As women leaders progress in their careers, they often face barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their true potential. To understand how women can break through these barriers, we first need to understand what those barriers are.

Cyndi Sax, senior vice president of assessment provider Caliper, leads Caliper’s Women Leaders Program, a talent development program that draws on the firm’s research into the unique attributes and behaviors that characterize women leaders today – as well as the challenges they face. Here are her thoughts on the obstacles women often run into in the workplace:

Perceptions of Performance

Women often try to outperform male leaders in order to be perceived as effective or successful because they feel held to lower standards due to their gender.

“We have found that resilience is one of the keys to overcoming leadership challenges, especially in emerging women leaders,” Sax says.

Some women naturally possess an ability to “shake it off” when something doesn’t go the way they planned, while others work to develop their skills and the associated confidence. Rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach, Caliper’s coaches work with individuals to identify the best ways of bolstering confidence and persevering when faced with obstacles.

Work and Family Life Conflicts

The burden of balancing work and family life traditionally falls on women’s shoulders. The curriculum of the Women Leaders Program builds upon the premise that each woman’s experience, goals, and challenges may be different from the woman seated next to her. Therefore, the program begins by creating a safe environment for exploring the topics of performance pressures, family conflicts, and stereotypes within the workplace.

“There are no ‘right or wrong’ feelings beyond validating the value of each woman present,” Sax says. “Our coaching philosophy assumes that each woman knows internally what is right for her.”

One-on-one coaches guide women through the process of heightening their awareness so that they can identify the impact workplace barriers have on their lives. During the workshop, women give voice to their inherent value, identify their greatest obstacles, and ascertain the most significant, impactful behavioral changes they can make to overcome challenges within the workplace.

coffee“We encourage [women] to consider how [they] will support long-term change so that [they] can reap the benefits of the workshop long after it has been completed,” Sax says.

Some suggestions include seeking a mentor or coach, joining a woman’s circle, developing mindfulness practices, or seeking specific skills-building training programs.

Organizational Savvy: Navigating the ‘Old Boys Club’

Like it or not, successful leaders today spend considerable time advancing their careers by networking and navigating organizational politics. Caliper’s research suggests that many women feel less comfortable navigating those systems than their male counterparts do, thanks to the phenomena of the “Old Boys Club,” the informal – perhaps even unspoken – ways of getting things done in a company.

“Women can feel like outsiders,” says Sax, “especially since they traditionally believe that their value and potential will be built solely on expertise and effort.”

Caliper’s Women Leaders Program addresses this barrier by first heightening awareness of the perceived role organizational savvy plays in each participant’s experience, then exploring the unique circumstances a woman faces regarding compensating mechanisms. The program then aims to help each participant create a concrete action plan for building effective skills and responses that will deliver optimal results.

Action Learning for Women Leaders

Caliper has successfully employed “action learning” with clients for many years and considers it to be the most effective way of both developing high-potential employees and solving urgent and important business problems.

Some of the ways that action learning programs, when properly designed and directed, can impact company culture include:

- breaking down workplace barriers;

- developing more effective, efficient communication channels;

- heightening employee engagement and empowerment;

- teaching employees to bring a sense of curiosity and skillfulness to the act of asking questions;

- showing employees how to embrace change;

- and creating distributed leadership rather than hierarchical leadership.

Through action learning, companies can not only provide individuals with the opportunity and tools to make their roles more meaningful and effective, but they can also identify high-potential talent that needs to be cultivated for future organizational and professional success.

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