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How Can Women Get to the Top - With a Smile?

18/02/2014 11:34 GMT | Updated 19/04/2014 10:59 BST

"It's not fair", "it's favouritism", "I am being overlooked".

These are three phrases I have heard in recent weeks from three women I am mentoring. And listening to their stories, I don't think any of the phrases are accurate - except from the mentees' perspectives.

Despite all the progress women have made in the workplace, I think there is still a lot to be learnt about 'de-genderising' issues at work.

All these women felt they had been discriminated against - and put most of it down to their gender. But let's look at what was behind them and see if they can be tackled without playing the 'female' agenda.

1. Is negative language helpful?

Let's take the case of the professional woman, we'll call her Jane, who is a director in an international law firm (I've changed some of these details to respect confidentiality, but the scenarios are all accurate).

Her firm funds and supports employees to study additional professional exams, but each individual has to make their case. Jane has applied and been turned down. Then she heard that a 'younger, prettier colleague who wears short skirts' had just been accepted to be funded for these exams - for this blog we'll say she described it as favouritism.

I asked what she planned to do about this. She said she needed to raise it with her boss, but tended to 'avoid conflict' and had to toughen up. I was a bit stunned at the macho words she was using so got her to play out how she would raise it with her boss.

The words 'favouritism', 'unfairness' and 'fighting for her rights' all came out. We then discussed what impression this conversation would give her boss. We agreed he would probably be thinking 'problem', 'I got that wrong', 'don't know what to do now'.

2. Could a smile turn around the atmosphere?

We then looked at taking a completely different approach.

How about if Jane walks into Stephen's office with a big smile on her face and says "I'm so pleased that Helen is being sponsored by the firm, what a great decision."

Jane immediately said she knows when she smiles, her boss responds really well and they have great conversations. As she said this, her face lit up and she was energised and a delight to talk to.

We discussed continuing this conversation - in the same cheery, smiley way - saying "Stephen, you know I've been interested in doing these exams. Can you just talk me through the business case that you liked for this and I'll see if I can learn anything from it?"

Jane looked at me thoughtfully. You could see her brain ticking. "Yes," she said, "I could see that working."

We then analysed this smiley approach, compared to going in with a whinge and 'victim' attitude

  • You are praising your boss, not criticising them. Everyone likes praise
  • You create a pleasant mood from the start with a smile
  • People enjoy having you come to their office, you lift their mood
  • You present a solution, not a problem to be fixed
  • You demonstrate a willingness to learn and improve
  • You could finish off the conversation with the ultimate solution and offer "would you like me to send you an email with the key points, so others can understand the process too?"
  • You make more impact for the future - you are more likely to be chosen for projects and promotions because you create a good working atmosphere around you and are more memorable

And if your boss did make a mistake and hadn't thought something through, he (or she) hasn't lost face.

3. Is there a gender difference in negotiation?

Have you come across the book, Men are from Mars, Women from Venus'? This looks at how men tend to be more straightforward in their thinking. An example was given where a girlfriend asks a chap about their relationship while he is watching football. He is concentrated on whether his team is going to score, she is interpreting his lack of response as not being interested in her any more!

Without wanting to overdo gender differences, I do think men often make decisions at work without thinking through the consequences. And women then immediately assume this is discrimination and can read far too much into it all.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief executive of Facebook who wrote Lean In, says that when she was very pregnant with feet swollen by two shoe sizes, she marched (or rather waddled) into her boss' office and said 'we need parking places for pregnant women by the entrance'. Horrified, he looked at her 'whale-like' appearance (her words) and immediately agreed. Sheryl recognises she had never thought about things from a pregnant woman's perspective - and certainly her male bosses hadn't. But the solution was simple: don't make a fuss about it, just make the point and ask.

4. How should women negotiate at work?

I wrote in an earlier Huffington Post blog that maybe women should be more interested in football to get on in their careers. There is a lot of discussion at the moment around men being asked to adapt to more female cultures - but women also have to take responsibility and play our part in meeting men half-way.

Garry Wilson of turnaround business, Endless says that women are not good at making clear what we want - we need to be more direct. He may have a point?

So what are my tips to help women make more impact at work and get the deals that others around them are getting?

  • Don't take everything personally. This was the tip for my mentee, Jane. De-personalise the problem, deal with the facts
  • Smile. You can set the mood of those around you. Work should not be a battleground. Take the conflict out of discussions, a smile gets positive responses
  • Research and plan - make sure you have the facts, don't negotiate on emotions
  • Find a solution - Margaret Thatcher famously said Lord Young was her only cabinet minister who brought her solutions not problems. She adored him!

So what do you think? Should Jane go in and bang the desk of her boss - or do you think a smile will achieve more? Is this avoiding conflict or just getting a win:win for everyone?

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive of Northern Lights PR, which operates in Yorkshire and the United Arab Emirates. She is chair of University of Leeds management division advisory board and sits on the boards of Northern Ballet and Bradford University School of Management.