Now What? Here’s How Smart Women Succeed Despite Gender Barriers

T’is our season of discontent, women! Earlier this month what many of us already knew from experience was hugely confirmed by the Lean In and McKinsey & Company, “Women in the Workplace 2015” study. New statistics were presented showing a continued pattern of unequal pay and limited access to higher opportunities afforded to men. Adding insult to injury, the report comes on the heels of recent revelations shining an ugly spotlight on rampant sexism and discrimination in the tech and venture capital industries. Unless corporate America truly come to grips with the cluster of dynamics that seriously impact women in terms of career development, work environment and work-life balance, the situation is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon. In fact, the study predicted that it will take another 25 years to produce a shift at the senior-VP level and more than a century in the C-suite. So now what? Should we give up? Take our marbles and go home? No, of course not, because many women still manage to nimbly navigate the workplace and succeed despite the obstacles. During two decades as an executive coach and leadership trainer, I’ve observed a number of them in action. Reflecting on what they’ve done to advance their careers, here are six indispensable insights that can be applied to most any work environment.

1. IT’S NOT ABOUT BEING LUCKY

Get serious about your career! Often women fail to spend as much time thinking about and planning out their careers as their male colleagues do. As one female HR leader on Wall Street said, “Even senior women don’t always think ahead and say, ‘That’s where I want to end up.’ Instead they plod along, putting one foot in front of the other, doing their jobs really well, but they don’t lift their heads up above the crowd.” I’ve seen this myself too many times: Talented women letting things happen rather than being proactive which can include asking for a promotion or getting on committees where they would be exposed to higher-ups. Interestingly, though, research shows that women consistently score higher than men on every element of the behaviors associated with leadership success except for vision. In recognition of this fact, one company that has been particularly effective moving women into management routinely asks female employees to create a career aspiration statement to help them stretch, lift their heads and think about the possibilities.

2. NAVIGATE THE NARROW BAND

A person who exudes gravitas, confidence, poise under pressure and an ability to communicate with a compelling combination of warmth (empathy, friendliness and humor, among other traits) and strength (drawing on one’s expertise and experience) is said to have executive presence. Projecting executive presence is not only important for making the greatest impact on an audience, it’s essential for women’s success given that they are often held to a narrower band of acceptable communication and behavior than men.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been around many a conference table where it’s still acceptable, albeit tacitly, for a man to pound his fist on the table when making a point or to use expletives when angry. But when a woman behaves in the same way, we all know what happens. Her proverbial fist is slapped so fast she barely knows what hit her. She’s labeled strident, difficult and a bitch. However, it’s not just these extreme behaviors that are off limits to women. Even stating strong opinions and ideas, or disagreeing in a direct, confident and unapologetic manner can give her this label. As a result, women play what I call, “low status.” They avoid offering ideas or opinions unless 100 percent sure of their validity; they don’t push back, or give critical feedback even to direct reports for fear of being perceived as bossy. Too often they make statements that sound like questions and refrain from asking for the next job or title. Not surprisingly, these behaviors prevent women from being seen or heard as leaders and so the ugly cycle continues.

Despite the unfairness of women still needing to be much more careful than their male counterparts when determining the best way to frame words and actions, the truth is that the world is still run by men who, because of biases and stereotypes, have a different lens on how women should behave. And it is what it is until we change it. So for now, managing the narrow band requires both executive presence and customizing messages to fit each particular audience—whether one or many; male, female or mixed; senior management or direct reports; millennial, boomer or xer. Adjusting the message to the audience requires women to have tremendous self-awareness of both who they are as individuals and how others perceive them. Ask yourself this: What is it about my personality, my communication and leadership style that makes people like me, want to be around me and motivated to follow me? Reach out to your boss, clients, close colleagues and friends for honest and specific feedback with the intention of bolstering your strengths and eliminating the behaviors that aren’t working for you.

Lastly, for those unbelievably ridiculous or blatantly sexist statements that come your way, instead of just absorbing the hit and retreating like a tortoise under its shell, have a goody bag full of retorts that go from the neutral, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” to the more pointed, “What would your wife/mother/girlfriend say to that?”

