In honor of Women’s History Month, the O’Neill School is using our March blogs as a platform to highlight the women of O’Neill, including students, faculty, and alumni, and their work to make a difference in our communities.
Written by: Sara Johnson, Director of Executive Education; Clinical Assistant Professor
It has been said that women will only apply for a job if they feel 100 percent qualified while men will apply if they feel 60 percent qualified. Many have attributed this to the belief that women lack confidence and therefore do not apply if not fully qualified.
But research by Tara Mohr, published in the Harvard Business Review in 2014, reveals the real reason women don’t apply isn’t because of a lack of confidence that they could do the job, but rather they don’t believe they would be interviewed because they don’t meet the qualifications. This, Mohr reports, is because women are socialized to be rule followers.
I have a long history of breaking the rules and it’s important that women in leadership not be afraid to do the same.
The rule I break most often is waiting to be asked. I hear young women say, “I don’t think I’m ready for that position” or, “I don’t have the experience.” Perhaps that’s true, but you can’t let it stop you from trying to move into a position for which you may not be fully prepared. The truth is that we are rarely fully prepared for what’s next. But, we can figure it out.
I first broke this rule when I was in grad school and working full time. I was a 20-something technician in a hospital laboratory and needed to find a final project to meet graduation requirements. I knew I wanted to do something that would have an impact. I found the organizational chart for the hospital and looked at the roles and responsibilities of all the leadership. I picked one person off the page and decided to approach him about helping me find a final project. Taking this step was a risk at that point in my career.
I called the Senior VP’s assistant and asked for a meeting. I remember what it felt like sitting in the administrative offices in my lab coat. This was not my world and I was breaking the rules by even being there. Not really, but figuratively. This was a place where you were invited, you didn’t just ask to meet with someone who didn’t know you, especially if you were going to ask for help with a school project! Yet, I thought … “Why shouldn’t I be here?”
After 30 minutes, we had successfully negotiated a project. He connected me with two senior leaders who provided resources and advising. Breaking the rules led me to the best mentor I ever had, a successful project that helped determine a business priority for the organization, a graduate degree, additional leadership responsibilities, and a future business partner.
Over the years as a woman in leadership, that experience of not being held back by the rules led me to step into spaces where I was not invited but where I felt I needed to be.
For example, 30 years after that grad school experience, I needed to rebuild my organization’s collaborative relationship with a large federal agency to meet our organizational goals. I began spending time in Washington, D.C., and because I was there, met someone from the highest ranks of the U.S. Navy. I asked her if I could come to the Pentagon to meet with her.
Like the administrative offices of the hospital many years ago, I recall sitting in this very ornate office at the Pentagon, feeling like I had once again broken the rules. I had not been invited into this space. I had asked to be there, doing what needed to be done to accomplish the goals I had for my organization. I didn’t wait; I broke the rules and asked to be invited in.
Aspiring women leaders must be willing to break the rules. If you don’t, you will not accomplish your goals or the goals of your organization. Likewise, you will not be the leader other women need to see showing the courage to do what must be done instead of doing what you are “supposed to do.”
You can’t wait to meet all the qualifications to get an interview, or to be invited to the hospital administration’s offices, or to collaborate at the Pentagon. Break a rule now and then. You will end up in places you should be, even though it may not seem like it. And, you don’t want to miss places like the Pentagon … those offices are amazing.