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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

Women, Power, and Influence: A Story of How Women Have Shaped My Life and How I Try to Give Back

I’m a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. – Maya Angelou

Businesswoman and business plan

This blog post is dedicated to all the women who have influenced me over my life. I am who I am because of the strong, powerful women who have showed me the way – especially my mom, grandmas, and my loving, patient, supportive, kind, (1000 other amazing adjectives) wife.

I woke up last Saturday morning ready to watch Bayern Munich clinch the Meisterschale and again rise to the top of the Bundesliga! (Which they did, by the way, Mia San Mia!).

And as is my custom, I try to watch the match while I peruse the internet and try to write a blog or so. That’s when I came across the following article:

According to the article: and SurveyMonkey’s new #MentorHer poll reveals Friday that 60% of male managers report feeling “too nervous” about being accused of harassment to interact with women in “common workplace” activities such as mentoring, socializing and one-on-one meetings.

That’s a 32% spike from 2018, with an additional 36% of men saying they now actively avoid women in junior-level positions — effectively chopping down their shot at climbing the corporate ladder.

The article continues by quoting Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, that this is not a good sign since the majority of senior leaders are men. Women will not get fair shots at promotions if men are “too nervous” to have meetings and one-on-ones with them.

This isn’t the first time I had read an article about this topic, but it still didn’t stop me from feeling a myriad of emotions: Anger, annoyance, incredulousness, confusion, and SMDH (if shake my damn head were an emotion).

First and foremost, let me give you a little background into some personal and professional experiences that shaped my values and viewpoints.

My three brothers and I were raised by our single mother. Typical divorced family situation – our dad was around every other weekend, occasional phone calls, and even the occasional visit when we screwed up or had an event to celebrate (first communions, graduations, etc). My dad is a good man, and he was there for my brothers and me, and still is to this day. He was instrumental in my becoming the man I am today. I am taking nothing away from him.

However, children in a divorced household cannot escape their destiny, in that, one parent almost inevitably wields far more influence on one’s growth and development. In my situation, it was my mom. She was the parent that I interacted with 80-90% of the time. It’s only natural that she’d have more direct influence on my thoughts, beliefs, and values.

And it may seem obvious, but my mom is a woman! In addition, my grandmas (also women) on both sides of my family wielded considerable influence. I spent a lot of time around them as well – learning family history, how to cook, family traditions, etc. Being around powerful, strong women leaves its mark. It was a Materfamilias situation if there ever was one.

So, I grew up considerably more comfortable around women, and in many cases, I preferred being around women to men.

That continued as I grew up and was being influenced and mentored. Some of the most influential teachers in my life have been women. To this day, I still keep in touch with my high school German teacher, known affectionately as Frau. In grad school, I earned a Masters in Public Administration, which is a male dominated profession, but I gravitated towards women professors because it fascinated me to learn their perspective as female city management professionals in a male dominated workforce.

My current boss is a woman with over 40 years’ experience in climbing the ladder. She has taught me so much about how to build relationships that help sustain and grow business and move it forward. She also has taught me about how women continue to struggle in moving up the ladder. It took her nearly 35 years until she was made CEO. But she never gave up, and never changed who she was as a person. She did it on her terms. That is admirable.

These interactions and relationships have influenced me since day one on the job.

My first professional position was at a transit agency. I was charged to build a new county transit program from the ground up. There were no staff. I was it, and I had to build it, so the seniors would come (to ride the bus).

The first hire I made was a woman I actively recruited, and it was a position of influence. She served as my first dispatcher, eventually being promoted to operations manager, who was second in command to me. The first maintenance director I recruited was a woman, and she was EXCELLENT! She could diagnose problems in a bus engine and FIX it like few people I ever knew.

As I grew at my agency, I began expanding my line of thinking, knowing that there was more I could do to surround myself with women of influence. When I began becoming more understanding of the struggles minority women face, I began actively recruiting and placing women of color in positions of impact. Our current training manager is an African American woman, and she is absolutely amazing! Her professionalism is second to almost no ones, and her dedication to building a professional, high quality driving staff is inspirational. She commands respect – most of all from me!

And as I was promoted and helped build VAC’s first HR department, the first hire I made for my HR assistant was a bi-racial woman with zero HR experience, but a passion and dedication to people, so I knew she’d be great for the position. It didn’t matter that she had no experience.

