Women make up about half of the nation’s workforce and more than half of all professional and manager-level jobs, according to federal data. But they fill just a small percentage of executive-level jobs and corporate board seats.
Former Southern Co. executive Becky Blalock is trying to change that.
“I think the single greatest thing holding women back is our confidence,” Blalock said. “Confidence is a learned skill.... What you have to be willing to do is dare to put yourself out there. You’ve got to dare to take some risks.”
Daring and risk form the backbone of Blalock’s new book for women who want to ascend to the executive level, “Dare: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career for Women in Charge.” Its advice is pulled from Blaylock’s career at Southern Co., where she eventually rose to become chief information officer after serving in leadership positions in divisions across the company, as well as from interviews with dozens of female executives in Atlanta and across the world.
“These women in these senior jobs still say that there are lots of barriers for women,” Blalock said. “They feel it at the senior levels—not so much at the lower levels, but at the senior levels, the barriers are still there.”
Overcoming those barriers, they told Blalock, comes down to taking risks. So they want more women to do that.
“[These women executives] would not be where they were today had they not stepped outside that comfort zone, pushed the envelope, stepped into something unknown and been successful,” she said. “That was absolutely key.”
Blalock said women need to find mentors to give them support and guidance as they take those chances—and to help with the landing when those risks fail.
“[Women] don’t have the same safety nets that men do,” Blalock said. “If you look at who’s in corporate America, it is white males, for the most part.
“You’re a whole lot more willing to go out front and take a risk if you have someone higher up the corporate ladder who’s pulling for you and mentoring you and sponsoring you and coaching you on how to do it,” she said.
Women have lacked the same access to mentors and sponsors—someone with a seat at the decision-making table who can advocate for you or bring your name into the discussion—in part because the number of female executives is so low, Blalock said. But also because many women hesitate to ask for help.
“Having been in a senior position, men will not hesitate to come in and ask you to do something to support him and help him,” she said. “ Women are much more shy about that.
“People are more than willing to coach you and mentor you and help you, but you have to ask.”
That doesn’t mean women should only mentor other women, Blalock said. But she said women should put special emphasis on helping other women with their careers.
Men have a role, too, she said. Many of her professional mentors were men.
“I don’t think men wake up and think, ‘What can I do to exclude women today?’ They don’t. They’re totally unaware,” Blalock said.
So men who supervise a team need to make sure the women who work for them get the same levels of access as the other men, she said.
“If you’re playing golf or going to dinner or lunch with the men on your team, then find a way to give equal face time to the woman,” Blalock said. “Women are not part of a lot of the informal communication that goes on inside companies.”
Men can also start at home, with their young daughters.
“I tell them, ‘Go home, hug your daughter, tell her there isn’t anything she can’t do,’ because the single greatest factor in a young girl’s confidence is her relationship with her father,” Blalock said. “Men have a huge ability to help this next generation of women be highly confident and much more willing to get out and do what they need to achieve their dreams.”