Reflections in the Glass Ceiling

The recent news about one of America’s most powerful woman ceo’s being removed from office has raised the discussion about gender bias, again. It disappoints me that in 2005, I still hear women clients talking about “the old boys’ network”. They say “glass ceilings” are holding them back in terms of advancement, pay equity, recognition and career satisfaction. While I have no doubt their assessments are valid; it’s important that we don’t generalize too much. There are other reasons as well.

First, discretion is no longer the best part of valor. While Shakespearean wenches were prized for their discretion, professional women in today’s competitive workplace are often held back by the very quality that is too often expected of women. So let me be clear on this: Women – working quietly and selflessly will not get you to that corner office!

In my line of work, I still hear business professionals blaming the ‘glass ceiling’ for women’s scarce presence in the executive suite. Research (and my own experience) shows that while the glass ceiling isn’t completely cracked, it is not the main obstacle for women’s advancement to the upper echelons of corporate America. The good old boy network (active as it is) is no longer what provides men the biggest advantage in the workplace.

Men’s advantage comes from their willingness to speak about their accomplishments, having learned from an early age how rewarding it is to talk about winning and being first–in a

ball game, in a race, in the class rankings. As boys become men and enter the workplace, they have found that in most cases it is still worthwhile and good business to push their cause–to their boss and their co-workers and their clients, too.

Contrast that attitude and behavior to that of women, whose early years are marked by societal encouragement and positive reinforcement for being amenable and social and not aggressive or assertive. Today’s companies are filled with many women who grew up getting positive strokes for being discreet, sociable, attractive, quiet, and not competing with boys in boys’ games. These women entered the workforce with no developed skills for self-promotion – and perhaps even a conditioned aversion to such indiscreet (and unseeming) activity.

Over the 25 years I was a senior executive working in boardrooms across the US and Canada I repeatedly saw bright and talented women exhibit this conditioned aversion to applauding one’s accomplishments and embracing self-promotion. That type of behavior holds women back from advancement, pay equity, recognition from the boss, and career satisfaction. And while I would like to be the only person with this opinion – I am not. There is recent research backing up this observation.

I recently reviewed an article written by William Ryberg for the Des Moines Register. Ryberg’s article focused on the results of a study conducted by the Nexus Executive Women’s Alliance of 1200 businesswomen in Australia in 2002. In it, women were asked for their views and opinions about the principal barriers to their own advancement and success in the workplace. While it still showed up on the results, the traditional ‘boys club’ was not considered their biggest impediment to upward mobility. The survey results showed that women now recognize that they are their own worst enemy. These professionals identified the

barriers affecting them to be:

37.9% – a lack of self-promotion,

19.4% – having children,

18.8% – outside work commitments,

18.6% – gender discrimination,

5.4% – other women.

Based on the feedback I get directly when asking similar questions to clients, I believe this study is applicable on this side of the Pacific.

Let’s Consider the #1 Reason – Over many years as a senior executive in the United States and Canada, it became clear to me that women often wait to be noticed. It seems they get so caught up in the day-to-day challenges of their work that ‘promoting’

themselves and what they accomplish is left at the bottom of the pile. Men understand the importance of self promotion in general. And they use it better. While women often engage solely on the work at hand, and believe that a good result will speak for itself; some of their men colleagues will take advantage of whatever opportunity arises to make their case and get some ‘face time’ with the boss.

I’ve seen talented and accomplished women passed over for advancement because of this lack of awareness and action.

Think things aren’t really like this? Consider the following two examples and reflect on how immediately they are familiar:

Situation A – Emily and Brian are two executives working in commercial real estate; each one just had a good month,

closing deals worth $2 million. At the regular month-end meeting, the boss cites each of them for great results.

Emily is pleased & credits her success to great teamwork. Brian accepts the praise from his boss and states his

plans to close another great deal this month.

What’s the boss’ likely impression? “Emily is a great

team player – but Brian is a real go-getter.”

Situation B – Quarterly earnings are down 50%. The boss calls a meeting to consider new ideas to push the results ahead. Rose, who has a quiet voice, suggests almost tentatively an idea that could be a winner. The management group discusses it around the table and one of them, Josh, really supports the idea. He’s assertive in his dialog and passionately defends it. Rose’s idea is adopted, but Josh gets credit for the idea. The boss even refers to it as “Josh’s project.” While Rose’s contribution will be remembered by those who care for her, Josh leaves this meeting viewed as a great idea man.

So, in summary: You cannot afford to sit back and hope someone will notice your contributions in today’s environment. And secondly, develop the skill & learn to talk about your achievements in the workplace. Talk about your work to the right people.

This does not mean lowering your standards. It’s just recognizing the reality of the environment you’ve chosen.