Looking gender bias straight in the eye

Looking gender bias straight in the eye | Insurance Business America

Looking gender bias straight in the eye

Growing up in what can only be described as a real-life version of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fotini Iconomopoulos’ father bestowed upon her the nickname of “The Negotiator,” and she wore that label proudly.

“Girls were expected to speak only when spoken to, but I challenged the gender norms of my upbringing,” Iconomopoulos said. “I bucked that trend — I was more ambitious than that.”

At 17, Iconomopoulos went to buy her first laptop but quickly got the sense the salesman didn’t respect her very much. Undeterred, she went home, prepped her father on what to ask for and the price she hoped to pay, and tried again the next day with him as her spokesperson. When the deal was done, the store owner told Iconomopoulos if she had been there alone she wouldn’t have received the same good pricing. While others might have been crushed to hear that, Iconomopoulos looked him straight in the eye and said, “I know.”  

“For me, that was a moment of power - to have predicted that obstacle and found a way to circumvent it,” she said. “Finding a solution that got me the result I wanted made me feel satisfied instead of victimized in that moment.”

Many years later, Iconomopoulos found herself in a consulting role where she was the only woman on the team, and the youngest by 10-15 years. Walking into a boardroom full of older, mostly white men as a young woman with long hair whose name they couldn’t pronounce led to some pretty ugly scenarios — Iconomopoulos remembers being asked, “What are you going to teach me, little girl?” but added she rarely gets the little girl part anymore as she’s “got a few more grey hairs on her head” these days — but through a blend of practical and academic background, she developed techniques that worked for her and managed to get the respect of the people with whom she was engaging.

“My mission is to make sure I’m always the one in the position of power, and to me knowledge is power,” Iconomopoulos said. “I want women to see things through a different lens and have the confidence to conquer whatever type of situation comes their way. It doesn’t have to rattle you, define you or make you feel weak. You can take that moment, predict it and use it to your advantage.”

Iconomopoulos, who offers negotiation, communication and leadership coaching at her company Forward Focusing, has written a book on her experiences and the techniques she uses, and teaches part-time MBA negotiations at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto, is also giving the closing keynote, Challenging gender stereotypes and biases, at the upcoming Women in Insurance California event — and she clearly knows of what she speaks. 

Through her work in a consulting or advisory capacity with corporate clients, as well as through academic exposure on the subject, she knows women are treated differently. There’s bias all over the place, she noted, and what she hopes to get across at the event is that women should be more conscious of how they’re perceived.

“As much as it sucks and I hate explaining it to people, we have to take that extra time to make sure we’re not misinterpreted,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why being a woman in business can be so exhausting. But the more we understand it, predict what’s going to happen and develop techniques to manage the situation, the less conflict we’ll come across.”

One of Iconomopoulos’ favourite tips is to ask questions instead of going into “tell mode”, and stating point blank that the client’s never going to go for that, for example. It’s not asking for permission with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question — i.e. ‘Can we do that?’ — but forcing the other person to have a conversation. How do you think the client will respond to that? What do you think the consequences will be of X, Y and Z? Make the discussion more interactive and lead people to your conclusions without bruising their ego or giving away your power.

Another tip is to pause. Multiple studies show that women use more words than men in general and are more likely to keep talking to explain themselves. What if you made a statement and instead of immediately elaborating, let it linger to be considered and digested in silence? It’s a more confident approach that doesn’t invite common words like “insecure” and “overwhelming” that are often attributed to women.

“Make a concise statement — and then shut up,” Iconomopoulos said. “Allow yourself to bask in the glory of the confidence of saying something so succinct.”

Through her work and her research, Iconomopoulos reports a sense that the tide is turning, hopefully indicating a faster journey to squashing the gender bias that continues to plague women. When she first entered the business world, there was an aura around the women ahead of her that said, “I had to go through this, so you’ll have to too,” but what she’s seeing today is women saying, “We don’t have to compete for the one seat at a table — how do we create more? How can we spare women coming into the working world the negative experiences we had?”

“The advice I would love for women to take away from my keynote is that there’s confidence in just showing up and knowing your value,” Iconomopoulos said. “You don’t have to be a victim of gender bias, you can become the conqueror of gender bias — but it starts with knowing you deserve to be in that room.”

To hear more from Fotini, join her and other inspiring speakers at the upcoming Women in Insurance California event.