You Can’t Smash the Glass Ceiling with your Feet Stuck to the Floor!

One of the great mysteries of the last 20 years has been why women are still under-represented in the most senior positions of large companies and organisations. Given the number of women entering the workforce and completing degrees they are still not well represented in CEO or Board positions of major companies. They also still do not have income parity in many cases with male counterparts working in the same positions in the same organisations. Much of the analysis of this situation has focused the effect of active systemic discrimination against women by the incumbents…. men. Other more recent research has highlighted brain mechanisms that might be maintaining subtle “automatic” discrimination against women. Fortunately there are now many people working on ways of changing these explicit and implicit forms of discrimination.

One author has taken a different approach. Rebecca Shambaugh has worked with a lot of women over the years as a Human Resources professional, a leader in business, and later as a consultant focused on helping organisations develop women with leadership potential for senior positions. She feels that the forces holding women back are not all externally imposed. There are also some common beliefs, assumptions, and behaviours held by women themselves that hold them back from career advancement. She says that “women who believe that success is earned by meeting deadlines and staying under budget are mistakenly clinging to inappropriate career strategies. In today’s workplace, everyone is expected to meet their goals. To be considered leadership material, you need to step out of the ‘worker bee ‘ box and, well… Lead”.

In her book “It’s not a glass ceiling- It’s a Sticky Floor” she talks about the tricky “transition” between being good at your job and moving into leadership and observes that “what made us successful in our careers so far may not be the best equation for continued success”. She describes “sticky floors” (beliefs, assumptions or behaviours) that hold women back. She feels that women are being “forced to haul more than their fair share of societal or cultural weight up the career ladder” and that this can make it difficult for women to realise they are “stuck” and that it is something they are doing (or not doing) that is keeping them “stuck”.

Essentially she recommends that women take a good look at where they are now in their career. Check how you appraise yourself and your own abilities. Often women underestimate their own capacities and do not put themselves forward for promotion, increased wages, or developmental experience. They “trust” that their boss or HR department will come and approach them with an offer of development rather going and asking for these opportunities as their male counterparts often do. Also she sees that women want to do a “perfect” job and are too critical of their own efforts. This results in not “letting go” of work which decreases efficiency and can stop their career progression.

One of the main behaviours that keep women stuck according to Shambaugh is being a good “worker bee”. Working hard, doing what they are told, developing technical skills, being totally focused on doing their current job perfectly. Women often believe that “effort and good work are always apparent to everyone and will be rewarded in due course”.

She suggests that women who would like to progress in their career start building broader networks within their organisation (and outside as well), pursue developmental experiences outside their current position, and take time to develop a better understanding of the strategic priorities for the organisation. You need to make it clear that you want to progress your career. This will change how you are “seen” when discussions are at “higher levels” concerning who might be included as future leaders. She also suggests that you turn your attention to developing “leadership presence” and “political savvy”. Part of this will mean recognising the importance of informal opportunities such as “lunch” as “work doesn’t only get done inside the office or during formal sit-down meetings”. She recommends if you have something to say be clear about your message and communicate it well, make sure you look like a leader and are in “control of your game”, act confident, balance emotion and logic and make sure your timing is right.

Obtaining support is always helpful when trying to make changes and recognise patterns of thinking that might be holding you back or keeping you “stuck”. You may need help to make an honest assessment of yourself and construct a more “strategic” approach to advancing your career. Remember, one way of overcoming a stick floor is to ask for what you need!

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