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Show no weakness! Women at the top prove this career strategy works, but at what cost?

by admin on October 28, 2012 · 0 comments

In what has been, in one way at least, a successful strategy, a very senior executive told me that throughout her 30 year career none of her bosses and colleagues has ever known anything about her personal life nor that she has been a single mother of two boys for most of it.

The reason, she said, was because she did not want anyone to think that there were any constraints upon her ability to do the job. She is the most senior woman in a very male dominated organisation working with mostly male industry stakeholders.

This situation was ‘familiar’ and ‘comfortable’ for her as she has long navigated through male dominated environments. Her career began in IT in the 80s where she was often the only woman amongst her peers.

She was often excluded by the blokes, not in any malicious way, but because they didn’t see her or think to include her. She was used to feeling isolated at work but enjoys her job and ‘just gets on with it’.

On the other hand, she is very clear that more women are needed at the top of her organisation and is doing her best to recruit them. She said that if she worked for a more family friendly organisation she would not need to hide her private life and thinks it would be more enjoyable. ‘It’s an indictment that to succeedyou have to be a bloke or be seen as good as the blokes,’ which of course means you must subsume any evidence to the contrary.

OK for her, maybe, but not ok for most other women.  Many women say they would rather sacrifice their careers than have to hide part of what defines them.

I am currently delivering an unrecognised bias program for a client where, as part of the program, participants are encouraged to reflect on when they had ever felt like an outsider – at work or in their personal life. Those that can identify such an experience report feelings of loneliness, attempts to ‘fit in’, ‘not stand out,’ ‘hide parts of them selves’ and often felt various levels of distress.  Some said that they were careful about how they presented their views at work, did not speak up, stifled innovative or different thoughts and ideas because they didn’t want to be seen as different, or be more visible than they already were. A few said they used the experience constructively to ‘prove themselves’ and felt that the results had been positive for them and their careers.  However all agreed that the energy required to manage being an outsider would be far better channelled into creative and productive effort.

While people have to blend in to the dominant group in order to succeed, we cannot possibly reap the benefits of diversity of thought, perspectives and views. It is not good for individuals and it is not good for our organisations.

There is growing momentum to achieve gender balance, and so there should be. Inclusive organisations are those where there are no ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’, everyone fits in and feels able to fully contribute and participate. When we have achieved 50:50, people will not be afraid to speak up and share their perspectives. Organisations will reap the benefit of different ideas, innovation and creativity. Perhaps the emotional distress, depression and mental health issues so evident in our communities and at work will also dissipate as people feel fully valued and acknowledged. I hope so. That is why I do this work and why we should all be aiming for 50:50 and where we’re not, ask, why not?

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