As a young woman in college, I had grand plans to use my intelligence and drive to outperform and exceed expectations in the professional world; to move swiftly through the ranks into high-powered management positions. Maybe I was naive or maybe I was optimistic, I’m not sure which, but I came to learn rather quickly – that’s not how the business world works. Have you discovered that too?
Textbooks and case studies lead you to believe that if you do what you’re told and “wow!” your superiors by being innovative and hard-working, you can do anything you want and rise to the top. The reality is, there are countless other factors beyond performance, intelligence, and capability that have a greater influence on your professional success. These factors create unspoken challenges, proving success is not “textbook” easy.
Here, I’ll highlight the three main factors that challenge women in business; factors that can easily go unnoticed yet are so prominent in the success equation. I’m also going to answer the question that so many of us ask: “how do you turn these factors to your advantage and take control of your professional destiny?”
3 Factors That Challenge Success
Female Leadership Mentors
I’d like to highlight 3 factors that hinder women’s advancement in business, starting with the first factor, which tends to be highly publicized but not taken seriously – the majority of management positions and senior positions are still held by men. Though this is often talked about, very little changes, so it’s hard to find female leaders and mentors to walk alongside you and encourage you to reach for the stars and advance your career.
Having women mentors in leadership roles is important for many reasons, but mainly because the issues we face as women are very different from the issues that men face – we have societal expectations to be a good wife or mother, spend time with our children, manage school events, be at every business meeting (even outside of work hours), and excel in our careers. Those who aren’t married with kids are expected to show up even more because, well – why not? You have nothing outside of work demanding your time.
Some say that we “want to have our cake and eat it too,” but I think we just want to do everything that’s expected of women on top of everything that is expected as a business professional – and let’s face it –those realities don’t play nice in the sandbox.
It is only other senior women in leadership positions who can help us strike the right blend between the motherhood/family/self-care dynamic in relation to work and career advancement. Without females in leadership positions, we are at a disadvantage when navigating these waters. Seek them out in your company, in networking events, ask for referrals from connections – find at least one woman who has been there, done that, and succeeded to help you learn the ropes and empower you on your career path. Don’t be too proud to ask for help – most women love to help – it’s in our nature to nurture.
Politics & Posturing
The second factor is politics. There is highly competitive political posturing required to advance in larger organizations. This includes being present at events and meetings outside of work hours and generally playing the “do-whatever-it-takes-above-and-beyond-your-job” game. This is difficult for most women as we tend to be very focused on getting our work done with perfection during working hours and being present in our personal lives in the hours meant to be non-working hours.
Even though I own my own company now, I still struggle to manage both work and home-life priorities in a way that creates a comfortable blend. As a business owner, politics is just as much a path to success as it is working within corporations. I’m aware that it would be excellent for my career to go to before/after work networking and social events to learn from dynamic speakers and network with others in the business community. The extra power and inspiration gained by being with other senior leaders feel worth it – but, so does time with my family and downtime to rejuvenate my creativity and determination.
Like so many other women, I am forced to choose between being focused on career advancement and accomplishing my job, including before and after work, or dedication to myself and my family. Yes, this is the prime time for me to be focused on my career and dedicating a lot of time and energy to the politics of advancing as a professional. However, this is also the prime time in my life when my kids are young and need me. Later, they won’t even want to talk to me, so I’ve decided to cherish these moments and forgo most of the daily political positioning opportunities.
When you do choose to go to a morning breakfast or an evening event, take a look around. Who do you see? This takes us back to the first factor – you’ll be hard-pressed to find women in leadership there because they’re in the same situation as the rest of us. The only solution here is to go to these events as you can – do not take time away from what’s important outside of work – but do try to schedule one here and there. And when you attend, go with the aim to find women leaders or someone you can connect with to mentor you along the way. Make the most of your time and be part of the conversation; be heard.
The third factor, which may be the strongest challenge women face in professional advancement, is unintentional bias. There is still male dominance (see factor 1). I have faced it so often in my career (anyone who knows me knows I do not respond well to men trying to overpower me in meetings), and it kills me to watch other women put up with the condescension. Most women haven’t been conditioned to speak up for themselves or each other nor to empower and elevate each other. It’s time to change this!
When there aren’t as many of us in the boardroom or around the table, it is way too easy for our voices to be drowned out. Because we’re not political posturing and because we have fewer female mentors and leaders within the organization, we must be highly competitive and make sure we are heard.
As businesswomen, we have to learn those very rare competitive personality characteristics (or not be afraid to show them) that are true of both men and women, but we have to have them to fight through the politics and the boardroom noise; to make sure we get credit for our ideas and don’t get minimized as part of a leadership team. There is a knack to confidence without arrogance, strength without offensiveness, and using your voice without being rude. How do you learn this? By reaching out to other women leaders, self-educating with seminars and tutorials, and the daily practice of asking yourself, “what do I have to lose by standing up for my ideas and my work and being passionate about the outcome?” And how do I best achieve this with professionalism?
Take the First Step Today!
It can be tough to know where to begin when you decide to make a change. Experience has taught me if you take one step – any step – in the direction of your goals, it starts to unfold. Not sure where to start? Contact a woman in leadership and set up a quick call to learn more about her. Ask for 15 minutes of her time; share that you admire her and are on a journey to take back control of your professional destiny. Or go to a networking group in your area and meet a mentor. Do what feels right, but DO something.
And remember, as you embark on this journey, stay true to your work/life blend without apology and make sure that your ideas are heard and you stand up for you work, your career goals, and your dreams. Stay tuned for my next blog as we take a deep dive into the seven specific techniques that you can use to Take Control of Your Professional Reality. If you have any questions or would like to learn more, sign up to receive my blogs in your inbox, check my speaking schedule for an event near you, or follow me on social media.