I’ve seen her grow and become more than competent at HR management. She’s become a Rockstar. She takes her HR craft seriously, and has become the go-to person at our agency for employees seeking consulting and advice. We have grown together, and continue to grow, as we figure out this thing called HR.

She was recently promoted to HR Generalist, and I am so proud and humbled because one day she told me that I was one of the best mentors she ever had. I was taken aback because I had never thought of myself in those terms. I was just trying to be the best boss I could – sometimes failing – but she didn’t see it that way. In her words, she wouldn’t be in HR or care about HR if it wasn’t for my seeing something in her she didn’t see in herself.

I could go on and on, though I want to make one thing clear: The point I’m trying to make isn’t “look at me, I’m so ‘woke’ and amazing since I treat women fairly, and I’m just better than other men, who suck!!!”

Please no. This has been an incredibly difficult piece for me to write (and I don’t want to hit the “submit” button) because I HATE discussing some of the more personal experiences I’ve been through, especially on such a challenging topic – one that I myself readily admit to knowing much less than I’d like to.

The point I am trying to make is that since I had looked up to so many women growing up, it was natural and easy for me to view women as more than just equals to men – women were to be respected, learned from, and admired. Women add value in so many ways to our professional organizations and our lives.

That’s why the article I started this blog post with so many paragraphs ago really upset me. It just doesn’t make sense in my DNA to not think of women in respectful terms.

I’m proud that I’ve spent much of my young professional career building up woman and providing opportunities for them to succeed. And in all those cases I discussed, it was the women themselves who created the opportunities by demonstrating to me that they had desire, skills, professionalism, work ethic, etc. I simply got out of their way and let them do what they do, and THEY succeeded beyond what I could have predicted. That’s incredibly powerful and inspirational to me, and gives me motivation to keep getting better myself.

So, when I read sentences like “men are nervous of being accused of harassment if they spend one-on-one time with women,” it pisses me off. That line of (il)logic is a damn excuse weak men tell themselves to justify in their minds that treating women unfairly is OK. Only men who have something to hide say something like that.

It’s coward talk. Men of character and courage do not fear spending time with women. They seek out opportunities to further empower women. They don’t hide behind excuses. If a man feels nervous about being around a woman in a professional setting, that speaks to his lack of character and confidence, or his inability to control himself. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be in a position of power or influence to begin with and should seriously take a look inward.

Maybe I can put it in terms those men may understand: Man up! Stop being afraid of phantom threats and false narratives. At minimum, admit you’re scared that the woman in question is powerful and influential and you can’t handle it. Admission is the first step to recovery.

Maybe I am being too harsh and direct. Maybe not harsh or direct enough. I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that things need to change. Men of influence need to be confident in mentoring women and providing avenues they can take advantage of. If they don’t then we keep perpetuating the same broken wheel.

And that’s the issue at hand. A lot of men too afraid to face their own biases are in positions of power, and thus, the cycle continues. Women won’t get opportunities to advance and grow and obtain positions of influence and power, keeping more weak-willed men in those positions, and so it goes.

Ultimately, men need to do better, and I am hopeful that many are! That is why I am sharing these stories. Throughout my entire professional career, I have been actively placing women in positions of influence and power at various levels throughout the agency I work. I have placed women in non-traditional roles, such as oversight of vehicle maintenance and training of drivers. I’ve placed women in roles in which they had no experience and coached them up to be highly successful in those new roles. I did this because it was natural to me. I did this because it needed to be done. I did this because it was the right thing to do!

And, I have not once been accused of harassment. Go figure. I haven’t been held down. I have been succeeding! I have been promoted, I believe, in part, to placing the right women around me to help me get better. And, the women I mentioned in this article have all been promoted multiple times. Our agency is bigger and more productive than ever! A large part of that is because we diversify our positions of leadership, as I do not fear women of power. I admire them and want to be near them.

Society has a long way to go, but I am hopeful. I have seen much progress in my short time paying more attention. My hope by writing this piece is that it can influence at least one person to reconsider and think differently about how people should be treated and can be treated. Empathy is a powerful thing. Overall, men, we can be better, and women can show us the way if we pay attention.

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