I take it as a point of pride and a testiment to my business acumen that I am invited to participate in my company’s quarterly board meeting reviews. Someone in the chain of command believes the work I do on a daily basis is significant enough to warrant review and discussion with business leaders across the company as well as the CEO himself. It is a great boost to the ego, and if all goes well, it offers an injection of self-confidence that lasts at least until the next conference call or project meeting.
But as much as I enjoy being invited to these elite board meetings, I hate the fact that I am the only woman in the room.
Until not that long ago, I worked for a Fortune 100 company that saw the need for diversity in the work place to be a priority almost on par with the need to aggressively drive up our stock price. I rarely attended a meeting where I didn’t see someone else in the room who looked like me. In many cases, that person who looked like me was the most senior leader in her business. These were the women I aspired to be. Like them, I wanted to be one of the women invited to the board meeting.
When I interviewed with my new company, I commented to the executive recruiter I was working with that I was concerned because everyone I interviewed with was white and male. He assured me that generating a more diverse workforce was one of the company’s initiatives. Needless to say, a few more people have been hired into leadership positions since me–all of them male. So, as I sat in the boardroom last week and looked around to see one man after the next take a seat at the table, I began to make some observations on what it is like to be the only girl in the club.
1. The Suit – At the proclamation that the board meeting attire was “business” (as opposed to “business casual”), a collective groan was heard down the hall. “I hate wearing a wearing a jacket all day,” one collegue complained. To me, the attire declaration went almost unnoticed. On most days in the office, you’ll find my clothing choice to include a jacket or a “completor piece”, as my friends on TLC’s What Not To Wear describe how a jacket or sweater is used to to elevate an outfit to a different level. That elevation is exactly the inequality I have felt for years. In order for a woman to be taken as professionally as her male counterpart, she must routinely dress herself at a higher level. I learned this lesson while at that diverse Fortune 100 company, as most of those women I admired were always seen wearing a suit or jacket even when not presenting to senior leadership. The men, on the other hand, wear their golf shirts and button-downs as their daily uniform.
2. Torture Devices – As I walked down the hall to the boardroom, I met up with a sales vice president. He took in my business attire (a truly sharp, brand new, tan pant suit over a silk tank in a tasteful reptile print with coordinating accessories), and said, “You didn’t wear a tie? That’s not fair!” My response? “No. No tie for me, but I am wearing four-inch pointy toe pumps. Would you like to trade?” For the dinner following the meeting, my boss respectfully told everyone, myself included, “No tie for dinner.” It was very nice of him to consider his team’s comfort at dinner. We really can’t expect the guys to have to deal with a little adversity while they eat. I, however, kept my four-inch pointy toe shoes on my aching feet throughout the entire meal!
3. Bio-Breaks – Board meetings at my company are all-day events with two miserly breaks distributed throughout the day. The only thing that saves me from some serious bladder issues is the fact that our CEO is a chain smoker whose need for a cigarette happens just about as often as my need for a trip to the little girl’s room. The guys it seems, can sit there four hours straight without a care in the world. On the plus side, the smoking area and the restrooms are in the same general direction, so I was able to get some extra face-time with the CEO on the way out the door, while the men stayed behind loosening their ties.
4. Language – Prior to my first board meeting appearance last year, I was prepped by my peers to expect our CEO to launch several “F-Bombs” during the course of the meeting. I don’t think their warning was a concern for my gentle nature so much as a statement of things to come. When the first meeting ended without a single utterance of anything that would be considered colorful, I commented about the lack of four-letter words. One collegue quickly joined the conversation to declare that the only reason our illustrious CEO was so tame was because I was in the room, and he probably didn’t want to offend a woman. There may be some truth to that, as I have participated in four board meetings now and have yet to be a victim of his notorious F-Bomb attacks.
Regardless of the lack of estrogen in the boardroom, I don’t regret my decision to leave the Fortune 100 company for the smaller, less diverse employer. While I am one of only a handful of women who work in my office, I don’t feel discriminated against, just a little lonely to not have another female to make these observations with while sitting in that boardroom.
Hopefully, one day soon, I will be able to add someone to my team, and I intend to make sure that person looks like me. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your observations from the boardroom.
Be comfortable in your pointy toe pumps!