Picture yourself as the only woman working in a power plant. No, this is not a Meryl Streep or Sallie Fields feel good movie, it was real life for Robin Benson at age 23. According to Robin, members of the workers’ union at the power plant were very protective of her, but most in the male-dominated organization never expected to be working side by side a young woman their daughters’ age.
I met Robin while serving on a career advisory board for an all girls high school in Memphis, Tennessee, our high school alma mater. I am fascinated by Robin’s energy and so pleased she was willing to share her observations with me.
Robin’s mother was head of housekeeping at the Hutchison School for Girls, and head of the fledging computer program….and she was also the art teacher. Robin’s mom, modeled career diversification early on for Robin!
I interviewed Robin recently for a new book I’m writing, From Cinderella to CEO…and Back Again! (this will be the 2nd edition version of From Cinderella to CEO, How to Master the 10 Lessons of Fairy Tales to Transform Your Worklife).
Robin joined a women’s power group after graduating from college. A male peer asked Robin why she needed a group like that. He didn’t understand the concept of why the women would need a support group. “He didn’t buy into it,” according to Robin. Being one of six women in a company of 1500 men, Robin said to him, “as I see it, these women, and I either have the opportunity to fail magnificently or achieve magnificently. Everyone is watching because there are so few women.”
Robin eventually left her position at the power plant, and as an engineer has moved up and often in her career with international companies, based in the U.S. and elsewhere.
At the power plant, she often made suggestions about how there could be safety clothing provided in women’s sizes, vs. women wearing a man’s safety clothing to make the work environment more attractive to other women. She did not win points for speaking up about her observations. Her questioning came across as aggressive, her boss told her. So Robin moved on and up as I mentioned. Today, Robin Benson is a Senior Analyst, Integration Office, at Exelon, based in Baltimore and is an engineer.
In all of the companies in which Robin has worked, she’s primarily been the only woman (or one of a few) working with a team of Caucasian men in their 40’s, who thought they were diverse; however, it became clear to Robin that most did not understand the benefits of diversity or inclusion, or even what it is.
Robin’s advice to those facing or experiencing similar circumstances to her own:
1. Find an advocate within or outside of your company, and it helps to discuss issues you are facing with a male mentor who is more senior to you. That way you can learn from the open communication and different perspectives.
2. Communication is one of the most important things you can do to improve how you manage or work with women. Pay attention to what you say. Being a leader means changing how you communicate, especially if it’s not working for all the members on your team.
3. Bosses and colleagues who encourage an open dialogue and have a perceptive ear for listening to diverse views are the most successful ones I work with. If you don’t find that, then it’s not the place you want to work anyway.
What do you think about joining a women’s group or a support group for girls?
Have you ever been part of one? What is your definition of diversity? of inclusion?
We’d love to hear from you.