To Our Future Female Leaders: Don’t Tie On Those Boxing Gloves Just Yet

A version of the following byline was featured on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Insiders Network, an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions.

I was at a leadership conference recently, and the room was filled with business leaders, mostly women in their 50’s and 60’s who are enjoying successful and satisfying careers. There was one exception: a special guest who had graduated from Yale last spring. She stood up and shared how surprised she was listening to a room full of women sharing lessons learned, and not one mentioned discrimination. She and her friends spoke often about how they would enter the workforce at a “disadvantage,” and they were preparing themselves to operate within “dismissive cultures.” The audience, myself included, went silent.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place on some college campuses where the narrative of intolerance in the name of social justice has gotten so ugly that the message for young women is gloves up and prepare for battle when entering the workforce? What have I and all the women before me fought for? To those in the early stage of your career or just beginning it, I assure you we are not at the end of gender equality in the workplace, but we are certainly not at the beginning either. Sexual harassment at Uber, porn in the military, pay inequality, and the current political tide aside, we are way beyond gloves up in corporate America.

You should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was. When I graduated in 1989 from Georgetown University, my teachers and my parents made it clear that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard. I would hate to think young women don’t have that kind of encouragement and hope now. My gender never even occurred to me then. And even today, I think of myself as a leader, not a female leader. And for me, being a leader is about how we make others feel about their potential—it’s about bringing out the best in those around us.

As women, we cannot become the stories we hear or fear. Assuming you will be marginalized increases your chances of making it so. And it doesn’t give credit to all the men out in the workforce who “get it.” Have there been jerks along the way in my career? Hell yes, and some of those jerks were even women. I’ve seen too many women stand in their own way, from not raising their hand for a promotion they deserve to letting someone talk over them in a meeting. Often, the default thinking is: I’m not ready; that’s not in my comfort zone; I’ve never done that before, instead of, “Can I learn that?” I’ve told those I mentor to get comfortable being uncomfortable, especially those who do not feel empowered to speak up. When I ask, “What are you afraid of? What is the worst that could happen? Will they think you’re stupid? Unprepared?” The answers are almost always nothing and no.

For the women just getting started in their careers, my advice is pretty simple: Bring your amazing and flawed female self to work every day. And get out of your own way. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

By Nicole Didda, Chief Communications Officer, Skanska USA

Becoming better leaders

We asked some of our team members what leadership lesson they learned in 2013. We might all learn something from their responses:

“Driving innovative, uncharted paths can be difficult and met with resistance.  Know when to pull back and regroup, and when to push forward.”

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Katie Coulson
Senior project manager
Portland, Ore.

“Leadership isn’t about a title or what role you may play within a team. A leader is any team member who motivates and pushes their team towards excellence. That’s easier to do when you have a strong team. However, true leaders are able to get the most out of team members of any level to enhance the overall performance.”

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Blake Boyd
Assistant project manager
Rockville, Md.

“You have to listen in order to lead. That means doing more listening than speaking. Having an open line of communication enhances confidence and promotes growth within the team, both on project and personal levels.”

Geraldo Iniguez

Geraldo Iniguez
Project Manager
Riverside, Calif.

“Leadership is a cycle in which current leaders develop future leaders by enabling those on their teams to take on more responsibility. I’ve benefitted from that cycle, and as I advance in my career at Skanska I have an obligation to help others increase their abilities to lead too.”

Thomas March

Thomas March
Project engineer
Washington, D.C.

“I learned the importance of getting ‘buy-in’ from your team. Team members respond well when they understand how their work fits into the success of the project as a whole, and know their work is valued and appreciated.”

Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis
Project engineer II
Virginia Beach, Va.

Skanska USA

Skanska USA

Skanska USA is one of the largest, most financially sound construction and development companies in the U.S., serving a broad range of clients in the public and private sectors, including those in transportation, power, industrial, water/wastewater, healthcare, life science, education, sports & entertainment, data centers, government, aviation and commercial industries.

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