What would you do if your employer told you to not sign your first name to customer letters? Why? He thought customers wouldn’t buy from a woman and your first name would give them a clue. Would you comply? Would you angrily protest the inequality of women and refuse? You certainly could do that. That’s not the route that one very successful businesswoman took.
I recently interviewed Marilyn Carlson Nelson. If you don’t know her, you probably know her businesses. If you ate at a T.G.I. Friday’s or stayed at a Radisson, you’re supporting just a few of her companies. She is the Chairman and former Chief Executive Officer of Carlson Companies, Inc., one of the largest privately held companies in the world. She also raised four children. She was the one who had a previous employer ask her to sign her name with her initials as “M.C. Carlson” since he believed that no one would take financial advice from a woman. She also was banished to an office when she was pregnant because her company didn’t want anyone to see her in that “condition.”
She didn’t think it was important to point out to management that treating her differently was a bad idea. Instead she focused on doing her job and doing it well. I think she was right. There wasn’t much upside in fighting over a few letters or where she sat. But, there are times women have to champion a cause in business. Notice that I didn’t say there are times to get emotional. Women especially have to be very careful in the ways they stand up for themselves.
I was once in a situation where one of my male peers was treated differently (better) than I was over a company policy. It made me furious to be treated differently. I carefully planned my strategy to present my case to my boss. Rather than make it a male/female issue, I focused on the policy components and showed how the policy was being implemented inconsistently to two new employees, me being one of them. I never got angry and never called it a sexist policy. As a result, my point of view prevailed and I got what I wanted.
I believe you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. Don’t mistake my belief with thinking that firmness, forcefulness, and your own point of view are banished from the workplace. They certainly have a place in business. What I am suggesting is that falling on the sword of gender unfairness is a tough sell. The only way to get results is to position it differently. Women’s emotions just don’t sell. Bottom line business results do. It sure is sweet when those appeals to bottom line business get results.