In the very early days of my career, I was young and foolish. In all naiveté, I queried the chief executive.
"Why do you think men department heads here earn more than the women?"
He did not hesitate to give me an honest answer.
"Because the men ask for it."
They ask for it? Men ask for it, and they aren't ashamed to call special attention to their efforts? They don't wait for their good work to simply be recognized? This was a revelation.
When I next entertained a salary negotiation with a new employer, I decided to act like a man. My prospective employer thought my salary proposal reasonable, but troubling. He advised me that a female employee with greater responsibility earned the same as I was asking for my starting salary.
That was the point in time where I decided to act like myself. I evenly explained that I hoped to spend many years with the company. This salary would always be my base. It was an important number. The employer looked pensive but not put off. In the end, I received the job and the wage I requested. The woman with greater responsibility got a raise.
When I resigned my old job to take the new one, the news rattled a coworker I had just hired. She still relied on me to gain her confidence. We were both starting to feel like this was a case of abandonment. On my last day, I folded a little piece of paper and fashioned a sign for her desk to offer encouragement. On it, I wrote some advice I also learned from the men.
"Fake it Until You Make it."
The sign worked. She consulted the motto whenever she needed to build her credibility with herself. She already had credibility with her coworkers. The folded paper sign was one of the things she packed in a shoebox to take home many years later upon her retirement.
During my own work life, I have had many an occasion to observe the same hesitation in myself. When opportunities arose to step up for a promotion, I held back
until I was pulled up the ladder by my boss -- who happened in each case to be a man. The truth is, no one can really learn a job until you do it. Why didn't I see that?
This territory of women and confidence is littered with land mines. Women still earn less than men in the same jobs and are absent in representative numbers in the C Suite, the Board Room and Congress. On one hand, it doesn't seem fair to lay blame on the men. On the other hand, we women are far too likely to lay blame on ourselves.
But we are finally starting to talk about it. Sheryl Sandburg writes that women should "Lean In," and Katty Kay and Claire Shipman reveal important research in their book, "Confidence Code."
I feel unsettled about the whole topic. I suspect the situation with women and confidence is that we do not value our strengths to the extent we should. In many instances, these strengths are different from each other and from men as well. That is a good thing. Yet how many women can take a compliment with a simple smile and a gracious "thank you"? I still can't do it without a moment of timidity or a lot more practice.
If we women don't exhibit a fuller appreciation of our strengths, it may be because we focus too much on our weaknesses. In my own career, my weaknesses have not been nearly as important as my strengths. When I play to my strengths, I am in the zone. I produce what I do best.
When it is something I don't do well, I have learned to seek a coworker or associate who is pleased to play their strength. It is my pleasure to do the same. I am also learning to find ways to promote my strengths as I see the most confident of men and women do to further their careers.
Still, I tend to dwell too much in my own head on my weaknesses and failings. I try to remind myself at these times of Michael Jordan. He is arguably one of our greatest basketball players of all time. Yet when Jordan plays baseball, he is a good sport with a batting average of 200.
I think I am going to make myself a sign for the bathroom mirror.
"Play to Your Strengths."
Mary Ruiz, the first Latina to serve as CEO of Manatee Glens, believes that women in leadership is what the world needs now. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
COMING NEXT SUNDAY: Rose Carlson finds that a recipe book can be the perfect preservation of generations past and for generations to come.