Why are there so few women in positions of power?
Because women who take those roles are extremely rare.
The lack of women in positions of power isn’t solely because of systemic prejudice and oppression that so often holds us back. It’s also because - regardless of gender - you have to be a bit of an insane human being to want to work in one. I say insane for two reasons: 1) how hard you have to work to get to the top, and 2) the fact that you must possess the courage to be disliked.
First, the easy part: everyone in positions of power works insane hours. These powerful people are working their socks off, giving up their free time, family time, vacations and holidays - to get ahead and stay ahead. If you want to achieve a high position of power and achieve the greatest success - you are going to have to work incredibly hard. I’m here to tell you it will not be easy and it will not be handed to you. If you want this for yourself, you’re going to have to work crazy hard, too. I’m talking 60 to 80 hour weeks for decades on end. I’ve been working like that since I was 22, and I’m about to turn 50 in November. I’ve never stopped working hard. It’s brutal.
But there’s a whole other side to positions of power and advancement that people don’t talk about, which is that you’re going to need to have the courage to be disliked. And this is where I have struggled, and I think where most women have a tough time because in a lot of cases, this is not what we are taught either in school or in life in how to make friends and get ahead. We are taught to be nice. Play fair. Be a lady. Be accommodating. Be a great hostess. Be popular. Be well-liked. But with an increase in power you are going to have to unlearn some of these things, and so this is something you’ll have to prepare yourself for, too.
Being a leader and taking on more responsibilities means you’re going to have to make decisions (tough ones!) and be accountable for them. And being decisive means you’re not going to make everyone happy. It’s literally impossible, because you’re not running a committee - it’s all you and your reputation. With this job you’ll have to answer to management, or in higher positions, a board of directors. You have to respond to irate customers. Deal with lawsuits. Manage internal politics and people. Negotiate contracts. Hire and conversely, fire people. As a result - some people will not like you.
You’ll also make some enemies. There will always be someone somewhere trying to take you down, take your place, take you out, lying in wait, waiting for you to stumble. To take what you’ve done away from you. Maybe it’s your mentee, or a competitor. Maybe it’s a peer you’ve been collaborating with, or a co-founder. You may be saying to yourself, “Wait, that can’t be what it’s really like.” While it’s not that bad at the lower and earlier levels of your career, with each rung up the ladder it’s going to get exponentially more difficult. I wish it wasn’t the case, and I wish we could all be friends at the top, but that’s not reality. Even reading a recent WSJ article on why there aren’t more women CEOs, has a set of stories of women complaining that they had competition and enemies at the top. It exists and it’s real, so be ready.
Get Ready To Rise
If you think this sounds a bit like HBO’s Game of Thrones...you’re right! When Daenerys Targaryen started her campaign for the Iron Throne, she didn’t have very many enemies or people trying to stop her...until she started amassing power (and dragons). For most women, it’ll be the same - everyone’s your friend, until they are not. It’s not that there are enemies around every corner, and it’s not constantly like this all the time, but it is more Machiavellian than I thought it would be.
So to help you get ready for that next opportunity to step up into a higher position, here are my top three recommendations:
1. Read The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga...and teach your daughters about it.
You’re not leading if there’s not someone disagreeing with you, somewhere. You will come up against resistance, so arm yourself with confidence.
While I was at Optiva, I was told by everyone – from the founders to the lead sales guys to the technical group – to not raise the issue of telco transition to public cloud with any of our customers, let alone the major players. I believed they were wrong and I saw an opportunity to pivot our company in a bold new direction that, if it worked, would move us from being near death to being a leader in our category. I flew to India for the first time to meet the CTO of our largest customer and one of the world’s largest telcos. Despite everyone disagreeing with me at Optiva (telling me we were going to lose our customer if I dare suggest public cloud to them), I stood my ground, went into that meeting and absolutely went for it. I pitched the idea of using the public cloud for real time charging. And you know what? The customer not only didn’t kick us out, he told me he wanted to start a pilot, and he wanted to do so immediately. That was the moment when I realized the naysayers were wrong, and I was absolutely right about the public cloud.
In the world of Instagram and TikTok and likes, favorites and followers - we need to teach our daughters that how popular you are is not an indication of leadership ability. It’s steering teams and groups through uncertainty to success, and remaining confident that you’re on the right path, even if people dislike your decisions along the way.
2. Read The Art of War, by Sun Tzu...and learn how to assess your battlefield.
The other day on Twitter someone was asking for people to suggest
their favorite leaders. And after 30+ responses of Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Warren Buffett and even some guys I had never heard of - there was not one woman listed. Meanwhile, down the street from my house is the AMD headquarters where Lisa Su is cleaning Intel’s clock. She has a great story, where she took an unfixable company, turned it around, and now it is trading at an all time high. Truly a Wonder Woman.
Where are the superhero stories about her in the media? I suspect it’s because, like most women leaders, she’s quietly executing, letting her results speak for themselves. I know this behavior, because I did it myself at Optiva. Meanwhile, what does make the news? All the salacious stories about the quietly executing women that all of a sudden find themselves surrounded by enemies. There’s the ousted CEO co-founder at Away
or the pushed out COO at Carta. Welcome to the cancel and takedown culture that exists.
I don’t think this happens because there’s a boys club. These positions are hyper competitive and lucrative, and people want them for themselves. Just read about Carlos Ghosn at Nissan and how his Chief of Staff turned on him and pushed him out. It’s everywhere, for men and women, and so you definitely need to be on the lookout for #1 (you). Which brings me to my final point.
3. Get the data on what you are worth and if they don’t pay you, walk straight out the door.
Nothing is more powerful than gathering information on what you should be paid. There’s this great (old) blog post by my friend Jocelyn Goldfein that you should read on how to increase your pay in tech. Talk to recruiters, interview with other companies, look at Salary.com and get the data on what you can get outside of your company. It’s not without effort, but it’s so worth it. I did this at Optiva. I knew I was underpaid while I was there, and not by a little - by a lot. As the company was facing activist headwinds I asked to have my pay reviewed and the board of directors refused. When you ask and they refuse and you know you can earn more, then that’s when you stop killing yourself for the organization, resign, and go get the pay you know you deserve.