Lessons from the front lines: Rock the red dress and find your powerful, authentic self through a sea of navy suits
I’ve recently been elected to serve on the Board of Directors of the Women’s Energy Network Greater New York Chapter, a group dedicated to providing networking opportunities and fostering career and leadership development of women who work in the energy industry. At the same time, International Women’s Day, which is celebrated annually on March 8, has a call-to-action for driving gender balance across the world. This confluence of events has prompted me to take a step back and think about my over 15-year career as a female energy professional, and how I can impart the lessons I’ve learned to other women in the industry.
In 2002, when I first started out in the industry, there were few women to be found, and while it has changed and more women have hit the scene over the years, energy is still very much a man’s world. How have I managed to succeed in a predominantly male dominated field? For me, it has always come down to the red dress (or pantsuit depending on your preference)! For those of you who know me personally, red is my signature color because it is associated with feistiness and power. It has a dominant, confident, do-not-mess-with-me kind of connotation to it. When people see the color red, they have a strong physical reaction to it because it is bold, charged with emotion, and powerful—frankly, no other color can compete.
Below are my top pieces of advice to women energy professionals that no one will tell you, but you need to know!
1. Express concerns
Many of us were taught when we were younger to be sweet, wear pretty, flowery dresses, always say please and thank you, and act in a way that is becoming of a good little girl. What to do with that mantra? Toss it out the window! When you are at work, if someone says something disparaging about you (or even other women) or if you believe you have been treated with disrespect, do not internalize it and fuel with rage on the inside. Instead, take a deep breath and then address it head-on by talking it out with your colleague to ensure it does not happen again. Let this person know that you will not stand to be spoken to (or about) in this manner, and instead, you prefer to communicated with in another manner. Over the years, I have found that expressing your concerns and talking it out with a colleague almost always results in a positive outcome and paves the way for better communication down the road.
2. Force yourself to speak up in meetings
I know how hard it is to speak up when you are in a room of mostly men. It is extremely intimidating and it might just be the hardest thing you ever have to do at work, and that’s ok, it’s understandable, but speak up anyway! Ask a question, make a statement, just make sure you contribute to the conversation and get yourself heard. What if someone tells you that your question is stupid, and they make you feel like a little girl? Well, this may happen, it is not out of the realm of possibilities. However, should this occur, let them know that this is not ok, that what you have to say is most definitely important. And, should there be a cultural or systemic issue within your organization, then be achange leader—let people know that this behavior is unacceptable, continue to ask questions, and encourage other women to do the same.
3. Manage up, manage down, manage all around
Every company is on a different diversity and inclusion path, with some being advanced, others just getting started, and yes, there are surprisingly many companies that have not even thought to go down this path yet. However, regardless of where your company stands, you can be an advocate for women in your organization and be a change leader.
For example, most women with children will have childcare issues at some point in their lives, so to keep and attract women to a company, a flexible work environment is key. Many companies still have a 9-5 attitude—most likely because it is the way they’ve operated for a century—but just because a company is used to having a traditional, structured environment, it doesn’t mean it should continue that way, nor should it. How do you do this when you are not at the top of the food chain? Manage all around and let your company know the changes needed to keep up with the times. In all likelihood, their response will probably be that they hadn’t thought about it and will figure out a way to make it work.
4. You have to be in it to win it
I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the energy industry 50/50 female/male. I have had countless conversations with women in our industry and walked out wishing I could make this change for them—it would make life a lot easier. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is just simply not the case—not now and not for the foreseeable future. That said, I am a strong advocate for every single company to have this goal, with tangible targets for senior executives. It is the ONLY way for gender equality to occur. Back to the real world, the only way for women to break the glass ceiling is to stick with it and keep working your way up, until YOU are at the top of the corporate ladder. It is so hard for many of us because we don’t see women leaders in our organization so my advice? Be the first!
5. You do not need to have every box checked to go up for promotion
This is another tough topic, as many of us strive for perfection and we expect more from ourselves than anyone else around us. In fact, our expectations are often unrealistic—we are aiming for unattainable perfection. Meanwhile, our male counterparts will go up for promotion, even if they just have a few boxes checked off. Bottom line, just go up for that promotion, even if you feel you are not ready. The worst-case scenario is that you will not get it and that is ok—not everything is going to work out as planned. Getting promoted is a side effect of growing in your role so treat it as a development opportunity. You can always look externally from your organization—perhaps the company you are working for is not a fit and you should go to a place where you are valued and you can move up the ranks. Let’s be honest, failure can be terrifying, but what’s worse is always wondering if you could have achieved that promotion, if only you had been brave enough to go for it.
This International Women’s Day, I urge you to think about how YOU can incorporate the color red into your life—figuratively and literally—and harness the power to stand out in your organization and become a successful leader for your change.
Amanda Levin is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting