Do Women Hold Themselves Back in the Workplace?

One thing we know for sure is that you can’t control the behaviour of other people, but you can control your own behaviour.

So, don’t worry, this isn’t another article about how men are preventing women from advancing in the workplace. It’s about how women can accelerate their impact and influence and get themselves to where they want to be, faster.

Powerful people take up more space. Sometimes we play small and don’t take up the space that is rightfully ours. From creating clear goals and developing resilience to having the confidence to speak up and speak out, these are the skills that help women thrive whilst creating better workplaces for all.

Assumption, miscommunication and unconscious bias holds women back.

Men and women are working together but they’re not speaking the same language or having the same expectations. Assumption, miscommunication and unconscious bias holds women back. As a result, too many talented women are not progressing as fast or effectively as they should be. And too many senior women are dropping out of the workplace altogether. What a waste.

65% of men feel they have been “rewarded for [their] work”, compared to only 52% of women.

In 2008, Google noticed that women were being promoted at a lower rate than men in engineering. They realised that it came down to a very simple reason: the default way in which promotions happen. At Google during that time, to get promoted you raised your head and said, ‘I’m ready to get promoted.’ Women were nominating themselves at a lower rate than men (a gender trait that’s often seen from the earliest years of education, where boys will raise their hands more in class). The People team partnered with the head of engineering who sent a communication to the company to highlight this issue, transparently sharing data and explaining what was happening and urging the women to ‘raise their hands’. They did.

You need to repeat your message – and you need other people to repeat it.

The results were great – for a while. After about a six-month cycle, the issue happened again; no one had sent another email and people had forgotten or just reverted to their old behaviour. Remember this when you are trying to create change in your organisation or trying to get investment and commitment from shareholders or outside partners: when you are communicating your message, once is never enough. You need to repeat your message – and you need other people to repeat it. If you can edit it so it is powerful, simple and memorable, that is a start. You will then need to accept that you need to repeat it over and over again in order to create the change or belief needed. Information is not transformation – you can’t just share an opinion or an idea and expect things to happen.

Men are more likely to have had a promotion with 56% progressing, than the 44% of women.

Karen Blackett was lauded as ‘the most admired chief in UK ad land’, according to research that Campaign magazine did into the chief executives of British agencies. One of the things that has helped her, the self-described ‘exhausted mum’, get to the top of her game has been thinking about her own personal brand. Authenticity may be a phrase that people are tired of in the marketing world but it’s tremendously important to her.

If you must use an adjective, make it “great” or “important’”.

She says: ‘People understanding their own personal brand and how that helps the company is what’s important. In any business that’s moving, and especially in this industry when it’s so dynamic and fast-paced, your role isn’t to wait for HR to tell you what your job should be, your role should be to tell your managers how you can contribute and what your job is, so people understanding their own personal brand is important. I think the more senior you become, the easier that becomes. There will be those who react cynically to the idea of a personal brand, but if you think about how brands work, it’s just about creating a short cut for people to understand you, a way to make it clear what type of person you are from the start.’

Women (at 41%) are no more likely than men (42%) to feel spoken over or ignored in meetings.

Blackett’s advice is to answer the simple questions about yourself:
  1. What am I good at?
  2. What do I really enjoy?
  3. What contribution can I make to the organisation I’m in?

The first question might benefit from a critical friend’s point of view, i.e., ask others, look at your appraisals, be honest about your real strengths. The second question is very important; if we do things we really enjoy, we tend to be better at them and we certainly are more likely to have the mental energy to keep at them. And, lastly, being able to show how you can contribute and what role you can play makes it quicker and easier for people to believe in you. One note on your personal brand: once you’ve worked out what it is and what your strengths are, get comfortable with communicating it confidently. I’m often frustrated by seeing smart people in business who derail their own progress with self-deprecation.

Accelerating the progress, success and retention of female leaders is clearly good for women but it’s also good for business.

