The debate around women’s access to board and executive positions both here and in the US has grown rapidly over the past 3 years. A very recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article put it succinctly: “Highly qualified women are not breaking through to leadership positions in numbers commensurate with their presence in the talent pool.”
McKinsey&Company also published a useful report – “Unlocking the full potential of women at work” by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, in May 2012. This offered some very useful insights into a typical career and company pipeline, where women become less visible the higher up the organisation – all this despite being highly visible at graduate / career start entry level.
Whilst there are still institutional and social barriers that militate against women’s career advancement, the McKinsey report states that women still have choices. Their research showed that women are more likely than their male counterparts to make career choices based on lifestyle, and that fewer women aspire to the executive board.
Interestingly, this latter finding is contradicted in the recent HBR report which states that: “Female ambition in the UK is off the charts: Fully 91% of senior-level women surveyed, compared to 76% of UK men, are champing at the bit to be promoted.”
So why the fall-off of women at the top, and even weirder, why do so many competent women end up stuck in the so-called ‘marzipan layer’ of the corporate cake, where their skills are a vital bedrock for the corporate icing at the top? The upshot is that expensively recruited and trained women are getting fed up, and leaving corporate life to do something more rewarding.
In a recent episode of Woman’s Hour, a company called Corporate Crossovers stated that it’s not about the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ but rather the toxic culture inside many companies that drives women out. Their recent research revealed that women are much more likely than men, to be frustrated by the sorts of behaviours associated with a toxic working culture, eg people playing at ‘politics’, bureaucracy, poor decision-making, poor leadership, and a deep values clash. Men report a higher level of satisfaction at work than do women and men are more likely to ‘hang on in there’, although there’s no evidence they actually enjoy it.
A contributing view to this debate is that the poor so-called ‘soft skills’ and social incompetences of supervisors and line managers are putting women off. These underrated skills include being able to communicate effectively, giving and receiving useful feedback, recognising and acknowledging great performance, including others in decision-making, defending and developing teams, and inspiring and motivating people… the list goes on.
Savvy women are doing their research, voting with their feet and moving on either to other less toxic corporates, or running their own business.
So, some questions for you then (be honest):
- How is your career shaping up?
- Do you feel in control of your career progression?
- Do you have a plan for the middle to longer-term, and if so, how much time do you spend each month keeping it ‘alive’?
- Are you clear about your motivations, drivers and innermost values?
- Do you feel subject to discrimination and if so, how do you experience it?
Now, consider what your answers might mean for the actions you now need to take. I really do believe that with proactive career planning you can even up the odds on your chances to succeed. But make no bones about it, this means summoning up the strength and focus required for you to take charge, and being ready and willing to make some difficult decisions. And that’s alongside doing the ‘day job’!
Recently I was very interested to meet Allan Leighton (former CEO of Asda and former non-exec Chair of the Royal Mail) who is now Deputy Chairman of ‘An Inspirational Journey’, an organisation dedicated to increasing the number of women working in senior roles. He says that from his perspective, he’s looking for folks regardless of gender, who can add real value. “Don’t bring me heads bring me brains… to transform my business” he says.
So being clear about how and where you personally add value to the business bottom line is vital, and the McKinsey&Company report also reminds us that successful corporate women exhibit the following:
- a robust work ethic
- are focused on results
- show resilience in the face of disappointment and hardship, ie they have the ‘bounce-back factor’
- are committed to getting and giving honest feedback and to continual development in themselves and in others they manage, and
- are great team leaders, supportive and inspiring of others.
I’d add that they are also likely to have a robust and active career plan, and a deep understanding of their organisation’s business strategy and culture. Thirdly, I suspect that they are also adept at getting the advisers they need in order to help them navigate their career, both independent, external coaching support as well as an internal mentor or even sponsor.
More of this in a separate article where I’ll share a simple career toolkit to kick-start your actions. And whilst you’re pondering on this you can read Allan’s views here.
Finally, I challenge you to… “be aspirational and live up to that huge potential we all have to be more than we can sometimes accept we can be!”