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Helen Drinan Headshot

Women Must Stand Up for Themselves in the Workplace

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By this time each fall, our campus is in full swing with students and faculty rushing to and from classes, meetings, and all the various activities. I can't help but think back to my own years at Mt. Holyoke College, before I started my career in business and -- much later -- in higher education.

Like me, the students at Simmons College, a small liberal arts women's undergraduate college in Boston where I am president, have the same hope for a bright future. They all want the opportunity to prove their worth and accomplish their career goals. Unfortunately, many of these women may face some of the same very difficult workplace challenges that I did -- a disappointing reality for those of us who had hoped that 40 years of work in support of women's advancement, increased education, and workplace improvements would bring about more significant results. Like me, they will develop their own personal stories of hard-knocks and lessons learned.

Certainly, women occupy more roles of power today, but women who ascend and retain positions of leadership remain few. While women make up more than half of the number of students in higher education and outperform their male classmates, (in number of advanced degrees earned in all fields but science and technology) that has not translated into gender equity or a significant increase in leadership roles.

There are many reasons why women have not achieved more positions of leadership, including access to education, gender stereotypes, and workplace culture. There is another reason, I believe, and I experienced it personally. Women need to develop personal fortitude and clear strategies to navigate complex male-dominated workforces. Future women leaders need us to explain to them clearly that there may be many difficult days ahead and they will need to build up their "armor" to prepare for those times. I believe the more women talk about their own very challenging times and what they did in response, the more we can help the next generation of women leaders excel.

I'd like to share a personal story that was a key turning point in my career; it is a story that reinforces the importance of personal fortitude and strategies for coping in a male-dominated workforce.

When I was working in middle management in banking, I faced an extremely challenging personal and professional situation. I worked for a male leader who was emotionally and verbally abusive. He was personally hostile to me, making disparaging remarks about my appearance, my ethnic and religious background, and my provincial life experience. This manager held mandatory work sessions after hours without notice. On one particular evening when I was working on a project, he called me into his office and delivered a two-hour tirade about all the things he thought were wrong with me.

I withstood this withering experience for a long time, until, having spoken very few words, I burst into uncontrollable tears. I left for home after 9:00 p.m. and arrived completely distraught. I knew my continued employment was at risk if I remained subject to the irrationality of this man. Thankfully, I had the support of my husband and the strategy know-how I learned in business school, which helped me devise a plan of action.

I met with our department head and told him that I had experienced an unprovoked and abusive verbal attack by my manager that clearly evidenced his many prejudices against me. I said that I wanted the incident investigated, that I would not work with him alone again, and that I wanted an opportunity to discuss the outcome of the investigation with the CEO.

The investigation was conducted, and I had that meeting with the CEO. The internal investigation found me not responsible for the breakdown in managerial responsibilities, and I was given two choices: accept a severance package and leave or end the matter without further conversation. I determined that it was in my best interest to end the matter and never discussed it again at work. A year later, I was offered a major promotion, and during the next several years, I made continuous progress up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the first woman appointed to the Senior Management Committee in the history of my company.

I believe to this day that standing up against this behavior, calling on executive leadership to take a support position, making a very tough decision (to end the matter without further conversation), and to continue working very hard, not only saved my career, but also helped me continue to ascend into leadership positions. My definition of success has evolved from my many years of experiences like this: have clear goals and persevere; know that numerous challenges will come your way; know what you truly stand for, and be ready to take challenges on as they come.

If my personal story has proven anything, it's that you can survive challenging experiences and move on to better opportunities. In the end, clear goals, education, experience, and confidence will move the ranks of talented and motivated women to great heights.

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