Marlène Schiappa, the French Secretary of State for Equality, is a fascinating ‘brand’ in herself. She is an eloquent speaker and committed reformer who moved from writing novels and blogging to politics, and she refers to this issue specifically when she talks about women needing to take responsibility for communicating their own strengths. ‘Please’, she says, ‘do not belittle yourselves with the language you use. I never want to hear “I have a little job” or “I have a little project”. If you must use an adjective, make it “great” or “important’”. There are many small changes like this that can be made to improve how you communicate your personal brand effectively; once you know what you are and what you want to be, you can make people’s acceptance of who you are faster and clearer. Know yourself and share that knowledge with others positively.’

Accelerating the progress, success and retention of female leaders is clearly good for women but it’s also good for business. Global companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry peers. And in the UK, greater gender diversity on the senior-exec team corresponded to the highest performance uplift: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBITDA rose by 3.5%.

It’s not just about ‘speaking loudly’ in meetings, as one (male) CEO recently mentioned as the answer to why women’s voices are not heard at work.

Caffeine’s Fast Forward Female programme is designed for companies that recognise the importance of gender diversity and want to support their senior female leaders by giving them the means to accelerate their development. They work with many bright, talented, articulate women who are frustrated that their voices are not being heard at work.  To help them, they ask them to focus on three areas.  It’s a useful checklist for anyone wishing to take stock of their career and work to accelerate their progression:

Imprint – clarity on goals and strategic focus to identify the imprint you want to leave on the business.

What are your goals? (Yes, you may want to be Partner but you may also have the goal of a more flexible working week or to retire by 50 or to only work with a specific set of clients.  Too often we go with what turns up, rather than go after what we want.)

What do you want to change? And, what do you need to do to make that change?

What legacy do you want to leave in the business and beyond?

How do you build on your strengths and identify core areas of expertise to develop to make a tangible difference?

Impact – improving presence and personal impact.

It’s not just about ‘speaking loudly’ in meetings, as one (male) CEO recently mentioned as the answer to why women’s voices are not heard at work.  When a profession has been so male dominated for so long as law has, women are dealing with decades of institutionalised behaviours which do not serve them well.

To speed up progress, more women need to gain senior positions and make those changes happen.

Progress requires men to listen (and act) on women’s voices and proposals, but women can advance the impact of their communication by being bolder in tone by: not using apologetic language, (‘If I may…sorry’, or, ‘but…do you mind?’); refusing to be interrupted (‘I haven’t finished’); and, not being afraid to take up space, by taking the time to say what is important, so that others feel the weight of your message.

Influence – developing the strategy and skills to progress in the organisation

Many of the women we coach feel that if they do a great job, their work will be recognised and they will be singled out for promotion and progression.  And, at times, with a supportive line manager, that does happen but it’s a very passive approach to take.  Those who progress more quickly through an organisation are often those who are good at their own PR.  They realise it’s their job to make sure they’re in control of the story. They want key influencers and sponsors to know about them.  Should you have to do this?  Surely doing the good work is enough?  Only up to a point.  Make sure you amplify your accomplishments. If this feels uncomfortable, or big-headed, include others such as your support staff in your accolades.  But make sure the people who need to know what you have achieved, and what your ambitions are, do.

More than half of men (53%) stated they have experienced a pay rise or bonus which is not connected to a promotion, whereas only 40% of women say the same.

Progress is being made within the establishment structures in business, society, politics and law that stand in the way of leadership diversity, but it’s slow.  To speed up progress, more women need to gain senior positions and make those changes happen.  Because then, EVERYONE, will benefit.


About the Writer:

Louisa is an experienced facilitator & qualified business coach with an outstanding new business track record and genuine competitive spirit. Louisa spearheads Caffeine’s business growth transformation division in the areas of prospecting, pitching and client retention, brand positioning, leadership coaching, presenting with impact, negotiation, cross-selling and employee engagement.

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