And How to Thrive as a Female Executive; Part 1

Barbie was the highest-grossing film of 2023 and has won a slew of statues, despite the Oscar snubs. More importantly, it has reignited social debates about feminism, the patriarchy and capitalism. Big perennials!

In this two-part series, we will use the Barbie movie’s fresh reflections on what women can do at an individual level to thrive in their careers. Then, in part two, we will discuss what the organisations they work for can do to engage. Male readers will find these thoughts helpful too, so please read on.

Many women are familiar with the feminist ideal that they can have it all. Yet, over the course of a career, whilst nurturing a family, and/or pursuing personal passions we realise that life is full of trade-offs. The Barbie story captures this dilemma well when Gloria (America Ferrera), assistant to the Mattel CEO, tells Barbie how she sees things in a brilliant monologue, which includes the following:

‘You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people.

You have to answer for men’s bad behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So, find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.’

Why does it take fiction to reveal big truths?

Gloria leaves no doubt that doing all of this is hard. And we do well to recognise that it is hard. But the challenges are less daunting when we are crystal clear about why we are doing it. When you know why you want this particular career it becomes easier to navigate and negotiate the trade-offs you are prepared to make along the way.

We know that achieving diversity in senior management happens at a glacial pace. So, at a personal level, it is best to assume the system will not change quickly. In most organisations, the structures, cultures and unconscious bias will take generations to change. So, let’s take counsel from the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference

Women can hasten change by using new more deliberately inclusive language and being clear about their expectations that new workplace norms should be adopted. A brilliant example of how a language change can accelerate the adoption of new norms is the way the Harvard Alcohol Project in the late 1980s partnered with Hollywood and television networks to accelerate the use of the concept of a designated driver, which it had discovered in Scandinavia. Even the comedy Cheers wrote the concept into its scripts, and in a relatively short time, designated drivers became the norm. Another example is the Spotlight Initiative by the EU and UN to end violence against women, where programs to change established gender norms are central to achieving long-term change. Each and all of us can accelerate the adoption of more inclusive and equitable language in our workplace.

At an individual level, women can and should be successful. Yet the pace of change is far too slow for any one person to accept. So, change the things you can by dealing with your unique circumstances in a way that maximises your values and interests.

Politics is alive and well in the workplace

There are ambitions, factions, special interest groups and agendas. Learn to read and navigate the political forces you’re encountering. As a start, be guided first by your values and then by what is best for the organisation. Hone your interpersonal skills to pursue your ambitions. An iron fist in a velvet glove is an excellent metaphor for the diplomacy we need to practice. On the one hand, we do not need to behave according to expectations of softness or submissiveness, and on the other, we do not want to mimic the tone and style of our male colleagues.

Building on the above, you can pay attention to the language you use. Language has power and it is used by others to make judgements about our confidence and self-esteem. When we talk, we are not just communicating ideas and our perspectives, we are also cultivating relationships. So, the language we use needs to reflect how we want our relationships to be.

Language is socially learned. Many women have been taught to be submissive and constantly apologise or try and make themselves or their actions seem small – which only serves to reinforce old norms. As a test, check some of the recent emails you’ve sent and see how often you cushion your requests or advice with a ‘just’ and ‘would you consider.’ Removing this type of language, both internally and externally, can make a huge difference in being perceived as a successful female leader.

Next, we need to be problem solvers. Rather than focus on obstacles and the reasons things are difficult, we need to frame challenges in terms of what can be achieved. You will be a stronger, happier leader and your teams will be more likely to step up alongside you.

Think of networking as firesticks that eventually spark opportunity

Finally, women have excellent social skills, but no one loves the idea of networking, so let’s think about it differently. Firstly, think of networking as part of your role rather than something extra you have to do at the expense of competing demands.

Recognise that networking is good for your career. A Harvard study of successful entrepreneurs found that they all said they were lucky. When the researchers probed deeper, they found that the luck came from their networking. They met someone, they were introduced to the right person, they were at an event, and it changed their course. Admittedly, many networking structures favour male preferences, but there are many ways we can be better at networking. One is to be more open and persist with the effort since it seems being lucky is very much a numbers game.

It may all sound too piecemeal for some. However, the philosopher Karl Popper argued against grand-scale, utopian-style social engineering. Rather, he says piecemeal change achieves better results. Bit by bit, degree by degree, habit by habit, we will achieve the change we want, provided our compass is set by our values and they are reflected in our words and actions.

In part two, we will explore what we can all do, at an organisational level, to make our organisations healthy and vibrant for everyone.

Libby Roy, Executive Coach at ECI Partners

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