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Women and the Awesome Power of Connection

A woman in a red jacket standing in front of a linkage sign.

​When Anne Chow, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, was growing up, her parents instilled in her the value of always striving to be her best, which was significantly different, she said, from trying to be the best. Rather than pressure their daughter to surpass others, Chow said her parents taught her that she should compete to be the best version of herself—and that true leadership comes from not just furthering your own cause, but also from helping others be the best they can be.

Addressing participants on Day 3 of the 24th annual Women in Leadership (WIL) Institute in Orlando, Fla., Chow—the former head of AT&T Business who stepped down from that post last year after more than 30 years of service to her company—spoke about the value of personal and professional connections for aspiring women leaders. She said such connections were vital to her own success as a second-generation immigrant who would ultimately become the first woman of color to be a CEO in AT&T's 140-year history.

"When I entered the corporate world just out of business school," Chow said, "no one in leadership roles looked like me or talked like me." During her tenure at AT&T Business, she said, she held 17 different roles and had 26 different bosses, and she learned different lessons from their unique leadership styles and capabilities.

From the allies, mentors and sponsors who helped foster her growth and shepherd her career, Chow said she has discovered three main truths about personal connectivity that she has seen drive the success—or failure—of many businesses:

  • Every business is a people business. No matter your industry, Chow emphasized, you are ultimately serving people. "Business doesn't drive people," she affirmed. "People drive business."
  • Leadership is a choice. In today's often conflict-ridden world, Chow said, people struggle with the notion of what leadership looks like and sounds like. "Leadership has no gender, race, color, age or education," she said. "Each of you here has chosen to be here because you are choosing to be a leader. Leadership is the only thing that has stood the test of time and progress. Connections play a key role in that."
  • Culture is your ultimate competitive advantage. "Other companies can always copy what you do," Chow said, "but what they cannot truly replicate is your organization's culture: the set of people who comprise your business today and tomorrow and the accepted norms that drive your company." Businesses that nurture and trust their employees will always flourish, she said, but the toxic company that breeds mistrust and suspicion among its workers will always fail.

Binding all these truths together, Chow said, is the power of human connection. During the pandemic, she said, that fact became overwhelmingly evident. "We missed being together. We need connection to survive. It's the most powerful thing in the world."

In that light, Chow remarked, the traditional concept of "networking" can actually cheapen the goal of human connection. Networking is transactional at heart, she said. "We should reframe the concept of networking to building human connections. That's what is necessary for all human progress."

Chow said women uniquely understand this. Unlike many men, women recognize the power of their personal and professional relationships, and they avidly seek them out. "We have our girl posses, and we know they're vital for us to survive," Chow explained. "We know that we need one another."

A large part of that need is the recognition that women can experience overwhelming bias in the workplace that puts them at a disadvantage when they seek out positions of power. Chow enumerated six ways that gender-based bias negatively impacts women who strive for leadership roles in their companies:

  1. Marital status. "If you're an older single man, you're called a 'lifetime bachelor,' but if you are an older unmarried woman, you are called an 'old maid,' 'spinster' or even 'cougar.' " Chow told her audience. "As a woman, your marital status is very relevant to how people perceive you."
  2. Parental status. "We often hear—and even call ourselves—'working mothers,' " Chow said. "When's the last time you heard your male colleagues referred to as 'working dads'? As a woman, your parental status can define you in the workplace."
  3. Age. "Women can't win with age," Chow emphasized. "When you are a young professional, you are unexperienced. When you hit your 40s, 50s, you are peri- and post-menopausal and past your prime." Rather, Chow told her audience, "Now is always your prime, no matter where you are in your career."
  4. Interpersonal style. "I've been told I'm too polite and too direct in the same breath," Chow said. "Everything I am is not fitting for an Asian woman." So, early in her career, she said, she modeled her actions on the behaviors she saw exhibited by the white male leaders around her. "That didn't work," Chow recalled. "When I started embracing myself, my career took off."
  5. Leadership and respect. Women are often not granted the respect they earn in the ways that men are, Chow said, giving as an example a male and female doctor in a boardroom, in which the man is referred to as "Dr." and the woman is addressed by her first name.
  6. Housework (at home and the office). Just as women bear the burden of a disproportionate amount of housework in the home, they also do so at work, Chow said, using as examples women being casually delegated to take notes or fetch missing attendees at a workplace meeting. "When you do these things, you are not participating as an equal," she explained.

To fight against stereotypical gender assumptions that can prevent women from assuming positions of leadership and power, Chow said there is no replacement for the allies, coaches, mentors and sponsors—both men and women—who can give aspiring women leaders the tools they need to accomplish what they set out to do.

"I want all of you to become even more meaningfully connected than you are today," Chow said. "Be proactive, patient and purposeful as you seek out your connections. Life is all about relationships. Be sure to foster meaningful ones."

Barbara A. Gabriel is the managing editor of SHRM's Managing Smart.


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