by Nicole Fauteux
“I joke that I had my midlife crisis when I came out of college,” said Nina Godiwalla, speaker at the 2014 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition Evening Plenary on Gender Issues, commonly known as Discourse and Dessert. In reality, the bestselling author of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street, spent almost a decade working for Fortune 500 corporations before the cumulative effect of her experiences prompted her to choose a different professional path.
Her reflections on her minority status—as a woman, the daughter of immigrants, a Texan and a public university graduate in a world dominated by white, male, Ivy-league alums—resonated with a broad range of readers who also felt like outsiders in the workplace. It led to her current career as founder and CEO of MindWorks. In that capacity, she speaks on diversity issues, and provides leadership and stress management training to corporations and other professional organizations.
During her talk, Ms. Godiwalla recalled a childhood where the expectation that she would pursue higher education was frequently expressed through questions about what school she would attend—after she completed college. She spent less than a year at the University of Texas before her mother asked if she had lined up a job. The answer, not surprisingly, was no, but Ms. Godiwalla did attend a campus recruitment fair her freshman year. There she spoke with a J.P. Morgan recruiter who wooed and wowed her with tales of life in Manhattan.
That summer, Ms. Godiwalla found herself working on Wall Street. After graduation, she joined financial services firm Morgan Stanley. She asked to be placed in a group that would challenge her, and her employer obliged. The company assigned her to the corporate finance group, which had what she called a “hazing culture.” Eighty-hour work weeks were the norm, and bosses thought nothing of asking a subordinate to stay at the office until 2:00 a.m. just to receive an incoming fax. Heavy drinking and drug use abounded. Her male colleagues would spend their lunch hours at strip clubs. And despite the fact that antidepressants were available for the asking, nervous breakdowns occurred regularly.
”My parents really pushed for the American dream, but what is it worth when you get there?” Ms. Godiwalla asked the audience.
After a decade of working for a number of Wall Street firms, Ms. Godiwalla decided it was time to move on. Following the success of her book, she was asked to serve on a number of forums where she gleaned insights into how to improve the workplace. During her presentation, she offered a recipe for creating environments where people feel included.
- Step 1. Promote awareness of our biases. We all use shortcuts to make judgments, she said. These can be useful, for example, when we choose a familiar brand while shopping for a new product, but these can be limiting to when it comes to our interactions with new people.
- Step 2. Respond to biased remarks or behaviors that undermine others. She said people want to respond but they often don’t know how. Shifting power, injecting humor and asking questions are three strategies that work.
- Step 3. Speak up. If we don’t, she said, unwelcome workforce behaviors will be perpetuated. “It’s up to you and me to make the courageous decision to stand up and speak up,” she said.