As a woman, mom, and executive, I am witnessing a massive cultural shift. It wasn’t that long ago when I was one of the few females in a room full of male employees. Today, I am pleased to say I work with even more senior-level women at SAP – signaling a much-welcomed development in diversity and inclusion in executive leadership.
There’s no doubt that women have more opportunity than ever to assume executive-level roles. But, will this mean they need to change themselves, too?
This wake-up call came to me in the form of my daughter Madeline, who was five years old at the time. One day she looked up at me and said, “Mommy, I’m the only fancy one in our family.” To my surprise, after daring to ask why she didn’t think I was fancy, she proclaimed, “You wear gray, black, and blue and wear pants…You dress like a man!”
Even at such a young age, there was so much wisdom in what Madeline said. I had conformed my wardrobe and leadership style to the world I was working in and didn’t even realize it. From there, I made a decision to break out of my “uniform” and find my authentic self.
Not long after this wake-up call, I was selected to be the head of human resources for our North American region and moved back to the United States after living in Germany for over three years. I was so excited to return home and honored to have this role. But most of all, I looked forward to sharing my personal work experiences and vision with employees across North America.
During my first presentation to a large group of employees, I received the most unexpected questions during the Q&A segment: “What is it like being a female executive?” “Do you think it’s harder being a female executive than being a male executive?” “What tradeoffs do you have to make to become a successful female leader in an executive suite full of men?”
I was shocked as I had not prepared for these types of questions. Instead, I was more focused on sharing my strategy for the HR organization, ways we can help our employees become more engaged and successful, and lessons learned during my time working and living in Germany. Drawing from a balance of humor and wisdom, I replied that I couldn’t compare my experience with that of a man’s because I’ve never been a man. But in the back of my mind I began to wonder, “Why is talking about being a woman so important?”
Throughout my career, I learned many great lessons about leadership and workforce trends. However, I could never deny that I was frequently asked questions about my gender, being a working mother, my age, and the pace of my career path. These experiences may have exasperated me at first, but I quickly realized that these topics are important to the entire workforce.
For years, it never dawned on me that my gender could be a potential hurdle or, at times, a gift in my career. I was so focused on proving myself because my executive-level peers were more senior, not because they were mostly male. I tried to overcome this self-consciousness about my age by filling in gaps in my career to catch up to colleagues who were more experienced by several years.
However, as an external mentor reminded me one day, I had to get over this detrimental internal dialog. My age is not something I needed to be apologetic about or hide. I had to recognize the value I brought to the team by looking at every situation through a different lens. And many times I was told I was a burst of much-needed energy and refreshing insight.
The same is true for my gender. Like my age, being one of a few female executives in the C-suite, where the majority are men, adds a point of view that is unique and well-rounded. More importantly, I help the team make decisions that are inclusive and lift up every person in our workforce.
I use the lessons I have learned to assist those who are new to the workforce and experiencing the same challenges. My journey and experiences are still my own triumphs, but they can also serve as inspiration to help others overcome obstacles and identify their own positive differentiators.
As the head of HR, it was my responsibility to help fulfill that need. By telling my story, I can help employees – especially women and early talent – leverage the qualities I possess and lessons I have learned to further their own career aspirations.
As a female executive, you definitely feel the pressure to assimilate with the rest of the C-suite.
I always saw myself as an executive first and a woman second. But, as I discovered during that presentation and the conversation with my daughter, people across the SAP workforce and the rest of the world viewed me as a woman first and an executive second.
Why did I deny everything that made me who I am to become a leader?
Being a female leader doesn’t mean that my human nature as a woman needs to take a back seat. I started to draw on this to guide my decisions and approach topics differently. And, as I learned from other women and men, I have a significant ability – and responsibility – to help other women advance.
Being a role model for others is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career and life. I encourage everyone to find their personal human revolution and become an inspiration to others, including your children, teams, employees, customers, and everyone you meet! Taking pride in who you are, acknowledging what you are self-conscious about, and knowing your purpose will lead to a clear path to success.
Brigette McInnis-Day is chief operating officer at SAP SuccessFactors.