We all know women have a hard time being taken seriously at executive level in organisations. If I see another statistic about how badly we are doing I shall scream! But here’s the thing, just because our contribution isn’t recognised, often by men, we have to realise that men are not the enemy!
We know about unconscious bias and the cultural aspect of the blind spot about recognising the female contribution in the world of work. I am referring here to our whole society, not just men. Other cultures have other blind spots. The contribution of black people in the Southern States of America that Paul Theroux has written about and is currently being featured on Radio 4. We all create situations that we can see intellectually don’t work - it is fact that our women’s contribution affects the bottom line but despite knowing that, it doesn’t always help men in powerful positions avoid the patterns that are are part of their habitual behaviour.
Causing what we want to avoid
As ambitious women wanting recognition for our contribution, our tendency is to broadcast our disapproval of how men behave, which unfortunately is counterproductive. As the clamour for women on boards amplifies men are becoming less and less certain about how to behave with women, which makes them even less inclined to invite them into the corridors of power.
Paradoxically when you read about successful women talking about their careers, they invariably acknowledge the support of male sponsors, bosses, fathers and husbands. They have been lucky enough to have been blessed with the environment required for fast growth, acknowledgement and recognition. Maybe what we need to do is take more responsibility for finding the right environment and when we find it, learning how to take advantage of it to achieve what we want!
What are the options?
For some women that will mean setting up their own business and the figures confirm this is a very popular option. Between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for an unprecedented 80% of the new self-employed. (Labour Force Survey, Office of National Statistics 2013) But back at the ranch in the corporate sector, we are not without options when it comes to creating the optimal conditions for a conducive work environment!
But if that isn't your bag or just wouldn't work at the moment here are 3 tried and tested steps to improve their environment taken by women I have worked with that made a difference to their career success.
3 actions to take
1. Setting boundaries
Allowing a male direct report to take advantage of you will not support a good working environment. A very successful young head of function in a bank in London, was tipped to become the regional head of Scandinavia. She was competing with a male direct report in his 50’s in her team, who despite performing badly himself, was criticising her methods her behind her back. She didn’t complain but instead observed him for a while. She noticed that he had a quick temper and was often not properly prepared. When she was ready she set up an appointment for just the two of them. After several attempts where he cancelled, she finally caught up with him in an airport lounge. She carefully described the behaviour she was not prepared to tolerate and as expected he lost it! She waited calmly for him to finish his tirade, some of which was personal and very unpleasant. When he had finished she repeated that this was not what she expected and left the area. She had no further trouble and incidentally, is currently enjoying the role she was focused on!
2. Being strategic
Informing yourself about the bigger picture is essential if you don't want lose out on recognition and reward. In big organisations unless you ask questions, it is easy to find yourself in a backwater, supporting someone else’s career prospects, often a man’s. The conviction among women that if we work hard, we will be rewarded is very common. If you want to progress you have to read the runes! I met a very successful property lawyer who told me that in her magic circle law firm, although there was a branch of the law she preferred, she chose this one as there where there was more support and a better structure for advancement. Asking informed questions helped her come to the view that the pro-male attitudes seriously affected the possibility of promotion. Consequently she chose differently and did very well.
3. Building networks
Another area where women fall down in creating a conducive environment is in being proactive about building broad networks. We reason that it makes more sense to focus on getting our work done leaving the networking to the guys who love to meet up in unsavoury places. This has the effect of leaving us in mid career looking to progress but with no visible means of support within or outside our organisation. This is often the point at which I come into contact with such women. A very committed junior equity partner in a boutique law firm wanted to focus solely on visibility. As a rather diffident person, despite her fantastic service to her clients and more than enough billed hours, she had been twice passed over as a senior equity partner. She felt quite helpless as she considered the unclimbable mountain of finding projects to lead and shine at in a very competitive environment. The prospect was exhausting and demotivating but on reflection, she could see that visibility can be achieved very simply. All she had to do was have a coffee or lunch with every person in the firm who could make a difference to her career and all in a days work! Job done!
We already have what it takes!
We can look at the executive success gap in a number of ways. We can get upset about the bad bad men who want to stop us shining or we can bring our considerable resourcefulness into play to design and bring about the environment we want to operate in. And there are plenty of guys out there who want to help especially if you ask them!