Diversity. We hear that word thrown around a lot, whether it’s in corporate strategy meetings or on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
So much, in fact, that I’ve often questioned what it really means to me, my peers, and businesses small and large.
The energy around the topic of diversity is undoubtedly inspiring. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In set the stage for an explosion of diversity initiatives over the past three years, including the recent launch of Project Include just a few weeks ago. But we’ve also been handed our fair share of steps backward including South African CEO Jose dos Santos’ recent “bitch-switch” comment and former tennis CEO Raymond Moore’s suggestion that women “ride on the coattails of men”—clear indications there’s work still to be done.
But for every sexist joke or incidence of “mansplaining” (more on that here), there’s also an opportunity for women to own our diversity. No, I don’t mean focusing on the fact that we’re women, but rather, on the fact that diversity is highly valued in the workplace and that we do bring a lot to the table—not only because we’re as qualified as men (we are) but also because we’re different.
WITH DIVERSITY COMES OPPORTUNITY
Let me take you back a few years to when I was vying for an internship at a financial services company. I had made it past the initial phone screens and application review to the in-person final rounds in New York City. I was ecstatic, albeit nervous, but hey, this is NYC we’re talking about, and I was this close to the end.
I distinctly remember walking into one of those glass conference rooms on a super high floor with a gorgeous view to join a group of two women and ten men. And immediately, I’m thinking:
Great, not even a 1 to 3 ratio here. Only two of us, maybe three, are going to get chosen, and all these guys look like they’re groomed for Wall Street and I’m just an ethnic woman straddling the line between UChicago nerd, and well, just plain nerd.
Yep, you could say I felt out of place.
At this point, I was tempted to do what we’ve all been tempted to do: let the misfit feeling and self-doubt consume me. I mean, we hear it all the time. Women need more, we need to push past the days of being the only woman in the room…hell, I had just read a study proving there’s a consistent lack of female role models in every workplace that morning as I wrapped up my interview prep. It felt like all the work that “needs to be done” was staring me straight in the face—and not in an inspiring way.
But I realized I had made it to the final stage for a reason. Someone liked my application and thought I was a decent enough candidate to bring me here. I did belong. So I decided to own it. Every company wanted diversity, and I was going to give them just that and more.
Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t me playing the gender card (if such a thing actually exists), but rather, showing the unique perspective I could offer, taking advantage of my differences, and crushing this interview. I wanted to leave knowing they would remember me—possibly more than the tenth guy they had talked to that day.
I ended up getting the offer. Did it help that I was one of the few women being considered? Maybe. But the point is: I was okay with it.
Some of my male peers have implied in the past that recruiting is “easier” for me. That somehow, getting a job is easier for me because I’m a woman, even though 77.5% of first-year banking analysts are men. Yes, I know, these percentages might be partially explained by the differences in the number of applications between men and women, but you get the point. While large firms are doing great work to recruit and retain female employees, the flip side involves feelings of self-doubt and the nagging thought: “Do I really deserve this?”
It’s hard to know how to react when it’s implied that we get preferential treatment because we’re women. But what I’ve learned is that it’s important to stand our ground and avoid shrinking away from those moments when someone undermines what we thought was a well-earned interview or offer. Instead, let’s hold ourselves to the standard that our qualifications, skills, and passion fuel our accomplishments, not our gender. Our diversity is an advantage—an advantage that coupled with all our other #boss qualities, creates a force to be reckoned with.
So let’s revisit how we think about diversity. It’s not just a problem that needs to be addressed or a hot topic that has led to an expansion of targeted recruiting and networking opportunities, but something to be proud of. Yes, diversity is highly sought after, but own it, ladies. It’ll go a long way.
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What do you think? Have you faced your own battle with diversity?