Most good businesses have long since realised that the key to their success lies in getting a better representation of balance from the boardroom down, and have been encouraging women to put themselves forward for more demanding and senior roles. ’Women in Business’ programmes pick out the high potential female colleagues in many large organisations, and provide corporate sponsorship and support to encourage these women to succeed in their chosen path. Networking and mentoring programmes are available both inside businesses and sectors, and across broader groups of women trying to support each other and break through the apocryphal glass ceiling. But how can we be sure that we are not sabotaging our own efforts to succeed all the while?
Sit at the table
The phrase ’sit at the table’ was taken from Sheryl Sandberg’s famous TEDTalk, in which she describes the ways women unintentionally hold themselves back in their professional careers. By choosing to enter a meeting room and take a seat tucked away neatly in a corner we stay in our comfort zone, but voluntarily surrender our voice and our opportunity to make an impact on the room. Whilst this is a simple physical metaphor (which nonetheless plays out an infinite number of times in offices up and down the land), it also hints at a more psychological trait of holding ourselves back rather than risk conflict, be shown to be wrong, or express any opinion that may cause ripples.
The social and cultural reasons for this tendency are well documented, with likeability and success shown in experiments to cause a negative correlation in women, but a positive correlation in men, meaning successful women are seen as less likeable than those of average accomplishments, whilst the more successful a man, the more he is viewed as likeable. Moving from presenting as a likeable, but malleable, meek girl, to confidently carrying off the attitude of an assertive, intelligent woman, can be daunting, but without this leap of faith, we are holding ourselves back in a comfortable mediocrity.
Emperor’s new clothes
In her book, ’Lean In’, Sandberg describes an HP study which showed that men would apply for open job positions if they fulfilled 60% of the criteria required. Women would only apply if they met 100% of what was asked for. Although the legitimacy of the claim - and whether it arose from a controlled study or a more loosely defined series of interviews and personal anecdotes - is disputed, there feels to be a nugget of truth here that should not be forgotten in the debate.
We have all had the ’Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment, of turning up on the first day in a new job - and thinking we will be exposed for the fraud we really are. No matter how rigorous the selection process, not matter how scrupulously honest we were with our CV and interview answers; somehow our offer of the role was a fluke, and we would be soon discovered for the impostors we surely are. This completely natural nervous reaction to change is not a purely feminine trait by any means - but if a fear of this moment holds us back, we are surely sabotaging our own future success.
Network and mentor
One of the key factors in success in any field is a strong network. As it is generally held that women are better communicators than men, this ought to be an area in which we excel. But this is not always the case. The fear of networking and being seen as someone playing politics, using others, being pushy, or ’showing off’ in some way, holds many of us back from doing something that is not only essential to our professional ambitions, but should be entirely natural. Build your network, and be open to others doing the same to improve your career and enjoyment at work in the longer term.
Seeking a mentor is another suggestion often made to women looking to succeed in business. Opinions differ on this front, and the relevance of a mentor depends largely on the individuals involved and their point on the career journey. If you choose to ask someone to be your mentor, it is important to know what exactly you are seeking from the relationship. Do not get a mentor simply because people say you should get a mentor - it will waste their time and your own. A mentoring relationship should be open and based on a natural rapport allowing comfortable but challenging conversations - something you are unlikely to achieve from a random selection process. Finally - do be prepared to reciprocate the gesture; if you are asked to mentor someone else, accept graciously and support another woman on her journey.
Support different choices
Last of all, if we are not sabotaging ourselves - are we sabotaging others? The practical, emotional and moral conundrum of how women balance work, family, caring responsibilities and time for their own well being, is a Pandora’s box. But how many times have you heard a hint of sarcasm, a touch of disbelief, a nagging doubt in the tone of voice used to describe other women’s choices when it comes to making the balance work for them. The subconscious niggles we all have about our own actual or potential future choices in this regard, tend to leak when discussing other people - watch your own emotional reaction and do your very best to avoid any hint of judgement. Only by respecting other women’s choices can we realistically expect to be supported in our own decisions.
The gender pay gap and the lack of female representation at board level across all industries are issues that may take generations to resolve. How we, as individuals, conduct ourselves to support our own career success, and that of others around us, however, is entirely within our own gift, and will set the scene for the professional lives our daughters and those after them will get to enjoy.