Barriers to Power: Biases that Restrict Women’s Advancement and Ways to Overcome Them

In a hard-hitting and candid third panel discussion at the 2017 Hall of Femme event, the audience heard from two leading women marketers about facing and over-coming gender-based obstacles and challenges.

“You don’t look like an engineer,” is a comment Barbara Martin Coppola heard in her engineering days. It would have been easy, she said, to swap her skirt for a pair of jeans, but women should be free to be themselves and express their femininity, she said.

Coppola moved from engineering into marketing positions at Samsung and Google, and is now CMO of Grubhub. Born in Spain, her experience encompasses being a minority as well as a woman. “It’s important to embrace one’s differences,” she said.

Sarah Gosler is SVP and head of marketing at Wedbush Securities. Her message was that women need to ask for the recognition to which they’re entitled if they’re not getting it. “It’s really important for women to speak up,” she said. “If you don’t ask for it, it’s not going to come to you.” In her experience, this meant asking for recognition that her performance put her on a standing above the average VP (in financial services, she said “You can throw a rock and hit a VP”). 

Build on quick successes, she advised; develop a track record; and you can go with confidence to your CEO and say: “This is what I’ve accomplished.”

Asked what women brought to senior marketing positions, Coppola said they could demonstrate that you can have a life and be successful. Also: “Do the job with passion and do it well,” and that’s a way to help other women. But she emphasized that beyond male and female there is always a human being. 

In financial services, said Gosler, there were few women in senior positions. She was particularly “incensed,” she said, when she saw women not supporting each other. There was no tolerance for that on her team.

The panelists added some advice about steps women can take in the workplace to continue breaking down barriers. “We can be good role models to start with,” said Coppola. “I need to see my kids every day. I also need my job.” When she sees self-doubt in younger women, she reminds them: “What people told you was not possible: It is possible.”

Gosler felt some barriers were still internal, with women failing to ask for recognition. Before applying for a position, for example, women tend to need to feel perfectly qualified; men are much reader to “roll the dice.” She reminded the audience that “bias today, for the most part, is not overt.” 

Both Coppola and Gosler also expressed no tolerance when it came to sexual harassment. “(It) should never be accepted,” said Gosler. Incidents should be reported through the correct channels. “I personally have experienced it in different phases of my career,” she said. “It’s tough.” There’s a fear that complaining can put a target on your back. But, she said, “no job is worth it.” As a manager, she ensures her team lives in a secure “happy bubble.”

Asked if she had faced sexism, Coppola said “Many times.” It’s important to remember that when male executives are behaving inappropriately, “the news spreads fast.” For sexual harassment, “I have zero tolerance. Zero.”

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