Gender bias comes in many forms, and, unfortunately for women leaders, being underestimated because of their gender is often a common phenomenon.
“I absolutely think it’s a fixture [in our careers]. I think that we have a higher bar to get to the point where we are not underestimated, and even then we have to prove ourselves over and over and over again,” says Leslie Feinzaig, founder and CEO of the Female Founders Alliance, a group of high-growth startup founders and CEOs.
But, sometimes, being underestimated can be a powerful motivator. These successful women share their stories about how being underestimated helped them achieve more.
“Silly Little Girls”
Lara Crystal and Lindsey Andrews had serious startup chops when they cofounded Minibar Delivery, which delivers beer, wine, and liquor to customers. Crystal was previously a founding member at Rent the Runway, an online luxury clothing and accessories rental company, and Andrews had been a marketing manager at online grocer FreshDirect, and headed marketing at Wag.com, a pet e-commerce business.
But when the women, who had been friends since business school, worked on the launch of their new venture, Minibar Delivery, and began to visit the mom-and-pop liquor stores that would be their partners, “a lot of them dismissed us as ‘silly little girls,'” Crystal says.
“I think the only way to win and persevere is to let something unfortunately slide and look at the bigger picture,” Andrews says.
The experience of being dismissed motivated them to be more persistent and taught them a few things, Andrews says. “It’s taught us about how to have difficult conversations. It’s taught us about how to make our case. It’s really made us probably better communicators because we’ve had to fight a little harder to get our message heard and to get partners sometimes on the platform,” she adds.
Since Minibar’s launch in 2013, the company has raised $6.8 million in funding and expanded into 37 markets.
Excluded from the Inner Circle
After starting her career at The Jon Stewart Show, Becky Clements was hired by Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, now Brillstein Entertainment Partners. The personal representation and television production company that produced shows like Just Shoot Me and The Sopranos. It was a demanding environment where “you had to be very committed to your creative opinions,” she says. And, although she worked hard to find and cultivate talent, there were times when she tracked and cultivated relationships with talent only to be left out of the meeting or to be told not to feel the need to talk during the meeting. Clements thinks the exclusion may have been related to her junior status rather than her gender, but it still stung.
“You think, oh my goodness, the whole reason this person is coming in for this meeting is because of how we’ve reached out to them and expressed our love of what they’ve done creatively,” she says.
But it taught her to let things go and keep working hard, developing her own creative taste and relentlessly looking for talent. Today, she is president of Tomorrow Studios, a partnership between Marty Adelstein and ITV Studios. In her role, Clements is currently producing Snowpiercer, starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs for TNT in the U.S. and Netflix internationally, among other projects.
And for women who are working in television today, she says there is reason for optimism. “There is more opportunity. I guess a better way to characterize it is there is a genuine desire to bring in people of all shapes and sizes and genders and colors in our business, more than there was even five years ago,” she says.
Don’t Look Angry
Michelle Shinn, founder of KM Shinn Consulting, a manufacturing consultancy based in Ogden, Utah, was tapped for a leadership role at her manufacturing company–an area almost exclusively dominated by men. Throughout her career, however, she chafed at the amount and type of feedback she received. While men seemed to get feedback on their performance, she got feedback on more superficial matters such as her face being red or her arms being crossed in a meeting.
“I firmly believe that women get two to three times more input on their behaviors, management styles, communication techniques, etc. than any man. While it may be well-intentioned–and believe me, it isn’t always well-intentioned–it can be overwhelming and you can end up losing confidence in your abilities if you are not strong,” she says.
Shinn says she learned how to protect her confidence. She focused on her performance goals and meeting them, which sometimes took long hours. In her first year, her team delivered the highest earnings and sales that they had in the previous three years, finishing with $1.3 million more in earnings than they had the previous year, and $2.7 million in earnings higher than the year before that, she says.
But what she learned not to do–and what she counsels other women not to do–is overanalyze what they can do to “fix” things to end the feedback. “There are things that are said to my male counterparts, that they blow off and the next day they’re good. A woman will obsess about that, will dissect it, will try to figure out how to fix it and by the time they’re done, they respond to all of that feedback, they are not the same person that made them successful in the first place,” she says.
“Why Would They Want You?”
Feinzaig has her own underestimation story. She was in her early 30s and working at Microsoft. She had just changed roles and joined a new team when someone from her old team tapped her to fill in for them at a keynote speech at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin. It was a high-profile opportunity–one that boosts careers.
“But when I went to my new manager, and I told her, ‘Hey, this happened. I need your approval to take a week and go to SXSW and to pay for tickets,’ and she said to me, ‘I mean, you can go, but I don’t understand why they would want you,'” Feinzaig recalls.
The saddest part was that her manager’s comments tapped into Feinzaig’s own feelings. Even though she was well-versed in the subject matter, she was concerned that she wouldn’t be taken seriously because she wasn’t a director.
“That was one of those early moments for me where I just said, ‘You know what? Watch me. Just watch me,'” she recalls. The moment marked a turning point for her–no longer would she talk herself out of taking on challenges, she says.
The best antidote for underestimation is action, she says. “You might underestimate me, but I believe that I can do this, and I’m just going to keep going. It is such an indicator of future success,” she says.