I recently met with a top Silicon Valley venture capitalist (VC) to introduce him to my company. I brought one of my company executives and my head of engineering, both male, to the meeting with me. Since it was an introductory meeting, the VC didn’t know which of us was CEO when we walked in. Still, he treated us all equally until he learned I was in charge. At that point, he deferred to me as the company leader. It was very impressive.
It might seem like such a small thing, but because of this and many other encouraging experiences I’ve had recently, I think that conscious and unconscious bias are steadily becoming more rare. That said, bias, no matter how infrequent or subtle, can have a strong impact on how we feel about ourselves and others. It certainly plays a role in the likelihood of a woman to pursue and stay in a career in certain fields, especially entrepreneurship and STEM.
Think about it. If you were in a position where you were treated differently in your job on a daily basis just because you are a minority in your field, you might be tempted to give up and go elsewhere. Perhaps this is part of the reason why women comprise 48 percent of the US workforce, but only 24 percent work in STEM.
Tremendous progress has and is being made towards equality for men and women in the workplace, but the reality is that gender can still sometimes impact how a woman is received in her field. Some of the reception comes down to perception. Even if we don’t always want to admit it, how we behave and dress can have a real impact on how seriously we are taken in our careers.
Perception impacts men and women alike, but there are four areas that, as a woman, I’ve realized can have the strongest impact on my success or failure in business.
- Your voice matters. One of our technology advisors recently called me to discuss something on his mind—my voice. He told me, “Katie, you lilt your voice up at the end of your sentences and this makes you sound unconfident. You are the most confident person I know when it comes to this startup, so it’s a perception issue. If you talk that way to people external to our core team, they won’t have a lot of faith in us.” As women, we’re often socialized to have sing-songy voices and a melodic style of speaking (a.k.a. “upspeak”). This may work in a social situation but might have a negative effect in the business world.
- And so can your appearance. In my second job, before I became an entrepreneur, I got the shock of a lifetime during a routine performance review. My female boss actually told me I needed to wear more makeup and do my nails. I did not agree with her assessment and don’t believe a woman should leverage her appearance to “get ahead.” I do think, however, that we need to dress for the “job” we want, whatever that is.
- Body language can make or break you. This is where things can get sticky. The obvious elements are to stand up straight, hold your chin up, walk with confidence and take up lots of physical space. Some days I feel like I need Siri to remind me in real time of all the do’s and don’ts. Where it gets trickier is when it comes to physical interactions with others. I’m from Miami where we hug everyone hello and goodbye in both personal and professional engagements. In France, most people kiss on the cheek, and in Silicon Valley, it’s a mix of everything. Since cultural norms differ greatly from location to location, I find it safest to always offer a professional handshake.
Every person faces some level of perception issues and unconscious bias from others, however, women often face greater scrutiny in male-dominated fields. As time goes on and progress continues to be made, the degree of difference in how each gender is treated may lessen. However, the lessons above will always play an important role in helping you be perceived the way you want to be perceived.
One day, I hope everyone out there will treat each other as equally as the VC I recently met with treated me and my team. Until then, I encourage all men and women to consider the vibe they give off and to make any changes necessary to their appearance and behavior that will bolster their chances for success.