I was recently invited to attend the Forbes Women’s Summit. I was ecstatic, honored and a bit nervous all at the same time. If you ever get invited to this event pack your bags and run – don’t walk – to the airport to get there. It did not disappoint.
Attendees got to hear from the next generation of female leaders including Jessica Alba. She spoke about founding her $1B+ business, The Honest Company. The founders of The Skimm shared how they are reaching thousands of millennials (confession: The Skimm is my new guilty pleasure – I read it daily even though I am not a millennial). Attendees also heard great advice from industry veterans such as the Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten) on building an empire. Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Sam’s Club, shared advice about using technology to be data driven. Ann Moore, the ex-CEO of Time, spoke about starting a second career.
That was just a sampling of the awe-inspiring speakers, but the attendees were just as impressive in their own right. In the afternoon session, I sat between the CEO of one of the largest restaurant chains in the U.S. and the CEO of a major apparel company. I shared a taxi with the Dean of a major university. During dinner I sat next to the ex-CFO of one of the largest tech companies who now sits on four public boards. It was an unbelievably inspiring two days.
However, as I was attending sessions and chatting with my fellow attendees, the conversations got me thinking about how far we have really come as female executives. I tip my hat to the generation that came before me – the female pioneers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. These women donned suits (think Diane Keaton in Baby Boom), and in many cases, traded traditional female roles for the ability to compete in “the man’s world,” while simultaneously breaking glass ceilings for those of us that followed. My generation, the women who moved up through the ‘90s and early 2000s, continue to shatter glass, but are also trying (struggling) to “have it all.” I can’t help but wonder, how far do we still have to go?
In one of the discussions I attended, women shared what makes them good leaders. While there were many great answers (“I get sh*t done,” for example), in about one-third of the answers women talked about how they have skills that allow them to be ambitious without seeming aggressive, or how they are able to navigate and succeed in male-dominated environments without being seen as pushy.
That got me thinking: is that how we should be measuring our success? Is that what’s required of women who want to be a good leaders? Instead of being shocked, I did a little self-examination and, unfortunately, found that I agreed with these sentiments. I have had multiple bosses compliment me for “being one of the boys” or “fitting in” during particular discussions. Am I guilty of downplaying some of my better qualities to fit in and be successful in male-dominated environments? And if so, am I still being a good leader?
I am hopeful that with all of the amazing female leaders and pioneers we have today – like those I met at the Forbes Women’s Summit – we will move to create an environment where women never have to conform to male perceptions. I am hopeful that through the efforts of such organizations like Lean In and #BanBossy we will change these underlying attitudes for women of the next generation.
Until then, I will continue to be inspired by the amazing women that I met and spoke with at the Forbes’ Women’s Summit, as they should be an inspiration to us all.