3. STOP THINKING THAT BEING POLITICAL MEANS SELLING YOUR SOUL

Okay, you’ve heard this a thousand times but that’s because it’s true: As you rise in your career you’ll find that business is all about relationships and that relationships are fostered and nurtured both inside as well as outside of the office. Plain and simple: Women who take themselves out of the critical networking loop are at a severe disadvantage in advancing their career, which is why I suggest that my clients commit to at least one to two networking activities per month in addition to the day-to-day relationship building among colleagues and senior folks.

Be strategic about networking efforts. Ask yourself: What is going to give me the most enjoyment while also providing the best visibility for the time expended? If you’re focusing on women-only activities, diversify so that you can get seen and heard by the men in your organization and beyond. One client loved teaching so she became involved in a corporate training program that offered the dual benefit of working with and mentoring a pipeline of young people and impressing management when each of them were promoted. Another woman chose to be a part of the planning committee for the company’s annual three-day retreat and play in the scheduled tennis tournament. This worked for her on many levels: She was able to influence much of the agenda and context for an important company-wide event, work closely with the CEO and CFO and show off her athletic ability facing the bigwigs down across court.

4. GET A GUY (SPONSOR)

The Lean In and McKinsey & Company study found that 60 percent of female leaders wished they had sought out more “sponsors” during their careers.
Mentors have long been touted as a way to support women through role modeling, providing a sounding board and offering advice as needed. Note my emphasis on as needed. Yet, sponsors, while providing all of that, are also proactive advocates who wield their clout and make sure you have opportunities at each transition point. In other words, sponsors are people with skin in the game to make sure you succeed.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I suggest that young aspiring female employees choose a senior male (the higher up, the better) as a sponsor. Of course, for a young woman this may not be easy because she may not know anyone high up in the rarefied air. In addition, the age and gender differential may give the appearance of impropriety. Despite these challenges, I say, go for it! Do your homework. Ask your boss or your colleagues for suggestions of someone who can influence the powers that be, who will advocate and fight for you, tell you what you may not want to hear and be as happy as you are when you reach your goals.

5. BECOME A GOOD BRAGGER

If you believe that by simply doing a good job you will be recognized and rewarded at work, think again. Whether you are an entrepreneur or among those climbing the corporate ladder, let people know (your boss, your boss’ boss, colleagues, clients, future employers) about your work, your value, successes you’ve had (or are having) and/or the obstacles you’ve overcome. But make sure you are doing what I call “good bragging,” which means talking about yourself artfully and gracefully in succinct story-like monologues known as a “bragologues” that memorably capture and portray your interests and accomplishments.

As a Catalyst study several years ago concluded, when women were most proactive in making their achievements visible they advanced further, were more satisfied with their careers and had greater compensation growth than women who were less focused on calling attention to their successes. If that doesn’t motivate you to start bragging—in the good way, of course—I don’t what will.

6. PUT YOUR FINGER IN THE AIR: ARE THEY WALKING THE TALK OR JUST BALKING?

Which way does the wind really blow when it comes to your company investing in women? The Lean In and McKinsey & Company study found that while 74 percent of company officials claim their CEO makes gender parity a top priority, only 37 percent of women believe it and even less believe it’s a top priority for their direct manager.

Start asking the tough questions with an eye toward transparency. Is your company offering training around gender bias? Is it providing strategic, sustained and data-driven career development for women? Does the firm run gender compensation audits to correct pay disparities? What is the family leave policy? Do women or men who take the leave still advance? Is flextime a viable and respected option? Are there more than just one or two women sitting in governance positions? If your company comes up short on this list of “must haves,” start raising your voice to galvanize the troops and powers that be, find another place to work that’s more in alignment with your needs or join the ranks of the ten million women who have started their own companies.

One woman I know did just that. After an interview at one of the premiere venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, she was offered an employee position rather than a partnership. She asked the founder to explain why. He leaned forward, took a deep breath and said, “Listen you deserve it, but I just can’t be the first firm in the Valley to have a woman partner. I’m willing to be number two, although to tell you the truth, I’d prefer being number three.” She was flabbergasted. Nevertheless, she thanked him for his honesty. That afternoon she decided to blaze the trail by starting her own firm and begin rewriting the game book. That was in 1998. While such openness might engender a lawsuit today, anti-women sentiment remains strong. Smart women recognize this and navigate the obstacles.

Check out this article and more advice on Peggy’s LinkedIn