How Real Women Get Ahead

by Judith Lindenberger

Forget what you have heard about being one of the boys, having it all, and going for the jugular. Here is how real women get ahead.

What We All Must Do
Study what others before you have done. What do successful people do to get ahead? Four basic competencies--working hard, managing others, taking on high-visibility assignments and demonstrating expertise--are the passports for entry regardless of gender.

In addition, there are particular competencies and experiences that are essential for women.

Get In Line
First, get line experience.

Women fill less than ten percent of line positions (meaning revenue generating or with profit and loss responsibility) held by corporate officers and just 5.2% of top earners at Fortune 500 companies are women. Is there a correlation? Absolutely. Roughly half of women executives and 68% of CEOs say that lack of significant general management/line experience "holds women back."

So what is a woman to do? The first step is to plan your career. Knowing that significant general management/line experience is critical, get prepared. Learn about 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 budgets doesn't happen overnight. Spend as much time as you need until you really get it. Margaret Morford, president of her own consulting firm and a former human resources director, says that she took the same finance for non-financial managers course three times until she got it. She then parlayed her new financial knowledge into earning a seat at the top decision-making table at her firm by showing her company how her department contributed to the bottom line.

Having line experience is just one of many steps women must climb to get to the top of an organization.



Remember Who You Are
Second, be yourself.

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 any 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 Pam Judd shared. Shortly after she began working for Levi's, she 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, 33 years later, she is a sales director, one of the top female leaders in her company, and still nice.

The pressure to be someone different than who you are weighs heavily on women. Women executives say that one of the top barriers that holds women back is "an inhospitable corporate culture." Men never cite this as a barrier for getting ahead. So what is a woman to do?

Communicate Superbly
Third, develop a working style that both men and women appreciate.

Almost fifty percent of women executives cite "developing a style with which male managers are comfortable" as critical to success. Ellen Lynch, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Albert B. Ashforth, Inc., a master at this, advises women to be purposeful and clear when communicating because she has found that men are put off by women who don't get to the point. Dr. Pat Heim, author of Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams, writes that women often use language structures called 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. Either way, men will tend to devalue ideas couched in such language.

Ellen also advises women to ask men subordinates and peers for help rather than demand it. I agree. Having been married for over twenty years, I have learned that my husband responds much better to "Would you help me with this?" than to "Would you do this?"

Lisa Steiner, Vice President, Brown-Forman Corporation, advises women to become emotionally strong and self-sufficient. In her experience, women who ask others for advice often and are tentative are viewed as needy--not the best perception if your goal is to reach the top. Lisa says it has taken her years to refine her decision making skills but now she trusts her instincts and does not second guess herself.

And, every highly successful woman I know says don't flirt, swear or be the last one at the bar.

Besides honoring who you are, and learning how to have a style with which male managers are comfortable, women who want to get ahead must confront stereotypes and misperceptions. Sexual harassment has been outlawed since 1964 but just last year, in 2004, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received over 53 sexual harassment claims every business day. Be watchful of discriminatory actions. Speak up. Speak out.

You Can't Have It All If You Do It All
Fourth, make choices.

The biggest hurdle that women have to leap is how to manage having kids and a career. Roughly half of high achieving women have no children while only 19% of high achieving men have no children. Over their lifetimes, working women with children earn the least. While men also have busy professional and personal lives, women shoulder the majority of household and child care responsibilities and pay the career consequences. Women are significantly 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

And more than half of the women who leave their jobs voluntarily do so because of lack of flexibility while 37% cite child care or elder care issues. So what is a woman to do?

The best advice I can give you is to follow what successful women I know do. They plan their careers and they don't attempt to do it all. Susan Moss, Vice President, Kindred Healthcare, is married and has three children under the age of seven. Susan says she "worked really hard" for the first few years on the job and started her family after she proved herself. As her career grew, so did her income, so with each new promotion and each new child, she bought more services to make her life work. Her husband was a stay at home dad but went back to work last year. Now, to make their lives work, Susan and Jack have two part-time nannies, a housekeeper, have food delivered every other week, and Susan's mother drives their middle child to gymnastics weekly. Says Susan, "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
Fifth, bring your best feminine attributes to work.

How do men and women operate differently at work? Sharon Patrick, President and COO, Martha Stewart Living, says, "It's dangerous to generalize, but there are differences between men and women in management style--not in skills but in style. 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 definition of the modern hunter I heard is "going for the jugular and then inviting you out for a beer afterwards." Modern gatherers operate differently. Women at work tend to encourage harmony and agreement, consult with experts, employees and peers before making a decision, and make personal connections with others at work.

Traditional business cultures are based on the military model with authoritarian values and a rigid hierarchy. As more organizations move 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?

Copyright © 2005. The Lindenberger Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Judith Lindenberger MBA has a distinguished career in human resources consulting and is recognized for her innovation and excellence. The Lindenberger Group, LLC provides results-oriented human resources consulting, organization development, customized training workshops and personal career training to help individuals and organizations improve their productivity and performance. Contact them at 609.730.1049 or info@lindenbergergroup.com or www.lindenbergergroup.com.

 
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