A Movement Maker on the Power of the Pack

Our social networks give us a special power, especially when it comes to professional advancement. A Harvard Business Review study reveals that people of all sexes and genders benefit from having a close inner circle composed of supportive and successful people. But, the research also shows that women are more likely to reach the highest levels of leadership and pay in their professions if they surround themselves with an inner circle of female contacts.

In this episode of Break the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, for an unplugged conversation about bringing more diversity to the table by building our courage to speak up and speak out together, because that is how we can make a real impact. Shelley also offers advice to women who are rising up in traditionally male-dominated industries by emphasizing the strength in collectively using their differences to break down the barriers to gender equality.

Their conversation covers:

  • Why women who support other women are more successful and the power of the pack
  • Being courageous in the workplace by standing up and standing out
  • Embracing who we are by owning our differences and imperfections
  • Why we need to remove the term “work-life balance” from our lexicon
  • How to close the gender pay gap, and much more

Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for some key takeaways.


ASHISH: Your background is so inspiring and interesting to me. You built a business many years ago and sold it. What inspired you to take the move into being a changemaker for society?


SHELLEY: “It definitely was not an intentional choice. I always say I followed my heart, so it was a heartbeat moment. It happened by accident. I never had any intention of going from the business of market research to the business of equality, but based on my experiences, I think it was just one of those things that pushed me there. The wind blew me in this direction and I knew it was my time to give back with generosity. I was the only female CEO, top 25, my entire career. I knew I thought differently, I knew I acted differently, and I knew that I always wanted to be in charge so that I could break the rules that made no sense and create the new ones. I no longer wanted to be the exception to the rule. I wanted to become the new norm.”

ASHISH: What advice would you give to other women who are rising up in the industries that are traditionally male-dominated?


SHELLEY: Oscar Wilde says it best, ‘be yourself because everybody else is taken.’ You can fake it once or twice, but you can’t consistently be someone else. Stand up, stand out, and stand together. Don’t hide your strengths. Your differences are truly your greatest strengths.

Today, we see that loud and clear- the invisible becoming very visible. The greatest leaders today have been women who run countries. We are nurturers by nature, we have: compassion, empathy, resilience, and vulnerability. Those were strengths that we either never recognized, never talked about, never rewarded, or never made visible. Now we are seeing these qualities along with new language and new skill sets that are necessary and crucial for the best leaders. We are starting to embrace that these are validated, recognized, and essential qualities of leadership.”


ASHISH: What advice would you give women about making sure that they are courageous, but not worry about the perception of it?


SHELLEY: “Courage comes from within. It starts with confidence and believing in yourself. I think courage comes from being comfortable with being who you are and knowing that’s what it’ll take. Sometimes people will reach it wrong because they only look at what’s on the outside. They don’t know where it’s coming from and they may think you are aggressive and too confident or have a big ego because you’re speaking with confidence. But, it is not because I don’t value others, it’s because I’ve been there and done that. I’m speaking from experience, from my heart, and the choices that I had to make. Confidence isn’t bossy. Confidence is knowing and having done all the work.”

ASHISH: Looking back with all your experiences, what would you tell your younger self now, if you had the chance?

SHELLEY: I actually don’t have any regrets because I think that all the zigs and zags I’ve made in my life were out of necessity and have made me who I am today. Sometimes you might be misunderstood. So I would say spend time with people that you know because you might not understand their intention. Or if someone upset you with something, don’t point a finger or hold it in, share it and tell them because they might be unaware. Live life with no apology and give yourself permission to be who you are, and find others that go with you. I would also say, own your strengths and know that you are not perfect. No one is perfect. Your imperfections are your greatest perfections and support one another because you will go so much further, so much faster, and have so much more fun when you’re with others and not alone.”


ASHISH: Given that the Female Quotient is really about being present and in person during your training and your events, how did you make a shift to your business model during COVID?


