Navigating a career for a woman can still be tough, despite all the advances of the past 25 years.
Then there are those of own making. Don't get me wrong: I'm not reverting to the old habit of blaming women for barriers they cannot possibly control. But if you are to successfully navigate a minefield of external obstacles, you must first be accountable, and know your own mind.
That means being self-aware, knowing what your professional offer is, what you stand for -- and won't stand for. What happens if the way you behave at work conflicts with your underlying values? That's just one way to derail your own career.
Based on my work, I've identified seven other traps that thwart women who want to lead:
- The first is linked to self-perception, self-belief and confidence. How often do you hear about the brilliant, capable woman, who is exceptionally good at her job but fails to put herself forward for a promotion and loses out to a man? Women who wait for someone to promote them put their careers in someone else's hands. Does it mean they are unconfident? Not necessarily. Confidence is often situational: women who are assured in their day-to-day roles may still struggle to acknowledge that they are ready for the next step. This is when it is so important to be clear about what you bring to a role (your professional offer), and to see yourself as you are now. Modern career paths are rarely set in stone, so your professional offer may change according to your where you are in your life.
- Failure to draw the line. Women who are successful can draw the line, they are clear about what they will and will not do, they manage promises and expectations, and do so in a constructive way. That means understanding not just what you'll tolerate, but your limitations -- what you can and cannot control. It also means having the courage to speak up, even if it's a work culture where "loudership" prevails.
- Inadequate personal vision. This occurs when there is a lack of clarity about your professional offer. It reveals itself as lack of congruence between aspirations and reality -- you may want to be a CEO, but does your day-to-day behaviour show either inclination or ability? Recognise that your personal vision will probably change every three years or so. Write it down, talk to a group or individual to get it clear in your own head.
- Too little life in the work. This has to do with flow vs. flat conditions at work. Do you understand the conditions you need to get the best out of yourself and give your all at work? If you aren't sure about these flow conditions, or you are doing work that you just don't like, any advancement will be an uphill struggle. Women can also make their lives harder by doing the perfectionist thing: allowing yourself to get bogged down by details or trying to do everything perfectly are a couple of surefire ways to ruin the flow. Flow conditions are pretty fixed -- they apply at work and in your personal life - and probably only change twice in a lifetime, because they are very linked to your values.
- Friend not leader. This is a classic dilemma for women, especially those who are promoted from within to manage former mates. Afraid of being seen as bossy (the word dreaded by Sheryl Sandberg) or too big for their own boots, these women end up being neither friend nor leader. Plain speaking is needed: you should be able to sit down with colleagues and spell out how interaction may need to evolve. I used to regularly have lunch with a friend in a professional services firm, but when she asked me to coach her, we could no longer meet for lunch. It is impossible to wear two hats. You've got to be brave - and that is why you hear the old saw, 'It's lonely at the top'.
- Colluding not confronting. Do you ever find yourself agreeing when you know something is not quite right, or staying silent when your instinct is to speak out? I'm generalising, but women often avoid conflict at work and baulk at what they perceive to be difficult conversations. It helps to learn how to confront an issue, but in a positive way.
- Not developing support networks internally and externally. Developing support networks is so important for women, yet many still struggle to make the time. Some see networking as a bit Machiavellian (forming fake friendships, exploiting real ones). Others don't see the point. One female founder recently described the idea of women's networking as 'cupcakey hell'. But mutually supportive women have already made 30% Club-sized dents in the UK workplace. And developing sponsors and mentors of either sex can be life-changing, so it's well worth the bother.
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