#AskAHiringManager: How to Manage Being a Woman in Corporate America and Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Joan G. Wilmer, Human Resources Leader

By Khadejah Stegall

Khadejah Stegall is a part of the TLC college ambassador program and a recent college graduate of North Carolina A&T State University.

Diversity is rapidly growing in corporate America across Fortune 500 companies. You have top companies such as Google partnering with Howard University to launch programs for black students and an increase of women CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. However, there is still a gap in female representation in corporate America. According to Fortune, only 13% of women were appointed CEO and Chair through 2014 vs. 50% of male chiefs. TLC talked with human resources vet Joan G. Wilmer who has over 20 years of experience in human resources and knows firsthand how to manage to be a woman in corporate America and increasing female representation in the C-suite. Wilmer was previously the Assistant Vice President and Vice President of Human Resources at Citigroup. Her commitment to increasing diversity has led to her receiving EBONY Magazine’s “Top 30 Under 30 Leaders” award in addition to the Baltimore Business Journal’s “Top 40 Under 40 Leaders” award. TLC talked to Wilmer about how to get the job you deserve as a woman in corporate America and how to have our voices heard of getting a seat at the table.

1. How important is emotional intelligence as a woman in corporate America?

Super important because there are perceptions around gender and how we communicate regardless of what level you are at in an organization. Down to a science, Carnegie Institute had this study where they looked at what were the success factors of people at C-suite level. Eighty-five percent were successful when they had a real focus on their ability to communicate, negotiate and lead. Only 15% was technical.

When you think about the C-suite, most C-suite jobs or even just management leadership jobs are required to network in their ability for others to feel comfortable with you, to trust you and to like you. This all comes from emotional intelligence. It really is the ability to have the self-awareness and to be frank and honest to where you will know how to manage your emotions in different situations. If you don’t have that keen awareness, it can set the scale on someone liking you, trusting you or feeling safe for you to have a seat at that table, which is often very few seats for us to have. We are taught to focus on the technical skills, but the focus has been around emotional intelligence. We wonder why the person beside us may not know that much but is likable.

2. As a woman in corporate America, when you believe you are ready for a promotion, how should you go about getting the next position you feel you deserve?

For one, you need to do your homework around what that interest is. Make sure you are very clear about what you want to do. It helps you in communicating what you want. Men are very direct and very clear in what they want. It makes the difference in pay, promotion, and opportunity. It’s important to know where you want to go and how you get there is the journey of exploration.

Second, you need to know what are those options to get there. You need to be open to opportunities that may be a side step and then up versus a direct horizontal up into the next role, especially being a young woman. There needs to be a side step. Coming out of graduation,  I was working with an organization that was growing at a rapid pace, and they asked me to step out of my role of managing HR operations around when I was 21 to help with an acquisitions team in Atlanta. I knew that one of the ways of being that executive in HR working in global was to be able to speak to organizations that move, get bigger, etc. I allowed myself to be open to this opportunity that wasn’t a promotion to be able to make that side step to get the next role. I did the role in Atlanta, and then they wanted me to come back to Dallas to do a role that was a promotion. That experience in Atlanta opened the doors for me while at Citigroup to be a part of the executive team at Citigroup. I knew where I was going, but I just didn’t know how I would get there. I did my homework and opened myself up to move.

Also, when you are looking for that next role, be very careful not to get yourself locked up in compensation. The title is everything in corporate America. Some people are administrative assistants who are making six figures, but because of their title, it does impact your ability to move up within an organization or within that industry. You need to look at the title to make sure that those titles are building upon each other. Don’t take a role that’s not going to add to that portfolio because it can catch up with and stall your career. It’s beneficial for you to think about ways it can stall you. This means, talking to others that have been there before you. We move so quickly, and we think we have a lot of resources to make our own informed decision, but a mentor or someone who is a sponsor of you is always helpful, especially if it’s someone that’s inside who has a sense of the politics of the organization. 

Last but not least, have a conversation with the appropriate leader. If you are in an organization that is very sensitive to the movement of talent, it is important to have that sincere heart to heart conversation with that individual and to help them feel that they are a part of your journey. 

3. According to Fortune, just 13% of women were appointed CEO and Chair through 2014 vs. 50% of male chiefs. What is your advice on increasing female representation in the C-suite?

Too often we are kept in the shadows. There are not a lot of opportunities for us to be out front, where our talents are showcased. It used to be we weren’t getting the role and then once we started to get the position, we were kept in the background, and our intelligence was used for others. We are often that powerful support and leg. Organizations that make an effort to put women in positions where they are the face of the organization and given the opportunity to engage with others at the C-suite level really increase our chances.

Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, said it'd been other women who have helped her, and that’s been my case as well. Sisterhood does exist in corporate America.

4. Can you give us some advice on how to find your voice and have it heard during meetings when you are the only woman in the room? As the only woman, sometimes it can be hard for others to value your opinion. How do you earn the respect you deserve?

Because I was the youngest person in the room, I knew I was in the room with vets that had institutional knowledge and knew their business. Anytime I have a meeting, I prep for it. I take at least an hour religiously every single day to prep for the next day’s meeting. I spend a lot of time building relationships. Most people who are at a C-suite level are those who are liked in a manner of “Can I trust you to get the job done or can I trust you enough to represent the organization?” Before I go into a meeting, I touch base with those I'm going to be meeting with. I take the time to do research. I’m very good with follow ups, and I’m very good at making sure I deliver. Because I'm a female of color, you have to make sure they can count on you and make sure that you deliver because there’s perception. I always beat my deadline, and it has served me well from a branding perspective. You have to think about that in every communication point. That helps send the brand for people when you are not at the table, and I think that’s what has helped me over the years, especially being the only one at the table that looks like me.

5. What are some habits you need to develop as a woman in corporate America to succeed?

Recognize when you are at work, you're at work. Sometimes we want to be comfortable, but you can get too comfortable. Work is still work. Never lose sight at that which goes back into the emotional intelligence.

The other thing is making sure you are consciously asking questions and seeking to understand. Some want to show their worth and talent very early on. They come in intelligent and want to show their worth early on. I remember I wanted to get all the big projects and show what I could do. In the midst of that, I missed the opportunity to deliver even better because I didn’t seek to learn. Ask questions and don’t be afraid. It doesn’t take away from your intelligence—it shows you are hungry. People who see that will invest in you and that will open the door for other opportunities.

6. What are some books you recommend women to read and exercises to help them through their career experience?

The first book that I absolutely love is Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers by Lois P. Frankel. The author has a real conversation around what it means to work in the industry that we work in and how those perceptions of women can impact your abilities to move forward. I have read it three times because I find something applicable each time.

The second one is The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. It talks about how to maximize that first impression and how to vamp yourself out in a new job. We do a great job to prove ourselves and apply everything we learned in those classrooms, but the real world works a little differently, so there are ways to set yourself up for growth and sponsorship for other individuals.

The last thing is when young professionals can come together and share their experiences and to be that professional network to mentor each other.


Khadejah Stegall is a college mommy blogger that inspires others to achieve the impossible through the power of Jesus. She enjoys family time, eating vegan meals when it's convenient and mentoring others on professional development. To be inspired by more post, follow her blog at khadejahstegall.com.