Mary Rose McCaffrey, Vice President of Security at Northrup Grumman did not hold back in her keynote address to McLean High School Women Leaders. In this age of #metoo, she reminded the young women assembled that there are still be plenty of men who will block you and tell you women can’t do the work. Her advice?

“Smile and do it anyway.”

Taking questions from the audience, her gaze alighted on one impossibly slender hand thrust up from the crowd.

The girl, no more than sixteen years old, stood up. Her voice strong as she aseked.
“Can you tell us about a time you had to deal with bias and how you overcame it?”
Mrs. McCaffrey, a veteran with over 31 years in organizations like the CIA, National Intelligence Agency and Dept of Defense laughed softly – as did many of the other mentors in attendance.

We all have stories.

“Honestly, I’ve spent most of my career, not focusing on the folks who wanted to hold me back.” She began, then paused to consider.
“There was a time early in my career. I was assigned to a team, and I was the only woman, which was normal for the time. I knew working with this particular director would be rough, and it was. He would send me to attend the de-briefs he didn’t want to attend. In those meetings, however, they needed decisions from our team. So I made them, and…”
She paused then explained how when she went back to the team, the same director would overturn every one of her decisions. Not for any real reason. It was clear that his goal was to undermine her. Basically, he was being an unreasonable pain in the ass and this happened again and again. 

Her solution? Document it. She kept track of ever occurrence for well over a month. When she had more than enough examples she went to his boss with her evidence.

Long story short, he was removed from that position and she took over as director. I’d like to report,

The crowd went wild.

Well as wild as a bunch of high school girls on their best behavior can be. It was the sort of encouraging Lean-In kind of story that women need to hear to take on the world.

Still, I was uneasy, sitting there with over twenty years of work experience, the story made me pause. Frankly, I resent the need for CYA maneuvers. I admire Mary Rose McCaffrey, her poise, her stoicism and her strength. I don’t think I could have done what she did. The truth of the matter is,

I wouldn’t want to. 

I’ve been in similar situations and have not handled them with such grace. By the time I realized just how biased and messed up the situation was, I didn’t feel like it was worth my effort to document it all. During the networking fair that followed the speech, I mentioned my response to another mentor. She reminded me, 

“She’s the one telling the story– the actual story may have been a lot messier.”
That gave me pause. Women hear these kinds of pithy success stories – all the time. But we often fail to think of the broader context, the white space around the story. There are often numerous assumptions taken for granted that lead to that particular success. Things like:
  1. Objective Power. She had enough perspective and “power” to recognize that her director was gaslighting her. Too often as junior members of a team, without explicit power, we’ll defer to authority – and conflate objective truth with subjective difference. That got me thinking about where her power comes from.
  2. She was married. Clearly, she is extremely talented, but it also helps that she is married. As women put off marriage fvariousous reasons is important to consider what impact this will have on mobility. I remember a 2002 Women in Management leadership panel I attended right before business school, specially that 5 out of 6 of the women panelists were married. All of those that were married credited their success, at least in part, to having a supportive spouse. As a single woman this struck as kind of scary – truth be told it still does.
  3. She was committed. She wanted to be where she was, which speaks to her grit, but also that she had some agency. She was fortunate to have selected a field which was aligned with her strengths. All of which combined to make it more likely that she would put up a fight. Unfortunately, I see too many under-employed folks getting stuck, depressed, and disengaging.
  4. Luck. Finally, there is some modicum of luck having a supportive male leadership. All of which was helped on by her talent, her reputation and frankly her stoicism, which is typically a male style of leadership.
This dissection is not meant to take away from Mrs. McCaffrey’s extraordinary success, talent, and grit. Rather it is to acknowledge that there is a lot more that goes into success than simply grit, and documentation.  If hard work was the answer, we’d have a female president.
We need to learn to listen to this leanin type of stories with a grain of salt. The truth is women are still vastly underrepresented in leadership. It’s not lack of talent or determination or even “babies” that hold women back – let’s face it, it’s bias. If the current systems are too distorted to properly value talent, that talent must create new systems and organizations that will make proper use of it.

Women need to cultivate their personal power on their terms.

That includes figuring out their finances and learning how to make their own money early, so that can eschew and push back on the gender tax (currently at about 25% for white women + one degree).  Women also have a unique advantage when it comes to building deep, trusting connected networks. Women should be empowered to tap into these “softer” strengths authentically and help each other build and sustain opportunities.  In fact, men should as well. We need an inclusive powerful approach to leadership that is not male or female but human and humane.

Career advice is not one size fits all.

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