Women have cracked the C-suite and led startups to IPOs, but it’s still not unusual to encounter an old boys’ club dynamic at some point on your career path. So what does it take to excel in a traditionally male work environment and how can we encourage a more inclusive approach?
We dove into these hot topics during the eleventh Tatler House Stories event at The Upper House on August 18, moderated by Tamara Lamunière, chief marketing officer and founder of Front & Female and Gen.T. The audience was packed and included more than a few men.
The panel featured Peggy Choi, CEO and founder of Lynk, a knowledge-as-service platform; Brian Henderson, founder of Whole Business Wellness and co-founder of the Women's Foundation's Male Allies Initiative; and Michele Lau, senior product creation director at Nike.
When Lau started at Nike 25 years ago, she said it felt like a frat house and she was often the only woman and only Asian in the room. “We had a lot of team-building events with drinking and sports, and it was inclusive in the sense that if you dare, you can join,” she joked. “A lot of my colleagues are competitive ex-professional athletes and even Olympians.” It took her time—and some flexibility and thick skin—to become accepted. “Being one of the boys doesn't mean I have to be so tough and act like them, I want to be true to myself.”
Along with authenticity, Lau emphasised the importance of confidence and a leadership style that makes room for showing empathy and vulnerability. She also encouraged self-awareness and reflection on how you want colleagues to feel about the experience of working with you.
“Being one of the boys doesn't mean I have to be so tough and act like them, I want to be true to myself”— Michele Lau
Choi has been creating a company culture from scratch at her startup Lynk, which has reached 50/50 gender parity, although the engineering team is still more heavily male. Her interpretation of authenticity has evolved as her team has grown from a close-knit family of 10 to more than 200 employees from 22 nationalities. Her takeaway? Be yourself, but be thoughtful about which side you present, especially on a bigger stage.
Moving into the startup world gave Choi her first experiences in gender discrimination. In her prior roles in computer science and finance, she was largely evaluated on her work, but in the early stages of her company, there wasn’t much to show yet. “It was completely subjective,” said Choi. “You’re trying to sell yourself as a founder, and investors are evaluating you as an individual and not so much your business.” After being questioned on her personal life, age and marital status, Choi learned that the key is not letting it affect you emotionally.
As for our male panellist, Brian Henderson, he is a longtime ally of women in the workplace, which he credits to a respectful father, strong working mother and two female bosses early on. Even his daughter, an architect, has said he makes her feel like a lazy feminist. Lamunière posed the natural question: how can we get more men onboard and engaged?
“We tell guys, you've got to listen and learn before you do anything because you don't know what the female experience is like,” said Henderson. He cited an example from his corporate law days, when he decided to investigate why women, who outnumbered men at the junior level, were dropping out. Female staff shared that they were being overlooked for the most challenging, high-profile mandates and felt the deck was stacked against them. It's an example of the broken rung phenomenon, in which women bypassed early in their careers never manage to catch up.