Pitney Bowes executive Sheryl Battles set the early tone at CBIA's second annual women's leadership conference June 2 at Hartford's Infinity Music Hall.
"Women in power should be the norm and not the news," Battles, vice president of communications and diversity strategy for the Stamford-based company, told an audience of more than 200.
"Women in power should be the expectation, not the exception.
"Diversity and inclusion matters. Promoting diversity is not a zero-sum game. It creates more value and more opportunity for us all."
In her extensive career, Battles admits that as important as diversity is, it is "one of the toughest topics to communicate about."
Battles said a lack of understanding creates an invisible gap—not only among genders, but also among different races and ethnic backgrounds.
'A Dangerous Place'
"The gap is a dangerous place," said Battles. "There's a gap between the moving train of transformation, and the platform of where we are today.
"If we don't mind the gap, we'll be divided and isolated.
"The call to leadership in the 21st century is helping our organizations, communities, and families mind this gap."
Battles acknowledges that closing gender and racial diversity and inclusion gaps can be linked to the value of business, which can lead to higher profits, more innovation, and enhanced communication.
Committing to diversity and inclusion in an organization's mission is a step in the right direction, and can build connections between employees.
The gap is a dangerous place. If we don't mind the gap, we'll be divided and isolated.
"The fear of unknown, the denial that things are actually changing, or the desire to avoid the pain of change makes us want to stand still and it leads to gaps," she said.
As Andrea Comer, vice president, workforce strategies at CBIA's Education & Workforce Partnership, explained, "you can't ignore the economics."
"The strength of our economy relies on our collective commitment to supporting leader of all sectors, all ages, and all hues," she said.
He Said, She Said
"If you're a young woman leader and you're trying to figure it all out, this region is an amazing place to be," said Bonnie Malley, chief operating officer of the City of Hartford. "All you have to do is ask.
"Look around the room and there isn't a person who has been in a place that you want to be that can help you get there faster."
Malley and fellow panelist Kenya Rutland, chief enthusiasm officer at KJR Consulting, discussed how the new generation of female leaders can overcome persistent gender biases in the workplace.
"One of the things my consulting team, made up mostly of women, has talked about is making sure that you're thinking collective growth," said Rutland.
Rutland said practicing inclusion and having a collective mindset better helps the "movement" towards eliminating gender biases, rather than having an individual mindset.
"Think, 'what can we do to address this?' as opposed to 'I gotta be the one to stand out,'" he said.
The difference in approaching salary negotiations between men and women were apparent in Rutland and Malley's stories.
While Rutland admitted he had never experienced a situation where a negotiation was a struggle, Malley's experience was far different.
"The only word that came to mind [about negotiating past salaries] was 'badly,'" she said.
"I think in every management job, I made less than the man who had it before me."
In her past work in human resources, Malley said that "most women did not negotiate, most men did."
In having salary negotiations, Malley stressed the importance of women understanding their value in the workplace and having the confidence to ask for what their work experience and skills are worth.
"Not the confidence to feel good about that conversation—you don't have to go in with enormous inner-confidence. Just do the outer-confidence part," she said. "If you don't ask, you don't get."
When asked what advice he would give, Rutland answered: "Stand up for yourself, speak up for yourself, and communicate effectively."
Rutland has seen firsthand how women's ideas were overlooked until the same idea was voiced by a man and then recognized. He stressed to the audience to call these behaviors out in the open.
"Call that out," he said. "Because the reality is I've watched someone say 'Didn't I just say this?' And the room just kind of freezes.
"I think that uncomfortable freeze, that we as men, who very often have perpetrated that behavior, need someone to call us out on that behavior. We need to hear it."
Men in positions of leadership need to go out of their own comfort zones when they are looking for people.
"To be aware is really critical. There are moments when you have to take a risk and point out points in time where you notice people are behaving in that way [with gender biases]."
"Men in positions of leadership do truly need to go out of their own comfort zones when they are looking for people on their team."
Weighing the differences between leadership and power closed the panel discussion, with an admittance of discomfort.
"Leadership is influencing that which you cannot control. When I think of the word 'power', I am uncomfortable," admitted Malley.
"The word 'power' doesn't need to be a bad thing—it's how you use it," said Malley. "Trust that if you haven't forced it, that you can then influence a group to go get it done.
"If that word makes you uncomfortable, spend some time asking yourself why.
"When I've been in positions of power, there were times that I didn't use it—and I could have—to do the right thing."
Finding a Mentor
Finding a mentor can be a daunting task, especially for young women just entering the workforce.
"A mentor is a person that will come alongside you, and they know the good, the bad, and the ugly," said Karen Hinds, founder/CEO of Workplace Success Group.
"Advocates and sponsors only know the pretty stuff. They only know the things you selectively choose for them to know. And you don't choose them—they choose you."
"The thing about a mentor is that what their mistakes were are more valuable than their successes," said Meghan Freed, managing partner at Freed Marcroft LLC.
"Find someone who will be vulnerable with you too."
"The first thing I look for is 'does that person have similar values as mine?'" said Rina Patel, site manager at Dyno Nobel.
"Make sure that you have mentors of different genders as well."
Mentorship relationships can multiply as women advance in their careers, and each mentor can help in various skill sets.
"When you start early in your career, you're really just looking for someone to help you keep it together, figure out how to handle work life," said Freed.
"As you progress in your career, you have the opportunity of having a lot more people in your life to talk to. And because you're better at being a mentee, you can be more targeted in how often you call upon them."
"All my different mentors gave me permission to be," said Karla Medina, owner of Sudor Taino Group Fitness and former police officer.
"[They're] your tool belt, you know who to draw from, it's almost like having your mentors there with you."
One of the most important components of maintaining a relationship with a mentor is by checking in with them no less than once a month, and giving honest feedback and recognition when their advice has led to successes.
Mentors aren't forever, though. Recognizing when you grow out of a mentor is as critical as finding one.
"One mentor does not have all your answers," Medina said. "You're only as good as your resources."
'Challenge the Status Quo'
New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart has challenged the status quo as a female politician and the youngest mayor in Connecticut, winning election four years ago at age 26.
Stewart became interested in politics after working for former Connecticut Congresswoman Nancy Johnson and former Governor M. Jodi Rell.
"It was an incredible experience to have such positive female role models in my life. But it also taught me a very important life lesson, and that was how to lose, and how to lose gracefully," Stewart said about Johnson's 2006 campaign loss.
"I was blessed to have two positive role models in the world of politics that are very, very rare to find, unfortunately.
"It's something that you don't see too often—women giving other women an opportunity."
Throughout her four years in office, Stewart has faced criticisms—from her governing style to her policy decisions.
"One of the most difficult things I've had to overcome is the fact that 'she's so young, she must be dumb,'" said Stewart.
"You challenge the status quo, you do things a little differently than they've always been done.
"It's difficult to bring about change without controversy. It is very difficult often times to work twice, if not three times, as hard to prove yourself to the public because of what you look like."
Despite her critics, Stewart says she isn't afraid to admit she needs to rely on others to help make difficult decisions.
"You have to admit and understand and be okay with the fact that you're not always the smartest person in the room," she said.
"I would encourage all of you to be okay with relying on others for their wisdom, expertise, and advice. It in turn will make you a much better leader.
"I learned very quickly how to adapt. It's a very frustrating reality, but you can't let it bring you down."
Stewart hopes her example of passion and perseverance will inspire young women in her community to seek positions of power in politics, government, and business.
"You have to find your inner mojo," she said.
"I always talk about that fire in your belly. What gives you that? Go after that."