Imagine you’re in a meeting with the c-suite. The preliminary banter is lively. Everyone is getting along! Then the meeting starts and a male senior executive refers to an award-winning scientist on the team as “the girl in the data department.”
You know it sounds off, but no one says anything. You consider briefly saying something, but in a blink the conversation moves on and the moment has passed.
Angelique Bellmer Krembs has been there. She spent over two decades climbing the corporate ranks of PepsiCo, where she led brand marketing (she has since held brand leadership roles at News Corp and BlackRock), and situations like this piled up high enough that she and five of her colleagues, all female senior executives, decided to write a book on how to solve them. They call themselves the Band of Sisters and book is titled You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace. It seeks to answer the question of how to deal with the subtle, real-life sexism that takes place in the office.
Casually sexist language is tricky precisely because it’s casual. The person saying it often doesn’t even realize what they’re doing. Krembs was in the meeting described above and she’ll be the first to admit: As much as she wanted to be ready with an appropriate correction—“you mean, the woman in the data department”—in the moment she froze.
It’s not easy! That’s why we need books like this. Each chapter addresses a different scenario and provides solutions from a variety of perspectives—what to do if you’re the subject of a comment, if you’re in a leadership position, or if you simply overhear something. As a man in corporate life, it’s a relief to have a textbook that lays it out so clearly.
Krembs just joined A.Team as our CMO-in-Residence, offering her branding and marketing expertise through our CxO Network, so we thought we’d set up a Zoom call and dig into the best techniques she’s developed over the years for rooting out gender bias while still crushing it professionally.
You share a story near the end of the book about a man who avoids eye contact with you and your colleague, the only women in the room, for the duration of a meeting. I didn’t realize this was a thing, so I asked my girlfriend and a female colleague, they both said, “Oh, it happens all the time.” How did you handle that situation?
Well, first of all, you're having a very common experience. For many men reading the book there's a light bulb going off. Our thesis is that the world of gender bias has changed. It's less about the big obvious things, the MeToo moments. There's been a lot of progress in that area. But now gender bias is insidious. It's underground. It's subtle. It's innocuous. You don't even realize it's happening. And women often think, “Oh, it's just me,” until they're older and more experienced, and men go, “Hmm, I didn't know that was a thing.”
But now gender bias is insidious. It's underground. It's subtle. It's innocuous. You don't even realize it's happening.
The eye contact one is a pet peeve of mine because it happens all the time. I was in the meeting you mentioned—there was one other woman and three men. I was the most senior woman, and the most senior man was not looking me in the eye. And it was really bugging me. I was thinking, “Why is he not looking at me?” And, he turned to the man and said, “So what are we going to do about X?” And I said, “Well, you should really look to me for that answer.” And I just made it part of the conversation because he literally should look at me for that answer.
It’s like, what are you supposed to do? Take him aside after the meeting and say, “You don’t make enough eye contact”? It’s so awkward and uncomfortable. And that's part of why it doesn't get addressed, I'm guessing.
The real clincher is when me and my co-authors were talking with Indra Nooyi, who was the chairman of PepsiCo for years. She's the top of the top. There's no higher level you can get to. And she told the story of the men in the board meeting not making eye contact with her. And I was like, “Well, okay, so it's never gonna happen.”
We’re never gonna get there unless we bring awareness to this issue. Unless we understand why this is happening. And unless we make it easier for people to say something about it.
The most important thing is that you realize you're not alone. What triggered me to say something in that meeting is that we took a break halfway through and the other woman in the meeting said to me, “I don't understand why he's not looking at us.” It encouraged me to speak up. Ninety-nine percent of the time it's not ill-intended. When you speak up the other person will be like, “Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize.”
Can you explain “apology syndrome” and how to get over it? I’m sorry to say I think I have it.
Welcome to the tutorial. So here's a fun fact: The research actually shows that men and women apologize at the same rate when they think an offense has been committed. The difference is that women think an offense has been committed more frequently than men. And that's why they're apologizing more frequently. It's probably related to the whole likability syndrome, which leads to over-apologizing.
It can really diminish your impact if you're too apologetic, because you don't seem confident. Someone has to sift through all these extra words to see what you’re actually saying. I'm an apologist. If this is something you do, you have to edit yourself. Like on email: You have to go through before you hit send and take out all the caveats, all the just-checking-ins, and all the sorry-to-bother-yous.
What about a guy getting credit for an idea that a woman shared in a meeting? How do you solve that?
