has increased customer satisfaction and engagement scores, reduced cycle times, run-rate and other expenses, and improved service levels for fixed annuities.
Before joining Allianz Life in 2008, Mahone served as Vice President of the Operations Project Management Office at Ameriprise Financial, where she built a 20-year career in various positions, including large transformation initiatives involving operations, IT, marketing, distribution and sales.
Mahone has a bachelor's degree in mass communications from the University of Minnesota and a master's degree in business communications from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. She holds FINRA Series 7 and 24 securities registrations. She serves on the board of Lifeworks, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities.