Why can't excellent women progress in their careers in proportion to their talent? Every day, it seems, a new factor is blamed. We're too apologetic and indecisive. Or self-deprecating and cute. We lack confidence in the company of alpha males. We can't crack the 'boys club' mentality in the boardroom. Some of us over-compensate and play it super-tough or 'bossy'. What's best?
Sometimes it feels as if we're damned to eternal career frustration whatever we do. When I first became a boss - as editor of a teen magazine in the 90s - I made the mistake of trying to be everyone's friend, and wanted, above all, to be liked. This got me into some very hot water. My next step, as a former colleague reminded me the other night, was to try being ruthless and formidable. But that just didn't feel comfortable at all. "Instead of being seen as nice or nasty it's better to be viewed as consistent and reliable," said a fellow editor, putting me out of my misery. Easier said than done. How can more women get taken seriously in the workplace without compromising their identity?
It's important to understand how your feelings affect your behaviour in challenging situations, according to Personal Impact Specialist Debbie Smith who coaches both women and men on career strategy. Is your body language defensive, do you ramble indecisively when making a point, or end with "what do we all think?" after giving your opinion (a favourite of mine in planning meetings)? "Women have to work harder at being taken seriously. It's vital to inspire confidence - and that means using your emotional intelligence to weed out the ways in which you unintentionally self-sabotage," says Debbie.
Maintaining composure is essential - and that doesn't just mean no tears in the office toilets. "Some women tend to show emotion under stress in a way that's perceived as a weakness, whereas men usually demonstrate more self control," says Debbie. "I guarantee they're still feeling the same things as the women, but they keep their mouths shut and control their body language - they're still and contained. So pause, reflect and work out how you're going to respond, sticking to facts not emotions and getting to the point quickly and clearly once you speak".
And while we may feel excluded by the 'boys club' pack mentality of male colleagues, we can learn something useful from the way they operate. For one thing, knowing who's influential and associating yourself with them will always help you move higher. But also notice how unthreatened men tend to be by the arrival of a newbie who knows how to make the right alliances - they are usually much less emotional about opening doors, whereas women sometimes block new women when they join an organization, warns Debbie. I was lucky that a fellow editor was free with her advice when I was struggling. Women should look after women more. We all need role models and a strong support network if we are to reach those dizzy heights.