By Kelly Pyper
Today marks American Business Women’s Day, a time for us to honor the accomplishments of businesswomen around our country. Still grief-stricken from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, it seems only fitting to take this opportunity to admire some of her traits that made her such an important and iconic leader in our country and for women’s rights, and how these can be lessons for our sisters entering into the world of business.
Let’s start here. You should expect equality in the workplace. Chief Justice Ginsburg spent her career knocking down these walls for us. Do your homework and negotiate the same pay as your male counterparts at your level. Grab the seat at the table when you’re invited (thank you, Sheryl Sandberg). Don’t apologize for being feminine or for possessing any of the amazing female traits that many of us possess.
Instead, learn how to use these traits to your advantage especially in determining your career path. In our industry, one skill in particular that I believe women master over men is multitasking—we are expert jugglers! When I get asked why so many women work at our agency, it quite often comes back to this skill alone.
I am, like RBG, petite in stature compared to my male peers. As my career is not in construction or bodybuilding, my physical size and strength do not matter. Truly, the only body part that matters in business is our brains. Rely on your smarts above all else.
Conversely, don’t use being a woman as an excuse for anything in business. Like Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own proclaimed, “there’s no crying in baseball,” there’s no crying in business either. Demonstrate the strength you possess, and don’t ever say “I can’t do it because I’m a woman,” or “I didn’t get the chance because I’m a woman.” Carve out opportunities for yourself. Ask for feedback. If you’re not invited but you know you’ve earned it, ask for a seat at a table.
Chief Justice Ginsburg epitomized tenacity for our gender. While I won’t claim the courage that she evoked over her career, I will stress the need for a determined mind and path. Know what you want and figure out how to get there. Do whatever it takes, and make a point to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Similarly, know that there’s strength in knowing what you don’t know. Ask questions and for help along the way. Find a mentor. Constantly think about what’s next. Don’t let stubbornness and ignorance get mistaken for determination, you must also be realistic.
For me, determination goes hand-in-hand with learning. Don’t be afraid to fail—as long as you learn from it. You’ll make mistakes—own them, also learn from them and don’t make them again. Don’t let anyone tell you “no” when you know that you’re capable of doing something. Rather, when you do get a rejection, dissect the living hell out of it to figure out why you received this answer. Be better because of it.
As an example, our agency wants to win every piece of business that we pitch. Some of the best lessons have come from those potential clients who have told us “no” but have also given us the courtesy of telling us “why not”. Armed with this knowledge, it only makes us better for the future and, yes, definitely more determined.
Women are amazing friends. This goes for business as it does in your personal life—we tend to approach interpersonal relationships as friendships rather than as transactions. But know that maintaining friendships in the business community is a lot of work. It is still, afterall, work, and you need to keep things professional first (note: don’t roll in for that client happy hour sans bra, even if it is on Zoom with a client you talk to all the time).
Work will probably cut into your personal life. Sometimes it’s hard to prioritize, or even distinguish between the two. But these professional friendships will get you the intimate knowledge and the sisterly support that you will need as you are climbing that ladder.
Now, about that ladder. As women, we are only as good as the women we help climb up the ladder with us. I have always seen the ladder very wide, and not so steep. Do everything you can to help your peers climb and to mentor younger women to help them grow in their career. Be a sympathetic ear, as women are great at, to help women find solutions to dilemmas they’re facing as they try to climb—especially if you’ve already passed that rung.
Note, not all of your friends in business will be fellow women, and you also don’t need to agree on everything either. Ginsburg’s famous “odd couple” friendship with fellow Chief Justice Antonin Scalia taught us that you might be surprised about what you have in common with your co-worker outside of work. The key is knowing where that separation lies.
All of that said, you have to accept that not everyone is going to be your friend in business. Even if you aren’t friends, you do have to be fair. Give respect, with the knowledge that it must be earned. Be thoughtful in understanding the other’s point. Give everyone an equal opportunity for a chance to work together.
Succinctly, you don’t have to agree with everyone, but you do have to give them the opportunity to speak, and genuinely listen to their perspective. RBG’s job was often to write a dissenting opinion against her fellow Chief Justices, but never was this done to make them look bad. It was simply to vocalize another perspective on an issue.
I began my marketing career as a media buyer, I was essentially paid to tell sales reps “no” for a living. And a lot of people in my position did not provide much more of an explanation than that. In contrast, I was taught to communicate with my reps—who I viewed as a partner on our client’s business—why they did or did not receive a piece of the ad budget. Afterall, not only did they have quotas and a manager to answer to, they also wanted answers as to how they could do a better job the next time to earn the business. I may have been tough, but my goal was to always be fair.
As Ruth had her beloved Marty, I am incredibly lucky to have my Bill. Regardless of your partner’s work situation, a strong business woman needs an equally strong partner in life. Someone who supports you every day, is understanding of your time spent at your career, and can help you with your work-life balance.
If you’ve chosen ambitious career goals, you need to trust your partner’s insight and observations. Your partner needs to be honest with you when you don’t see what a toll your work life is doing to you when it is negatively affecting your personal world, and you need to listen. Your partner has to be on board for the difficult decisions, such as switching jobs for a new opportunity and/or sacrificing income, in order to get a piece of your life back.
It’s important to note that your partner might not be a spouse or significant other. I’ve known plenty of women who are happiest when they’re single. Regardless of relationship status, it’s critical to have a person outside of work who emotionally supports you, listens to your needs, and helps you understand when to take a step back. Your supporter might be that childhood best friend who finishes your sentences, the roommate you’ve been living with since college, or a sibling or cousin.
It can sometimes feel like there’s an extreme pressure on us, as women, that our male counterparts don’t experience. A ‘successful woman’ is one who has a high-powered career, a spouse who is equally successful, a perfect family, a clean house with the laundry always caught up, time to go to the gym every day...all without smudging her lipstick.
Meeting societal expectations is far more difficult for us women than for men. Society expects men to be career-focused breadwinners. Women struggle with expectations to play the primary role at home, and the decisions that go along with those expectations might cost her career growth down the line—to get married or have children, whether or not to return to work after childbirth, and how soon to return. These big decisions come with hundreds of little decisions along the way. If you get married, do you change your name after going this long in your career? How much time do you take off after you have the baby? Is your kid’s soccer game more important than prepping for a big presentation? Your partner should be someone who understands the difficulty of those choices and supports your decisions. You also need to give yourself permission to choose the things that make you happy, rather than the things you feel are expected of you.
Personally, I made the choice to have a child while advancing my career. I admittedly was the one asking my husband to save me an end seat at the school play so no one would notice I was slipping in half way through the first act. None of the dads apologized for being late because they were delayed with work. Why should moms? If we go back to our first point: don’t apologize. It’s just part of being a business person.
Let me add, I really love my family AND my job—the decisions are still really difficult, but the regrets are far fewer.
American Businesswomen’s Day gives us a great reason to celebrate all that we’ve achieved, and all that we’re capable of. While we’ve achieved so much toward equality, we wouldn’t have gotten this far without leaders like the Notorious RBG—and we still have a lot of work to do. I feel it’s my responsibility as a professional woman to help other women when I have the chance, because so many people have helped me reach where I am in my career.