Are You Stuck In A Girls’ Club?

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By Whitney Johnson (Founding Partner, Rose Park Advisors)

“There’s a woman you have to meet,” said a male CEO during a recent meeting.

“She sounds terrific. I love meeting interesting people. …Any men you’d like me to meet?”

“Aren’t you married?”

“Sure am… Happily.”

We both chuckled. I then clarified, “In my experience, men have more power than women.”

He agreed. “It’s not a level playing field.”

“Ergo, if a man with 500 people in his network, likely skewing male, only connects me with women he knows, then my power, or ability to get things done, is diminished,” I explained.

And then he graciously suggested I meet one of his male colleagues who might be helpful at Rose Park Advisors.

As Harris O’Malley writes in “Nerds and Male Privilege” — “The reason why male privilege is so insidious is because of the insistence that it doesn’t exist in the first place. That willful ignorance is key in keeping it in place; by pretending that the issue doesn’t exist, it is that much easier to ensure that nothing ever changes.”

I will confess to thinking that women’s professional inroads sometimes seem vexingly hard won, if won at all. There are clearly still major systemic changes that need to occur for women to achieve parity. But even stuck in our current reality, you can still do some things to advance your own career.

Start by seeking out connections to both women and men.

In my experience, women tend to look to other women to make connections for them. We may feel more comfortable proceeding that way, but in order to gain enough power to make real progress, we have to seek out male help as collaborators, mentors, and connectors.

The empirical evidence is undeniable that men can offer women power and a leg-up in many ways that other women cannot. We need to leverage that reality. If, as in my story above, the men you work with are offering you introductions to women, but not to men, remember that human beings look for patterns. In male-dominated fields, women CEOs are an anomaly. It’s not surprising if men, seeing only two women in the room, assume that the women have something in common.

Tara Hunt, CEO of Buyosphere, recalls one such introduction. A male venture capitalist said, “You two have to meet.” Once on the phone with his referral, after several minutes of trying to find points of mutual interest, they finally ended up bonding over the guy who introduced them: “Do you think he introduced us because we are the only two women tech CEOs he knows?” “That’s what I’m thinking.” She’s now learned to ask for potential introductions (male or female) that can help move her business forward — and you should too.

But to effectively ask for what you need, you need to prepare. Another male CEO whom I had asked for potential contacts immediately rejoined, “I’d be happy to make introductions. Who do you want to meet?” For a minute I had no idea what to say. I recovered by asking for the option of a future introduction.

I’m learning, though. Now when someone asks, I’ll respond with something like: “Two things I’m trying to get done right now are: identify qualified purchasers for our fund and get the word out about my book. Any introductions you could make along these lines would be welcome.”

Don’t be afraid to be specific in your ask.

If it feels uncomfortable to be so bold, remember, the offer of an introduction is a compliment. There is always some reputational risk when we make an introduction. If one of your colleagues says unprompted, “There’s a person that I want you to meet,” he is impressed with you, and is signaling a willingness to use some portion of his political capital on your behalf.

Finally, honor and reciprocate introductions made by the women in your network. Given the relative value of introductions, even women may be inclined to make the really plum connections for and to men.

Some years ago, I had made several key introductions on behalf of a young woman. When she decided to bring business to the firm, she bypassed me going straight to my male colleagues.

When a woman makes an introduction on your behalf, honor it. Madeleine Albright said, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” In my book, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t honor the hand extended to them by other women.

In academic circles and popular press, we read of breaking through the glass ceiling. But breaking through a ceiling implies a “storm the citadel” approach, requiring major changes to a system that may not be willing to acknowledge that a problem even exists. As the theory of disruptive innovation explains, the odds of success are low when we make a frontal assault on the status quo.

But when we play on the periphery, opening one mind at a time, the odds go up that we’ll push down our glass walls. Tear down those walls, and the ceiling just may come tumbling down, too.

This post was originally posted at Harvard Business Review.

Photo credit: Colton Witt on Flickr

About the guest blogger: Whitney Johnson is a Founding Partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream” (Bibliomotion, May 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @johnsonwhitney.