Early Meeting: Some Days Are Harder than Others
In our LeaderMom data, about half of our panelists “see gender equity in sight in their organizations.”
Over the years, I have been unsure of how to contextualize that number. “Only half” or “as much as half”? I am American enough to love the idea of progress, but know it is not inevitable. Writing only about hope would be a fairy tale; there are rough realities and terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. This piece holds a story up to the light, in the hope of increasing awareness and enabling wiser moment-to-moment choices for all actors in stories like this.
There are ways to handle the pain of bias that transform it into suffering. There are ways to respond that acknowledge the brutal reality and hold the possibility of better. We advocate the second, and highlight this story because this LeaderMom garnered the strength to do it. Leadership can be lonely for anyone. What follows are examples of why mental toughness, resilience skills and emotional intelligence matter in general, and in the face of bias.
Context and Cast:
A senior LeaderMom executive is asked to schedule a meeting on issue that falls under her decision rights.
A male senior executive colleague wants to be there. His only open time is a 6:30 AM time slot.
She is a single mom. She imagines the contorted logistics it would take to be part of this meeting, doesn’t think it is worth it as the problem is being solved already.
She hears that another colleague quipped about her that she can’t come because she is getting her kid to school. He implies she is less committed than the other (older, male) leaders who are “always available 24-7.”
She begins to feel the “can’t have it all” narrative rise in her throat like vomit. Then guilt and isolation. How can they not respect her? Will she fail her team or her toddler?
She begins to think of how she can get to that meeting.
What comes next is where she distinguishes herself as a LeaderMom. Some of us would have kept that swirl of fear going and fed it, with yet more evidence that we are not enough. Some of us would have contorted and exhausted ourselves, for a hit of a Super Woman ego boost, and capped that off later with a dose of resentment.
She didn’t do either of those things. She paused and picked up her head and reflected:
What is really happening here? This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t feel good at all.
Will this be worthwhile? No, there is no value add and significant cost to having this meeting now. If it were valuable, then it might be worth it.
It is just me? No, her number 2 is also a parent of a young child. He is in a similar boat. This isn’t about me. He doesn’t think this meeting is worth not taking his kid to school either.
How do I feel? I feel annoyed. This request is a nuisance. She is exasperated by the implied lack of commitment; she is committed and very effective. Her colleague is well intended, and his schedule is notoriously full of meetings he will say he is going to, but not make. If this group meets at the crack of dawn, odds are 50-50 he won't be there. He looks committed, but often doesn’t follow through. She does.
With these perspectives and check-in with herself, she takes a different tact. No guilt, no contorting. She reminds the person scheduling the meeting, “Yes, I need to be there. No, this time doesn’t work for me, or for my #2. There are 72 hours other available on my calendar this week. I am confident one of them will work.” She also followed up with a note about the improvements she is driving in her area, and let others know she feels confident about the forthcoming resolution of the problem. She looks forward to the time with her daughter and thinks about what music they will play on the ride home.
We wish that resolved it, but that isn’t the end of the story. Instead, this leader was told by her boss that she needed to be there to “protect her personal brand.” She scrambled to find a babysitter for 5:30 am because daycare doesn’t open until 7:00 AM. And…yes, she redid an hour-long presentation to a group of people who had already seen it.
Some days are like that, based on the powers that be. Here’s what makes her a great example of the mental toughness needed to navigate days like that.
1. She trusted herself – in her competence and contributions -- as a business leader who has unique skills on her executive leadership team, and has the situation under control. She did the work to get clear on and grounded in who she is – at her best, her accomplishments, what her strengths are, where her ambitions lay -- and how she wants to show up at work and as a mother. Truly the best defense is a good offense. She asked herself, “Who am I in the face of this?” and decided to not be triggered by the ridiculousness of it. Because she worked on reducing her reactivity when triggered, she used her emotional reactions to enrich her wisdom and guide her toward a mindful response, which is moving toward healthier boundaries.
2. She did something. She spoke up about the value she is adding and communicated calm. She talked to her boss and said she would take one for the team, this time.
3. She played the ball where it was dropped, with seriousness about the business problem and a lightness with herself. She resisted letting her energy and her afternoon be depleted by a low-level sense of feeling violated or disrespected. Had she showed those feelings initially, she may have come off as shrill. She could see a gender bias in play that both women and men have – that is, a stronger association of women with family than with career. That bias makes people’s brains prone to automatically draw shortcut conclusions – i.e.., not available because of her child -- and less likely to hear her actual reason – i.e., as the authority on the topic, she knew the meeting would have almost no value-add.
4. She deployed the self-care and resilience skills she had cultivated.
a. She avoided the rabbit hole of excess pessimism. Excess pessimism looks like taking something personally (“they don’t respect me” or judging oneself or the other person as bad), or seeing the situation as permanent (always/never) or pervasive (no one/everyone).
b. She leaned into relationships that support her. She thanked the colleagues who stood up for her and faced the same challenge, and a team member who was in a similar boat. She called a friend.
c. She accepted the brutal reality while changing the dynamic where she could. That not only improved her own quality of life in the midst of others’ bad decisions, but resilience for others in the same situation.
d. She planned to get a good night’s sleep, read a favorite book with her with her little girl, and cook a great meal.
Notice how the bias threatened to affect her internally (self-doubt, can’t do it all narrative playing like a bad song on repeat) and externally (attributing a disagreement to her being an unavailable mom, not to a business issue). Being aware of bias enables us to recognize it, try to outsmart it, or at least not to take it as personally. We might be less depleted by it then and more supportive of each other in the face of it. That’s the reason this pillar is first.