Routes & Ladders

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The typical ladder has nice, evenly spaced rungs to get you from the ground to whatever high spot you have your sights set on. But what happens when the top rungs are missing? You can get part way up, but can’t go very high.  Or what if all of the bottom rungs are missing? It’s hard to even get off the ground.

This is why fully functioning role model ladders are important for women in business. Meaning women at every level of an organization need to be ready to help other women. They are the “rungs” that can take women from the bottom to the top, and every step between.

Why not an elevator that shoots you right to the top floor? Because having a rung at every level, having role models at each step along the way, helps make the goal seem more attainable. In other words, the women you aspire to be need to be close enough in scope and age, so that you can relate to them.

Don’t get me wrong… heroes are great. We all want to shoot for the moon, but the reality is that our role models have far greater and more direct impact if they are one rung above us–within our reach.  If someone is doing a job that you can clearly envision and filling the role in a concrete, realistic way, it’s easier to picture yourself in that role.

Let me tell you a story. My ten year-old daughter was tasked with writing an essay about her biggest role model.  She picked Mara, one of the young women on my team at work. She selected Mara because she started on my team as an intern while she was still in college, and she would come over to our house and talk about her job. Bailey would hear me talk about how talented and hard working Mara was. But I talk about the amazing people I work with all the time.  Why did she pick Mara?  Because she can relate to Mara. She can see herself in Mara. And the rungs continue. I am Mara’s role model–a female VP of Product Management.  My job feels attainable to her.  And I look up to Gail, our Chief Science Officer.  Every rung matters.

If you agree that “Role Model Ladders” are critical for women in the workforce (or hoping to be part of the workforce), how do you create them?  One step at a time (pun intended). Step one: you need to talk about it. Direct discussion is critical to address any elephants, or lack of elephants, in the room.  When you see a missing ladder rung in your organization, go to your HR department or your department head and highlight it for them. Let me offer an example. I once called our Senior Director of Engineering and said, “Do you realize we don’t have any female engineering managers? Next time we’re hiring, let’s focus on that.”

Here in Austin we have the University of Texas—a big and great university. We also have under recognized resources like Texas State, Saint Edwards University, and ACC. I first posted a job opening on the UT job board. Then I met a female professor at Texas State, so I had a direct local connection.  When all I got was resumes from men, I called her and said, “I know there are talented women at Texas State. Can you encourage them to apply for this position?”  And guess what?  The woman she encouraged to apply is the woman that my ten year old looks up to.  It’s local.  It’s personal.  My company isn’t changing the world in broad strokes. We are affecting real woman (and the world) in small ways. But if every organization does the same, it will undoubtedly have a broad stroke effect.

By the way, it is ok (and not illegal) to shoot for diversity – to target under represented people. But it may take more time and more energy. I was at a dinner party a couple of years ago with a man who had founded a startup.  He said to me, “I don’t have time to wait. I need to fill positions. Ten people walked in the door and they were qualified, so I hired them. If they had been women, I would have happily hired them, but they weren’t.” If we want this to change, we all have to be willing to make the effort to seek out and hire women.  Founders of small companies have to expand the search.  Doing the right thing for women is undoubtedly doing the right thing for your company–more growth, more success.

It’s also important to note that sometimes women on the middle rungs of the ladder slip off. Often, the people who fill the middle rungs are at an age where they are starting families. Too often they don’t climb back on the ladder because there are too many obstacles to overcome. Truly innovative companies don’t let this happen to talented team members.

I’ll never forget standing outside the London Tube when my son called in tears because he lost an important mock trial at school. I looked at my colleague, a young woman who is not yet a mom, and said, “I have to talk to my son right now.” She watched me as I tried to console him. Yes, I was on a business trip in Europe, but my family comes first. Seeing the reality of how you balance these situations can be crucial for many young women.

While we are at it, let me tell you what middle and upper rung women should not do. A female VP of Engineering did this to me when I was on a lower rung looking up to her.  She said, “You just suck it up and deal with it.” Right before I gave birth to my child with a laptop next to me.”  She was proud of that. Don’t do that to women colleagues.

Instead, the women filling those higher rungs must be willing to open themselves up and show the personal side. Let the people around them witness the juggling act.  Let them see the moments that are crazy and difficult.  Let it be personal.  We have great heroes like Sheryl Sandberg who write books about what it is like, but I can guarantee you that the colleague who stood with me outside the London Tube and listened to me cry with my son will not forget that.

It is only through small, intentional steps that we can change things for women in the workplace. Tasktop is doing it. Your company can do it. And, I guarantee that if your daughter comes home and says that she is writing about a woman in your ladder, you will feel exhilarated and hopeful about the future.