Women are Built Tough, And Ford Knows: Success Tips From Women at the Top

Ford Panel

Compelling women, from an HBO producer to a Ford Exec, help celebrate Women’s History Month.

Ford’s Futurist Sheryl Connelly has more on her plate than predicting and setting the path for Ford Motor Company. She has been leading panel discussions of “Today’s Woman – Built Tough,” one of which was held recently at the Soho House in New York City.

Ford Panel

Jennifer Senior, speaking at the TED conference

As any devotee of Sex in the City knows, the private Soho House, in the meatpacking district (go figure) has a rooftop pool and rarefied air, so any chance to pass through its doors are grabbed by invitees.

But the panel was its own draw: Stephanie Laing, HBO executive and director executive producer of VEEP; Jennifer Senior, writer and TED presenter, Alana Strager,  Program Management Analyst on the Ford F-150; and RoseLee Goldberg art curator/historian.

Strong women, encouraging each other

Ford Panel

RoseLee Goldberg

A couple of things struck me as the panel spoke. At many such events, featuring a group of men and women, presenters talk over each other, interrupt, grab mics. But on this panel of women, everyone thoughtfully complimented each speaker’s diverse opinions. Sheryl attributed that to her Midwestern upbringing, saying, “I think way too long before I speak. I want to go back the next day in an argument.”

Alana said no matter what situation she is in, she makes sure to be respectful and kind. She does this at the workplace at home with her daughter. She noted, “our job is not to raise kids who can live in a cruel world, it’s to raise kids who can make the world less cruel.”

Ford Panel

Ford’s Sheryl Connelly

If the women on the Ford panel weren’t built tough, they became so over the course of their careers. Jennifer said that when she started out as a political reporter, she was publicly attacked by another writer for her point of view. She said that at the time, there were not a lot of women expressing their opinions. But she credits the personal attacks as giving her the ‘stones’ needed to write the New York Times bestseller, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.”

Ford Panel

HBO executive Stephanie Laing

Stephanie said, there are “lots of women doing my job [producing], but you have to earn it, deserve it. She noted that men often feel entitled, while women make apologies.” Jennifer added that when often feel a sense of ‘un-entitlement.’ but noted that there is an advantage to a woman’s often more measured approach, “we don’t bet the farm, we are more rational and judicial in assessments.”

Ban the bossy: words count

Ford Panel

The cover of Jennifer Senior’s bestseller

The women talked about raising their children, and making sure to encourage their daughters. Sheryl said when Sheryl Sandberg spoke to Girl Scouts, she talked about eliminating the word ‘bossy,’ while allowing girls to speak up. Stephanie said that when she needs work done, she says please, and then thanks the person, but has noticed that “men don’t ask.”

Alana said believing in yourself is key, believing that “you have the authority, you have the knowledge.” She added that, “I will never stop being polite even if someone is impolite to me.”

Money: the game changer

One of the biggest obstacles these women faced was money. RoseLee ran an arts organization and wrote books while she raised her children and said, “it’s OK to talk about money, not fear this idea that money is needed.” Stephanie remembered a time when she first moved to Los Angeles to work in films, and she had to pay for gas in dimes (though gas was well under $3 or $4 a gallon).

Stephanie also remembered dreaming that she found money – but quarters, and it made her sad, that she wasn’t even dreaming bigger. Jennifer added that this was a metaphor for many women’s limited scope, “heaven forbid I think bigger.’

Sheryl noted that though women are 50 % of the world population, only 12% are considered “influential women’ and they make up only 10% the billionaires. But, while women often got their money and influence through marriage or inheritance, now there are more who are self made: for example, Oprah, Tory Burch, Sara Blakely and Sheryl Sandberg.

Does a confidence gap lead to pay gap?

Sheryl mentioned a confidence gap that women have, and said studies show when men are asked by their managers to do something at work, they often respond, “consider it done,” – while a woman will say,  “I’ll do my best.”

Jennifer cited a study in which researchers give two equally qualified people a job to do that’s adjacent to what they do. “Men say ‘heck yeah’ and women say, ‘I’m not qualified.’ Women think they need exactly the right skills” to do a job.

Then how do these women explain how they succeeded where so many haven’t? Alana says that she never sees herself as “a woman in a man’s world’ and when she was driving a new F-150 pick up truck – a truck that she had helped design – a guy pulled up and asked “what’s a little girl like you doing in that big truck.” She politely responded, “anything I want.”

And as a woman tasked with innovations on Ford’s most important product financially, she is certainly doing that.

Judy Antell, who is TravelingMom.com's Free in 50 States editor, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and... More about Judy Antell