Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


The onus belongs to the entities who have built and benefited from this system for decades

Esther-Mireya Tejeda

Chief Marketing Officer, Anywhere Real Estate Inc.
The onus belongs to the entities who have built and benefited from this system for decades
Esther-Mireya Tejeda in conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director at The Exco Group

Adam Bryant: As a woman in business, what are some headwinds you’ve encountered in your career?

Esther-Mireya Tejeda: Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a lot of the same headwinds that we've heard about over the years—a hyper focus on tone, personality and delivery, rather than a focus on meaningful business results or impact. It becomes more about how things are getting done, instead of what we were able to deliver for the business. I find this to be a unique issue for women.

Adam: So how do you handle those moments?

Esther: It's a bizarre, almost out-of-body experience when you are experiencing something that is so different from what somebody is telling you later. One example that I will never forget occurred when I was on a call with a junior male colleague. We were having what seemed to me like a perfectly normal discussion around a business issue. We agreed on a plan. I got off that call feeling good about the next steps and everything that we had discussed.

A week later, I was asked about the discussion. I was dumbfounded. I was confused. I wasn't sure what they were getting at with the question. It turns out that my experience of the call and his experience of the call were universes apart. He felt that I was aggressive, bossy, and that I was telling him what to do. That was not at all what I experienced. I thought the call was fine. It’s also important to note that I was senior to him, and therefore should have been taking the lead on the call.

It led to a discussion about what I could do differently the next time I interacted with him. I reflected on that and asked, “is that really the right question?”. I pushed back and suggested that instead, we should be asking him how he could have received, understood, or processed that discussion differently, and would he have processed it the same way if the person on the other side were also a man.

Adam: And so how did you learn to do deal with those moments?

Esther: I have learned to lean in on the parts of me that make me a unique leader, that make me the person I am. Women of my generation who've grown up in business were taught that to be a successful leader, you had to lead like a man—to show up to meetings like men, to speak up and be part of the boys’ club. I have found that bringing my full self to the table in a very authentic way allows me to be much better and more successful at building relationships and getting past those systemic predispositions and gender biases that color the way we engage with each other in business.

Adam: Have you developed a framework that helps you decide which moments to engage on and which ones to let go?

Esther: I don't believe in letting things go. I believe that we all have a responsibility to hold each other accountable if we are going to see any changes in a system that has been in place well before our lifetimes, that facilitates and empowers men at the cost of disempowering women.

For me, the idea of letting something go means that I am complicit in facilitating and moving that system forward. I do not want to be a part of that. So I take every opportunity to address an issue and hold people accountable if I believe they are being complicit in this machine.

I also think it is our collective responsibility and certainly my responsibility as a person who has a seat at the table to speak up for and champion other women who are not necessarily sitting at that table or in those rooms. It is a collective effort. It is not an issue that women alone are going to solve. It is an issue that men also need to be very seriously engaged in so that the next generation of talent and leaders who are coming into the workforce are not having the same conversations that we are having today. We were having some version of this conversation 20 and 40 years ago, and we have to start making some monumental shifts so that we don't keep repeating the same issues.

Adam: Do you feel like we're seeing any progress?

Esther: Yes. I also feel like it’s not enough. Certainly in my lifetime, I have seen things evolve. I have seen business culture embrace more diversity and women in leadership. Many organizations are making big leaps to make sure there is gender parity and equity across roles, levels and layers.

At the same time, if we take a look at our CEOs and our CFOs and anybody else in the C-suite, there is a glaring disparity across gender and ethnicity. We cannot ignore that reality as we celebrate the progress that has been made over the years. There's still a lot more that needs to be done. I will maintain that perspective until I can walk into a boardroom or I can walk into an executive meeting and have the exact same experience as the person next to me who is a man. And that is still not the case.

Adam: Let’s get tactical. How do you have difficult conversations with people when you have to call out their behavior?

Esther: There is a way to have that conversation so that it is productive and constructive. I like to ask questions. So I will say, “Hey, I heard you say X, Y, and Z. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that?” I want to hear their intention, their perspective, their experience. That gives me more information to then be able to educate, redirect, explain, or highlight that perhaps gender bias was at play. When I approach those conversations that way, the other party tends to be receptive and also tends to learn from the discussion, which is the goal.

Adam: What are some of the other patterns you’ve seen and experienced?

Esther: Particularly for women of color, it's tone policing. It's the scrutiny of how things are being said, how your face looks, what your voice sounds like, the volume of your voice, your body language. There is an undue scrutiny on the delivery, the demeanor, and the disposition of women of color in business and certainly in leadership roles that I just don't see for men or frankly for women who are not of color.

That is a persistent, commonly talked about issue, primarily among Black and Brown women. It is something I have experienced.

There are women, regardless of ethnicity, who speak more mildly, just as there are women who speak more forcefully. There are also men who speak quite forcefully. And when that happens, we think of that man as a leader, an authority figure and someone to be followed and admired.

When we see those same traits in women, and especially in women of color, it is demonized. That woman may be labeled difficult, uncollaborative, not a team player. This is to the detriment of the woman’s career, of course, but also to the business, because there are really smart, capable women leaders who have been stigmatized by tone policing and it costs all of us something in the end.

Adam: Where does your drive come from?

Esther: I'm a Latina from New York City, born into a family with a huge entrepreneurial spirit and a focus on career, business and education. A lot of my drive comes from the dining room table growing up.

Also, as I've grown up in business and as I've moved through my career, I’ve also started to understand more wholly how important it is for me to use my seat and my place in business to make space for other young women of color who are coming up. My career is much bigger than just my personal journey. I see everything that I do as paving a road for other women to come in behind me and do the same thing or much greater things.

Adam: What advice do you typically share with younger women about how they can better navigate these headwinds?

Esther: : I think that's the wrong question. Women did not create this system that disempowers us, puts us at a disadvantage and creates the challenges that we're talking about today. It doesn't make sense to me that the onus would be on women to try to navigate or find the solutions to be successful in this system, despite the fact that it was not set up for us to succeed.

The question that we should be asking is of men: As the people in power and majority of influence, what are you going to do to dismantle some or all of this so that we can level the playing field? The onus really belongs on the entities and people who have built this and have benefited from this for decades.

So, the number one advice that I have for women is to hold men accountable for having the hard conversations, for raising their hand and saying what needs to be said in the face of something that is unfair and to take their rightful space in the room.