We call this chapter “Great Idea, Greg.” One thing is to realize that there are three phases of every meeting: There's before the meeting, there's the meeting, and there's after the meeting. You can use those phases to your benefit. You have to figure out in advance: Who are my allies in the meeting, who's going to speak up for me? Because we know that Greg is often speaking over us or taking credit for our ideas. So you have a game plan going in.
Then in the meeting, you pay attention. You're actually just a good ally, man or woman. You want to make sure that when someone is trying to speak and keeps getting spoken over, that you notice, like, “Hey, I think Leslie is trying to say something.” Or if somebody's idea gets repeated by somebody else, to have the awareness to say, “That's a great build on Leslie’s idea.”
We know that Greg is often speaking over us or taking credit for our ideas. So you have a game plan going in.
After the meeting you can ask, “Okay, what did I learn from this? What did I miss? What can I do differently?” And then you get better for the next one.
It's just simple awareness, actually. As a leader, you have to be paying extra attention. Your job in a meeting is not just to make all the decisions, it's also to see how the ideas are coming out and make sure people get credit for the work. The reason this is so important is it's one of the top three reasons why women disengage. They feel like their work is not seen or valued.
Then there's the good soldier trap, where you want to be a good employee, you want to help out, and so you take on projects—but if you're not careful, you can end up taking on too much busy work, the stuff that you don't feel confident writing about during review season. How do you manage that balance?
There is a certain volume of work which is non-promotable. And it often falls to women to do. If you take on too much of it, it will impact you negatively. You still need to be a team player, but you don't have to say yes to everything. And guess what, people will not hold it against you. You're worried that they will, but they won't, because the work that gets rewarded is the promotable work. That's what you want to focus on.
There is a certain volume of work which is non-promotable.
There are ways to turn down non-promotable work. Like, “I would love to help out with this project, here are all the high priority items that I'm working on. I’d love your help to identify what would need to fall off for me to take that on.”
The other tip is to offer a solution that's not you. Like, “Hey, I love doing that. I've done it many times, I would love to give the opportunity to someone junior.”
It helps to be prepared for these conversations. Because when you're blindsided, it's a lot harder to have all those thoughts in your head ready to go.
How can men be good allies without being awkwardly chivalrous?
Think about the origins of chivalry: Medieval knights who had many noble qualities including a willingness to help the weak. In the corporate workplace what you don't want is a gesture of kindness with the subtext: you are weak.
When I'm on an airplane, and I'm trying to get my bag into the overhead compartment, I would be grateful for any tall person to step up, man or woman. But when I'm at dinner with my business school friends, and they want to pay for the meal, and they won’t take my credit card, I'm like, “We're not on a date. Are you telling me that I don't make as much money as you? What are you trying to say here?”
The gesture is well intended in both those cases, but you have to try to think past the politeness to a more important question: What is the other person going to feel?
A study out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas found 20% of men were uncomfortable working alone with a woman in a private office or conference room, 40% said they were uncomfortable socializing with female colleagues outside of work. That seems like a huge problem.
There are real consequences to this moment in time of men being uncomfortable with women in the office. It has a huge impact on sponsorship. Because men in senior positions are less likely to want to take on a woman and mentor her or sponsor her or have one-on-one meetings.
There’s an example in the book of a very senior leader joining a team, and having dinner with every one of the men he was going to be working with. And then instead of dinner, he called the one female member of his new team. And she was like, “Really?” But she didn't say anything because it's weird. It's awkward. And people aren't sure what to do. And the man was probably trying to be respectful.
There's all this unsaid stuff. And it's getting in the way of that man and that woman building a good working relationship. What are the workarounds? One is: Find a system that works equally well for men and women. Maybe have two-on-one dinners. Or just phone calls with everyone.
What advice do you have for young women working in tech?
Think about your career journey not just as the work that you're doing, but also as the relationships that you're building. You're looking for your people, you're looking for your band of sisters, or siblings. You're looking for your allies. And those are people that you just connect with, and who will stay with you for your whole life.
Think about your career journey not just as the work that you're doing, but also as the relationships that you're building.
You're also looking for your mentors and your sponsors. We make a big point in the book of knowing the difference between those two things. Women especially don't realize until much later that there is a difference. And it can have a big impact on how quickly you ascend and how well you do.
Everyone wants mentors—they can give you good advice and coaching—but unless they're connected to the power structure, and unless they're advocating for you when you're not in the room, they're not sponsors. You need to understand the power structure of the company in order to navigate the sponsorship thing. So my advice is to pay attention to that.