Be confident, find mentor, build network: Expert offers advice on International Women’s Day

Kaplowitz, executive director of Rutgers Center for Women in Business, said females should start developing strategy for success in their teen years

Lisa Kaplowitz. (File photo)

Lisa Kaplowitz said she has seen it in the workplace more often than she can count.

Women — actually, any underrepresented minority — go to work with the belief that, if you put your head down and you just do good work, you’re going to move ahead.

It’s just not true.

“Doing really good work is important, but what is equally important is making sure that your management team and your bosses know that you are doing good work.”

It’s equally important to make sure you’re not the only one pointing it out, too, Kaplowitz said.

“Find a mentor to help guide you within that organization and the industry,” she said. “Get a sponsor or an advocate that is going to sing your praises even when you are not there.”

Kaplowitz, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women in Business at the Rutgers Business School, has her finger on the pulse of where women in business stand today.

So, on International Women’s Day, the global celebration of women and their achievements on all levels — socially, economically, culturally and politically — ROI-NJ decided to check with Kaplowitz to get an update on where women stand in the workplace.

Kaplowitz was quick to say the day is a reminder of the global gender-based discrimination that women face around the world. As we move forward to create a world where women are equally heard and valued, it is going to take time before such a transformative change can take place, she said.

Here are more of her thoughts, edited for space and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Finding a mentor is a great idea. What other advice would you give to a woman beginning her career today?

Lisa Kaplowitz: You also need to network. Show up to that meeting five minutes early, whether it is on Zoom or in person, and stay five minutes late. Make sure you have that chat and that you learn about your colleagues or what is going on in the business — and they are learning about you. The connections you make outside of the work that you are doing together is what is going to bond you and keep you in the pipeline for those next opportunities.

Most importantly, be confident. You got hired because you have a brain and because you are going to do a good job. Realize that you have a place, and your value is important. Speak up when you have something to contribute to the conversation, do not wait to be asked to speak.

ROI: Would you give the same kind of advice to a middle-schooler or a high-schooler?

LK: Yes, with some added guidance. Girls’ confidence starts to waver around sixth grade. They start to lose confidence in math and sciences around middle school, even though their performance doesn’t go down. In fact, girls’ performance in the STEM-based fields is actually equal to boys in grades K-12.

So, the most important thing for them to do is to be confident. They need to know that it is cool to be good at math, and it is cool to be good at science and sports. In fact, 94% of CEOs, of C-level executives, played sports growing up.

ROI: What else would you tell young women?

LK: Find people who look like you and that are doing things that you think are interesting. Talk to your mom, talk to your aunt. Talk to your older sister. Talk to your teacher. Find out what people do in their day-to-day roles. Those are the people you will be able to connect with.

The reality is, representation matters. If you find commonality with someone, it is much easier to be intellectually curious and confident to ask those questions. Girls need to be confident to sit in that classroom or play on that sports team, even if they are the only female there. They need to know they still belong to be there.

ROI: What’s the state of women in business today?

LK: I would like to say it is a lot different, but it might not be as different as we think. Right now, women earn more college degrees than men, yet only a little over 20% of senior leadership positions are held by women and only 7% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies are women. For women of color, those numbers are even lower.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inequitable division of household responsibilities at home and, as a result, over 3 million women left the workforce, wiping away years of progress. It ended up sending women’s employment participation to 1980s levels.

ROI: That doesn’t sound all that great.

LK: The bottom line is women are burned out. We are the only industrialized nation that does not have a care infrastructure, and the social norms right now have it assumed that women are the primary source of that care, both for child care and elder care. The World Economic Forum says it is going to take 136 years to close the Global Gender Gap if we continue to stay this course.

So, while I would say it is much better, it’s not. We have a lot of work to do. But representation does matter, because more women will learn and grow from somebody that looks like them.

ROI: What does the future hold, and how long do you think it will take before women heading up companies is the norm and not the anomaly?

LK: I wish I had a crystal ball, and I wish I could say it is going to be soon, but there are a lot of steps that need to happen. One of those is the assumptions that people make need to change.

You know, I was told when I was walking through the valuation of our company that I didn’t look like a CFO.

We need to get out of our heads the belief that we know what a CEO looks like, or what any executive looks like, and that we know what they want.

As the theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Break the bias,’ do not assume that she doesn’t want a bigger assignment, do not assume that she doesn’t have the ability to travel, do not assume that she doesn’t want to advance her career.

I think the more women, the more women of color, the more people of color that we have in these roles, the easier and easier that is going to become. We need more people that look like us to hold these leadership positions.

And we already know the statistics: When you have more diversity on the management team, when you have more diversity in the workforce, you have greater stock price appreciation, and your company takes more calculated risks, and your financial performance is enhanced.