How to Fight and Win

I read a piece today where Viola Davis lamented her status as the black Meryl Streep because she’s not getting the same opportunities or the same pay that goes along with that very complementary descriptor.

“I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them. Not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it,” she told Tina Brown at the Women in the World Salon event in Los Angeles recently.

It made me think about the fight for parity. The fight some of us have to continuously conduct because of accidents of birth in order to get what we want. It’s not easy. It’s tiring, disheartening, ridiculous and often seems like way too much work. I know I’ve had many moments where I sat down, nursed my bumps, bruises and cuts from battle and wondered if it might not be okay to settle for crumbs and save my energy.

Those moments never last long.

So, for those of us who are committed to fighting the good fight, to getting what we want by hook or by crook, I offer three pieces of advice.

Be vocal. A closed mouth does not get fed. It’s a cliché I live by. If you don’t ask for what you want, you almost certainly will not get it. And when it comes to the world of work, whether you’re a man or a woman, in whatever industry you inhabit, you have got to be vocal if you want to get to the top. There are two ways to do that, by word or by deed. For women, I say you need both because jobs have a tendency to not see a woman’s very excellent, very rewardable contributions – especially if there’s a comparable man standing next to her.

There’s a downside to being vocal for a woman though – it’s not considered ladylike. In worse case scenarios when you’re vocal, you may be demoted or otherwise punished for daring to ask for what you feel you deserve. You’re supposed to suffer in silence, to wait for opportunities to be granted, to accept what you’re given.

It’s why so many extremely high performing women end up starting their own companies. They get tired of watching their male peers skate past them on the career ladder no matter what they do to try and catch up. So, they decide they’re done waiting to get a promotion, equal pay, or more opportunity, and they go out on their own and kill the game.

You can’t blame them. Ain’t nobody got time to wait in that long ass line to be chosen when your turn in the queue may never come.

Be classy. The key thing to always remember when you’re fighting to win is that no one is – okay, very few are – really interested in hearing you advocate for yourself. Employers don’t want to hear that you, a woman, are underpaid or under-appreciated. And it’s not about whether or not they care. Caring is irrelevant. This is business.

Most employers want you to perform. Period. They don’t want you rallying the troops to fight for equal pay. They don’t want you creating waves because the HR department seems to be in cohoots with pervs and abusers who harass women others seemingly without reprisal.

No one is trying to hear you point out the flaws in infrastructure, the flies in systemic processes and procedures that discriminate and keep you in a holding pattern whole catapulting your less worthy peers ahead with rocket-like regularity. Know that. And know that you have to continue to be vocal anyway, but you have to strategically choose how and when to do so. Also, when you ascend your metaphoric soapbox – because that’s how people will make you seem, like a preacher with a misplaced pulpit – you have to maintain your composure at all costs. Have all of your information, data and such down pat because you will be tested.

Furthermore, it’s best if you’ve maintained that composure from the very beginning and are known for it. Any chinks in your armor will be exploited to your detriment. If you haven’t always been pristine, so be it. There’s no time like the present to polish your image, bolster your reputation, and fight for what you want in any way you can.

ESPN’s Jemele Hill is a great example of this. After the President and his very interesting press machine seized on her comments about his racist behavior to try and get her fired, she could have gone on a rant to end all rants. My fingers might have bled I’d have typed so much shit. But she didn’t. She kept it classy and professional, but she didn’t back down.

Now her situation didn’t end particularly well. She’s no longer on air. But all is not lost, and because she didn’t lose her cool, she can still set herself up for a comeback. I pray that she’s plotting it right now, and that when it comes to light, it’s epic.

Be clever. If you can’t find a way to fight against your detractors, if you can’t work within the established system. Don’t. Find another way to win. Issa Rae is a perfect example of how this can be done. Rae didn’t bother to battle with a system she knew would not be receptive to her message. Seven years ago, she went straight to YouTube and produced the content she wanted to see on her own. Her first episode in the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl was less than four minutes long and cost $25 to make – and attracted nearly two million views.

The rest, as they say, is history.

That’s a common theme for women and those I like to call difference-makers, people who buck the status quo not because they want to be deliberately disruptive but because they see a hole in the market and are compelled to fill it. For instance, Rae started a trend – including young black women in the “unvarnished everydayness” of life. She gave the world a look at a young black woman as a three-dimensional person, free of stereotypes and clichés. Davis did the same when she deliberately took off her wig and showed her natural hair in an episode of her successful network series How to Get Away with Murder. Both women’s actions opened a lot of doors.

In the end, how you fight and win in the workplace or in the marketplace is really all about marketing. It’s also about how you leverage your resources. I’ve often thought, thank the good Lord for the Internet because it’s opened so many doors to opportunity for so many people who might not otherwise have had them. The Internet is essentially a free space. Social media is the same.

Of course, there are pay walls and service fees depending on what tools you actively use in service of your mission or goal. But the free resources available make up the most diplomatic system available to give yourself a voice, reach your intended audience and attract new eyes, ears and pockets to your table. You can use social media however you like to promote yourself, your product, your service, your business, your brand, and you should, consistently and often.

It may talk back and throw up a few obstacles – hello trolls, vitriolic comment streams and clap backs – but if you’re determined you can block that stuff with the click of a button or with steel and resolve and focus on what needs to be done. These days, there’s nothing better than a media platform to help push you closer to your version of the winner’s circle.

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