Ageism in the workplace? One woman tells her story – and explains her coping strategies – in our latest anonymous column, everywomanIncognito.
In her TED Talk, tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley posed the question: “Why do ambitious women have flat heads?” The answer? “From being patted patronisingly.” I know what she means.
Taking on my first board director role at the age of 25 was one of the proudest yet most terrifying moments of my career – I desperately wanted to be taken seriously and make an impact on my colleagues, the youngest of whom was twice my age. When I first took my seat, a male director joked that there was finally some “eye candy” at the table. Fortunately, others were quick to slap him down on my behalf. But I knew I’d quickly need to find my own voice if I wasn’t going to end up with a palm print on my head.
I’d never had a clear idea what I wanted to do; just that I desired to be good at whatever field I ended up in. I had a head start on my classmates at university – throughout my degree I’d spent one day a week temping for a distribution company. It was mainly admin, but I was very conscientious. On graduation my employer offered me a permanent account executive role.
I loved my job but it became apparent my new boss wanted to keep me down. There were whispers that she was threatened by my aptitude. This manifested itself in a new girl – similar in age but less experienced whom I’d personally trained up – being promoted above me. I was crushed; I knew it wasn’t about poor performance and that was difficult to deal with.
I realised that getting ahead would necessitate more than diligence and an industrious attitude on my part.
My mother had always taught me how important it was to take an interest in people. And it was Carole Stone, author of Networking: The Art of Making Friends, who said every stranger should be approached as if a potential friend. So I began to network, though I didn’t think of it as such at the time – I just reached out to people I’d enjoyed working with, had similar values and senses of humour to me, and might be able to offer advice or opportunities.
Spreading the word that I was on the lookout for a new challenge worked – I was recruited into a similar role by one of my existing firm’s clients. A senior manager tried to persuade me to stay – he promised me prestigious projects but refused to intervene with the boss situation. I declined; I didn’t want to work for an organisation that would allow people to be treated unfairly – an early lesson in standing by what I believe in.
And so in my new role, mindful of how important connections were, I set about cultivating what would be a fantastic relationship with my boss. Within 18 months, at just 23, I was made head of my division. One manager in particular struggled with my promotion to her level; she’d been involved in recruiting me and it clearly irked her that I was now an equal. These days we talk about reverse mentoring – there’s a sense that young people, who’ve grown up with a great deal more access to information can teach their seniors a lot. Back then it was different; being ten years younger than an equal made for a frosty working environment. Though we were friends outside work, my colleague wasn’t able to celebrate my success – another difficult lesson.
Sometimes it simply isn’t about you but what’s going on for the other person. All I could do was continue to apply myself with dedication.
Onto my appointment to the board of a trade body – a position I held alongside my head of division role. I was completely petrified for that very first meeting. One part of me thought: “I’ve arrived”; the other was convinced I didn’t deserve it.
After a lot of angst I gave myself a good talking to. Being voted onto the board hadn’t been some kind of trick; it was an indication of its members’ confidence in me. I began to look at the ways my youth was an advantage: I brought a fresh perspective, new insight and unlimited energy. I also had knowledge – everyone around that table was an expert in some field and I was no exception. When the board needed advice on something pertaining to my background, I saw it as a platform to demonstrate my worth. I cultivated that expertise – reading everything I could get my hands on so I was always one step ahead.
The confidence I got from turning up thoroughly prepared and polished was invaluable.
The positive self-talk gave me a new outlook but I was no less terrified. When I spoke up I’d hear a quiver in my voice and my legs would be shaking under the table and I wondered if I was literally going to fall out of my chair from fear. The worst things you can do are say nothing or say too much; I learned when to pipe up in a meaningful way, and when I should sit out a discussion while staying present and soaking up all the learning.
Bringing humour to the table is also a great advantage when you’re younger. Being witty and playful without crossing lines gave me a sense of confidence and helped me build rapport. I befriended everyone I could around that table; if I knew someone was having a difficult time, or celebrating a success, I sent them a note.
It’s important to build relationships slowly and with consistency.
Winning validation in the boardroom was one thing; back on the ‘shop floor’ it was a different matter. When managing people who have some years on you, you’re inevitably going to come up against the attitude: “why her?” There’s no shortcut to winning over those mindsets. I remained diligent, worked hard and never stopped learning. Now, more than ever, I read and read and read. I commit to learning two new words a day – one finance-related word and one from the dictionary; I watch a Harvard Business Review video or Stanford Commencement Address before I start my day, and listen to podcasts while commuting – not just on topics related to my field; on anything that will give me a sense of building knowledge.
An early mentor told me: “In order to be extraordinary you have to soak up a lot of information; there is no other way.” We are so privileged to live in an age where we have access to so much information. Building expertise has been enormously empowering and allowed me to succeed in reaching my goals far earlier than expected. Since my first director role I’ve held executive and non-executive director positions on numerous boards. Now in my 30s, each new role is as terrifying as the last, but the fear of not achieving my ambitions trumps the fear of putting myself out there every single time.
Dame Shirley’s TED talk on female ambition in a male world:
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The everywomanIncognito series allows women to discuss personal aspects of their career development in complete anonymity. We welcome submissions from everywomanNetwork members on a range of topics. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more about Incognito or would like to suggest a story.