The broad participation of women in the workforce is still very new. In my grandparents generation, it was relatively rare for a woman to work outside of the home. In 1940, 25.4 percent of US women were “economically active.” By 1965, the number had grown to 38.9 percent. Today, the number stands at 56.8 percent (source: OECD data from Our World in Data).
The relatively recent entry of women into the workforce means that many women continue to feel like outsiders. We are taught to adopt a mentality of assimilation, where the best way to succeed is to learn how to fit in, to accept the existing work environment, and to adapt in order to live up to preconceived expectations.
This assimilation mindset is particularly acute in male-dominated industries such as technology. Women occupy only about about 25 percent of technology jobs. In other words, the tech industry shares far too much in common with the overall demographics of the 1940s workforce.
My own career trajectory owes a huge debt to the trailblazing example of my grandmother, who defied the odds and forged a career in fashion in New York. Yet, despite the example provided by my grandmother, I was taught, mentored and encouraged to adopt the assimilation mindset early in my career. I shied away from putting my perspective out there, even though I saw things differently from the people in charge. I chose to try to conform — to look, act and behave like those above me, even though I knew deep down that there was a better way.
I believe that very few people, and even fewer companies, succeed by conforming to the conventional wisdom and standard behaviors. This is certainly true in the tech industry. All of the iconic technology companies — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon — share a common trait: they succeeded by challenging the status quo, reimagining the way the world works, and forging a path never before taken. Netflix didn’t become successful by conforming to the expectations set out by Blockbuster.
So, as I settled into my career, I came to realize that my assimilation mindset was setting my career on a trajectory that was making me unhappy and holding me back from unleashing my potential. I was working hard to adapt to preconceived expectations. And in doing so, I was cheating myself and short-changing the company I worked for and the teams around me.
My experience in leadership roles in financial services and technology companies has allowed my to understand the importance of challenging expectations even more clearly. I have come to realize (often the hard way) that my success as a leader is directly correlated to fostering diverse points of view. That means welcoming ideas and unique perspectives from everyone – those with different backgrounds including age, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and also people with different working styles, motivations, skill-sets and personal goals. I know that when I am willing to be myself and call it like it is, I create room for others to do the same — and that leads to a stronger team and better outcomes.
As an industry, we need to empower everyone — particularly those who have often felt like and been outsiders — to reject the assimilation mindset. We need to foster a culture where people feel confident about being who they truly are and remove any pressures they might face to conform. Doing so will empower the next generation of leaders to be bold and unlock their capacity to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table.
We can make a huge change. I am tired of giving advice to women on how to “lean in,” or fit in, with an existing, old school culture. Instead, I want us to reimagine a work environment that fits who we already are. For me (and I hope for you too) International Women’s Day is a reminder that we need to be relentless about courageously challenging preconceived expectations in our work and life. It’s one day when we should all pause to consider how we can deliberately make our life and work natural to who we all are — and in doing so unleash our collective potential.