SHELLEY: “For us, it’s been just a natural flip. We flipped the script to stay the same, we just flipped the method of how we do it. We also have been more innovative than we’ve ever been by not traveling and we’ve had bandwidth to actually launch the other digital solutions that we’ve been working on and they have been incredible. We are now uniting the world through the power of women in a hundred countries through global dinner parties that are all virtual and we will never make them physical. They’re working brilliantly in the virtual world and we can see that here is a lot of progression. The boot camps that we used to host in-person are working really well virtually. Virtual events gave us this whole opportunity to access people on a more global basis than just the people that are at the conference themselves. Our pivot to virtual wasn’t ‘or’ at the time, but it will become a new ‘and’ for us.”


ASHISH: One of my mentors used to say to me, I used to work to live. Now she says I live at work. Can you tell me about your philosophy regarding the concept of work-life balance, especially during the pandemic, and what you think about it?


SHELLEY: “There is no such thing as balanced, so get rid of the word balance from your lexicon. Life is not 50/50. There’s no work or life. Life is messy. You have one life, with five dimensions: your work, your family, your community, your friends, the fifth, we forget about, is yourself. We always neglect ourselves. Now you need to put your oxygen on yourself first on the airplane if you want to help others. You are no good to anyone if you are not healthy yourself. There is a sixth dimension with the pandemic, which is being a homeschooler if you have young children and you’re also responsible for them as a primary caregiver. Unfortunately, many women are opting out because they really can’t do it all. I think you have one life with many dimensions and you need to think forward and act in the moment. There is always a way to do it all as long as you are willing to do it all your way. You just have to find it, there is no textbook. There is always a yes, there is always a solution.”


ASHISH: I think we are making the pay gap worse by pretending it’s not there. I feel like it’s really easy to go into a company and say, we’re going to audit you and if you and I are both doing the same job and I’m making more than you, then let’s fix that. There needs to be accountability. For instance, in New York City, they are passing a bill where you can’t ask people how much they make, but it is okay to ask how much you want to make. I just don’t feel like this, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach is not working. It’s actually making it worse. What do you think about this?


SHELLEY: “Women in general are paid based on past performance and men on potential. Companies should be conscious about seeing where their pay gaps are and seeing where they want to go, instead of waiting for the audit. Companies need to be accountable. I think there could be a range of flexibility, but that range needs to be objective. It has to be based on a clear line criteria so that we’re not leaving it to employees, because then it’s just perpetuating the bias and perpetuating the gap. It could be a range based on level of experience, number of years of experience, or it could be based on your KPI performance. Men, no matter what you tell them, they’re going to ask for more and women are going to say, thank you. That is just where we go in life.”


ASHISH: At Consciously Unbiased, we have this term called microprogressions, which are little things that we can do to affect change in the culture of an organization. So, what do you think is a small microprogression people should do in practice to make the workplace a much better place to be in?

SHELLEY: Spend five minutes with someone you don’t know. You are going to learn something that will add value in your life and make a big difference, a mutual difference. It is a value exchange so don’t ‘judge a book by its cover.’ Be open, be aware, be willing to listen because what might be okay for me might not be okay for you. We are starting to talk about the platinum rule, not the golden rule, the golden rule is ‘do unto others as you’d want done to yourself.’ The platinum rule is ‘do unto others as they’d want done to themselves.’ Meaning, you do need to be open before you point a finger at someone and also make someone aware. If you’re not feeling comfortable, give them the opportunity to fix it, especially if it’s a microaggression.

For instance, if you tell me I look nice, I’ll say thank you [and take it as a compliment]. If you tell someone else, it might be offensive [or make them uncomfortable]. So I think it’s about being attuned to microaggressions and not using labels and assigning them to people. Give people the benefit of the doubt that we are in new territory and we’ve been in the same territory, but now we are being more open and more vocal about things that bother us or offend us, or don’t make us feel safe or secure. I think that to me, microaggressions sometimes are the invisible problem. So make the invisible, visible.”



Forbes: “Power Of The Pack: Women Who Support Women Are More Successful”

Advancing Equality Calculator

Clear Channel Outdoor & The Female Quotient “Women Making History” campaign


Holly Corbett

As the Director of Content at Consciously Unbiased, Holly Corbett is fueling inclusion through storytelling to build a passionate community and creating experiences inside organizations to transform workplace culture.
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