Women, Stay in the Room!

I was 24, interviewing for a job in economic development, of which I knew almost nothing about. Moving because of my husband’s job prompted me to start looking in my hometown, and an indirect connection had landed my résumé on the President’s desk.

Through conversations with the President, I felt like this interview was just the last step before they would hire me.

The board chair was there. I knew him, but not well. He was the mayor of our town when I was growing up.

I never will forget what he said to me. “You know, economic development has always been a man’s job.” I momentarily thought, am I in the wrong place? Or in the wrong century?

He went on to say, “Allison (the person who was in the Vice President role I was interviewing for and was leaving because she was moving) has shown me that women can do this job.”

Gee thanks. Was he trying to compliment her or me or was he trying to put me in my place? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t yet know how to read him, but I did for the first time stop to think twice if this was the job I wanted. Not because I thought I couldn’t do a “man’s job” but because I didn’t want to work in a place that thought certain jobs were for women and certain ones were for men, and that I would have a higher standard of proving myself because of my gender.

I took that job, and both the board chair and the President and CEO became an advocate for me. I am forever grateful to both of them.

As I now sit at the #HRTechConf listening to the pre-conference sessions on Women in HR Technology, I was reminded of this conversation that took place almost ten years ago.

Cecile Alper-Leroux, VP, HCM Innovation at Ultimate Software, told us after one panelist said she is typically the only woman in the room, to “Stay in the Room.” If women in the workplace want to gain relevance, they need to stay in the room.  Even if a man, or a woman, tells them that the job they are in or applying for is a “man’s”.

To stay in the room you need to:

  1. Accept the invitation. Don’t let comments, like the ones I heard, keep you from accepting the invitation to a career path, job or simply the next meeting. Show up.
  2. Invite yourself. If you aren’t invited and you should be, invite yourself. If you had value to add, add it.
  3. Invite others. Hopefully, if you’ve earned a seat at the table, you’re helping another woman find her seat. Invite her to come along with you, to the meeting, to the conference, to the career path. And don’t assign her the role of taking notes. As Trish McFarlane said in this panel, “Women often bring each other down.” Pave the way for the next person to stay in the room by realizing that doesn’t require you to exit the room. It isn’t a competition.
  4. Invite your true self to the room. Be authentic – be you. You don’t have to act like a man to do this, or another woman, even if she is the one who invited you to the room. Know what makes you unique and bring that to the table to add value.

Are you prone to stay in the room, exit, or never show up in the first place?


Interested in learning more about diversity and inclusion? Join Mary Ila at SHRM’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference as she tackles the topic of hiring for fit AND diversity.

See session information here.

Mary Ila Ward

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