Several years ago, I had the privilege of hearing the author Amos Oz talk about his book Tale of Love and Darkness. Published in 2002, the book is an intensely personal chronicle of his childhood in Jerusalem on the cusp of Israel’s independence, and his rebellion during his teenage and early adult years against the mores of his Eastern European parents by transforming himself into the quintessential sabra.
He shared that he wrote the book primarily for himself, to help him work through the complexities of his relationship with his parents, and for his children and grandchildren. He was genuinely surprised when the book became a worldwide best seller, translated into close to 30 languages. This led him to the insight that there is nothing more universal than the personal.
With this in mind—although never in a million years comparing myself with Amos Oz—I am hoping that the letter below to my adult daughters, Inbal and Sivan, as they launch their professional careers in a complex #metoo world, will resonate with other young women. Although my frame of reference is the high-tech ecosystem, the insights are applicable across all professions. Here goes…
Dearest Inbal and Sivan,
I am so proud of you as you take your first steps in your chosen fields. I would like to think that I have been a good role model for you, as a woman who worked hard to build a successful career in the high-tech world. I know I couldn’t have done it without the support and encouragement that I always had from you and your father.
Through the years, I have learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Although I firmly believe that people learn best from their own mistakes, I am writing you this letter in order to articulate some insights I have gained, in the hope that they may shorten your own learning curves, whether your career be in a male-dominated field like mine, or not.
Don’t Worry About Labels
In light of a 70% rise in searches for the term ‘feminism’ in 2017 (compared to 2016), the Merriam Webster dictionary has decreed it the word of the year. Yet in a very recent survey conducted by Mintel in the UK, only 29% of the women respondents described themselves as feminists. One of the reasons identified for this relatively low identification of women with feminism is the difficulty in understanding what being a feminist means. Close to half (49%) of all the women surveyed noted this difficulty—rising to 57% among women aged 55+.
I guess I am among those 71% of women who do not officially label themselves feminists. For me, a feminist is someone who actively takes part in a systematic struggle for woman empowerment, and that’s not me. I haven’t chained myself to any boardroom chairs in protest of the fact that I was always the only woman in the room. But I have always been intensely aware of the obstacles that a woman faces when advancing her career in a patriarchal society, and I have never missed an opportunity to challenge those obstacles so that it will be easier for the women coming after me.
Don’t waste time and energy worrying about how to label yourself. Neither should you be afraid of those who try to label you as a “feminist”— often with the connotation that that makes you a “nuisance” or a “troublemaker”—just because you are a strong, proud woman.
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Knowledge Is, Indeed, Power
To stand up for your rights, you have to know what they are. If you want to get the same employment conditions as your male colleagues, you need to research what the norms are both in your field and in your specific place of work.
I remember one situation in which I was promoted to a team leader role, but there was no mention of a raise to go along with the promotion. I knew that the (male) person who filled the role before me had a higher salary and I made it very clear that I expected to be compensated equitably for the extra responsibility I was taking on. I remember the look of surprise in the eyes of my manager, who I liked and admired very much, that I wasn’t just grateful to get the promotion. I had the audacity to also demand a raise? Needless to say I got the raise, and, more importantly, I believe that my manager regarded me with even greater respect for having insisted on it.
So my second bit of advice is to be prepared, do your homework—and build a strong network so you can leverage “inside” information.
Seek Champions, but Be Wary
I’ve never had a woman boss, so I don’t know what that’s like. But I have had several male bosses who recognized my worth and helped me advance my career. They were my champions within the organization, and everybody benefitted—me, the company, and them because my strong performance made them look good.
However, like the situation that I described above about the promotion offered without a raise, you still have to be wary and prepared to stand up for your rights even if you feel it might “wrinkle” the good relationship between you and your champion. In addition to salary, those rights include getting the same title as other colleagues doing equivalent work. I recall one situation where I was “headhunted” by one of my champions and offered a job I assumed would come with VP status, which was the next natural step in my career path. But when I received the contract, it described the role as “Director of…” instead of “VP of…”. Although I very much wanted the job, I made it clear that being acknowledged as VP was non-negotiable. It worked, and it was one of the best jobs I ever had. But had I deferred to my champion, I would have missed out on a very important milestone in my career path.
Gender Differences as Strengths
Men and women are different and vive la différence. The problem in a patriarchal society, however, is that the particular strengths commonly found in women more than men—intuition, multi-tasking, compassion, to name just a few—are not generally valued in the workplace.
Your goal, therefore, should not be to take on more “masculine” behavior in order to get ahead, but to leverage your inherent strengths as a woman to do your job better and to make the workplace more productive. If you need statistics to back it up, there are any number of studies I can point you to that show that companies that promote gender equality reap the benefits in their bottom line.
I noted above that I have never had a woman boss, but I have been a boss to both men and women and I believe that being a woman absolutely helped me be a good boss.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reinvent Yourselves
This is true for anyone, not just women. But I have observed that women in particular are more risk-aversive and afraid of change. I have reinvented myself so many times in my career—from technical writer, to professional services and then business development executive, to management. Today it’s called “pivoting”. The point, though, is not to be afraid to grab every opportunity that comes your way even if it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Trust me, it makes life—and work—way more interesting.
Fight for Work-Life Balance
This is a particularly tricky one. How does a woman balance career and family without damaging both of them? It is very, very difficult. And if there is any one issue around which I believe women (and men!) should organize, it would be this.
We’re seeing some positive trends, with more and more companies acknowledging that supporting their employees in achieving a better life-work balance is simply good business practice. And I know that you’re jealous of your cousins in Canada, who get amazing maternity/paternity benefits that encourage both mothers and fathers to be actively engaged in their baby’s first year of life. Israel, too, has all the right laws in place to prevent discrimination against women for having families. But there is still a strong bias to be overcome and we can never let up in this battle.
Do Not “Accept” Toxic Situations
Again, this can happen to both men and women. You may find yourselves in a situation where you have, for example, an abusive boss (male or female) who undermines you and makes you feel bad about yourself. Recognize these situations and do not accept them as normative. If you can’t rectify the situation, update your CV and get the hell out of there.
I feel that I could go on forever, but I don’t want to try your patience. Let me just end by saying that I believe in you and know that you will find your respective ways to advance your careers in the face of all the obstacles described above (and more). I also know that you will be excellent role models for YOUR daughters.
Lots of love and hugs,