How Real Women Get Ahead
Get In Line
According to Catalyst’s 2002 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners, women fill less than ten percent of line positions held by corporate officers and just 5.2% of top earners at Fortune 500 companies are women. Is there a correlation? Absolutely. Half of women executives and 68% of CEOs say that lack of significant line experience “holds women back” (Catalyst, Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership, 2003).
Knowing that line experience is critical, get prepared. Study financial management, become an expert in a functional area such as strategic planning, manufacturing, marketing or sales, serve on a nonprofit or advisory board and, the minute the opportunity arises, take a position with profit and loss responsibility.
Learning about the financials doesn’t happen overnight. When Margaret Morford, 50, of Brentwood, Tennessee, was Vice President of Human Resources for a large distribution company, she recalls, “I took the same finance for non-financial managers course three times until I got it. I used that financial knowledge to demonstrate Human Resources’ impact to the bottom line. Once I started speaking in numbers, the senior managers in my peer group began to view Human Resources as a business partner rather than an administrative drain on revenues.”
Remember Who You Are
In 2005, The Center for Work/Life Policy asked women what they want in the workplace. Seventy-nine percent of women said “the freedom to be myself at work.” Ask a man if he desires to “be himself at work,” and you will probably get the same glassy stare I got when I asked my husband that question. But when I asked women leaders, I heard stories like the one my friend, Pam Judd, age 55, shared. Shortly after she began working for Levi’s, Pam was advised by her boss and peers that if she wanted to get ahead, she shouldn’t be so nice. The essential Pam is a very nice person – caring, empathetic, someone who remembers every event in her friends’ and family’s lives with a card or a phone call. Pam ignored that early advice, made the decision to be herself, and stayed the course. Now, 35 years later, she is a sales director, one of the top female leaders in her company, and still nice.
Almost fifty percent of women executives cite “developing a style with which male managers are comfortable” as critical to success (Catalyst, Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership, 2003).
Dr. Pat Heim, author of Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams, writes “women often use hedges, disclaimers and tag questions in their speech to involve the other person and maintain the all-important relationship in female culture. When men hear this, they incorrectly assume a woman either does not know what she is talking about, or that she is insecure about her ideas.”
Lisa Steiner, age 46, Vice President, Brown-Forman Corporation, Louisville, Kentucky, says “In my experience, women who regularly ask for advice and are tentative are viewed as needy – not the best perception if your goal is to reach the top.” Steiner adds, “It has taken me years to refine my decision-making skills but now I have learned not to second guess myself.”
Flaunt Your Skills Not Your Sexuality
Maria Xenidou, age 35, Senior Associate, National Starch & Chemical Company, Bridgewater, New Jersey, follows the advice of a mentor who told her never to answer a senior person’s query, “How are you?” with “Fine.” Instead, she says, “I give a one sentence update on what I am working on or a recent challenge I mastered. By doing so, I keep upper management up-to-date about my career and what might have been a quick hello in the hall often turns into a longer conversation.”
And, highly successful women know not to flirt, swear or be the last one at the bar. A 2005 study by Tulane University found that women who send flirtatious e-mail, wear short skirts, cross their legs provocatively or massage a man’s shoulders at work win fewer pay raises and promotions.
You Can’t Have It All If You Do It All
The biggest hurdle that women have to leap is managing kids and a career. While men also have busy professional and personal lives, women shoulder the majority of household and child care responsibilities and pay the career consequences. According to Catalyst, Workplace Flexibility Isn’t Just a Woman’s Issue, 2003, women are more likely than men to:
- Employ outside services for domestic help
- Share personal responsibilities with a partner
- Use childcare services
- Rely on supportive relatives other than their partner
- Curtail personal interests
Successful women plan their careers and don’t attempt to do it all. Steiner is married with four children at home. She started her family after completing her education and making a mark in her organization. Says Steiner, “I don’t attempt to do it all. I delegate a lot of the household chores to make our lives work.”
Honor The Female Advantage
In Fast Company, Women and Men, Work and Power, February 1998, Sharon Patrick, President and COO, Martha Stewart Living, is quoted as saying, “We can’t ignore a million years of history – at the office or in the living room. Men hunt, women gather.” A funny but true attribute of the modern hunter is “going for the jugular and then inviting you out for a beer afterwards.”
According to Nicki Joy and Susan Kane-Benson, authors of Selling is a Woman’s Game, women tend to encourage harmony and agreement, consult with experts, employees and peers before making a decision, and make personal connections with others at work.
As more organizations move away from authoritarian values and a rigid hierarchy to a more open, informal, democratic model, “being raised as a man is no longer an advantage” says John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends. I agree. What do you think?