I’m finding it fascinating to see the ongoing dialogue these days about Women in Business and Women in Powerful Political Positions, and whose fault it is that there are not more.
Sheryl Sandberg certainly created a storm with her book encouraging women to ‘lean in’. The book ‘explores how power, networking, mentoring and negotiation work, and where women tend to get these things wrong. But it is also packed with research and data on gender issues, interlaced with stories of Sandberg’s own mistakes, successes, self-recrimination and insecurities that bring the book to life.’ Also as ‘a lively, intelligent and useful handbook for women who think they want it all. It’s also a must-read for men at work and at home who are navigating the new world of women who want a top job, big salary, understanding boss, supportive partner, a couple of kids and Rolls-Royce childcare.’
What still seems to be not being addressed however is why it is so difficult for women to breach the ‘glass ceiling’ of the most senior positions in business, from a woman’s perspective, and I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts for discussion.
1. Back in the early 1980’s when I was working in education and actively seeking promotion positions, I had reached the level of Principal in a High School at 28, was coordinator of a School Support Centre with responsibility for provision of services by 35 people to more than 150 schools at age 30, and kept applying for more senior positions.
My strategy was to apply for everything available as, at that time, there was a positive discrimination policy in place which meant I had to be interviewed, just because I was a female. There was one particular position I wanted, but my application for five others meant that I had already fronted the same interview panel five times for the other positions, before being finally interviewed for the job I actually wanted. My favourite part of the final interview was walking in and greeting the panel to be asked by an exasperated General Manager. ‘As this is the sixth time we’ve interviewed you, what position do you actually want, Julie?’ I looked him straight in the eye and replied ‘Yours, Don, but I’ll settle for this one at the moment thanks.’ I got the job!
2. The second instance is a series of incidents that occurred in the year 2000 when I was Managing Director of a company which was going through a rapid growth period and was engaged in a series of mergers.
As the only woman ‘in the room’ I took to wearing cherry red suits, sitting at the head of the table, and generally employing all the body language techniques I’d gained as a psychologist, an educator, and a people watcher over a twenty year period. I was determined to be accepted, at least, as an equal. But the behaviour of the men was really interesting. At that time my meetings were with the heads of some very large corporations, all CEOs, CFOs and MDs. I was travelling internationally and found meetings in China particularly fascinating where I’d often be guided into the bowels of buildings for ‘negotiations.’
I do have to say that of all the men I encountered in my roles at that time, there were only three who were openly antagonistic towards me. The rest were very open to working with a woman, and in fact, enjoyed it. They were intrigued by the fact that I would always take a call from my children, even if I was in the middle of a delicate negotiation, and asked why. I told them it was because it was rare, and I knew that the only time I’d receive a call like that meant there was a genuine emergency as my kids respected my work. I was a single mum at the time. They asked for advice about their own families and how to balance relationships and work, and they also actively sought my opinion with regard to a range of complex issues we were managing as well as strategies for managing people in their own workplaces. The antagonistic three each actively sought to have me removed, were openly misogynistic and tried to cut me out wherever possible. I became quite good at turning up unannounced, and uninvited to golfing afternoons.
On reflection, both at the time and now, some years later, the POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION policy was a terrific step in the right direction for education, but it wasn’t enough. Once in a senior position, I joined with the only other woman who was at that level, at the time (there was one higher) to run a series of workshops for ‘Aspiring Leaders’ and another for ‘Senior Women in Education.’ What happened was that many who thought they were ‘aspiring leaders’ turned out to not want the jobs after all, and women who were in senior positions found they had stomped all over others, men and women, to get to their current position and had alienated almost every potential supported in the process.
I write this wondering whether instead of holding others responsible for the 1 in 9 people in ‘top’ business positions being female, we need to look to ourselves as women. To ask ourselves if it’s our own confidence and self-worth that is holding us back, if it’s an expectation that others will recognise our worth if we wait long enough and to do otherwise makes us ‘too pushy’, and whether that elusive work-life balance which so many have written about for so long is really in our hands to determine.
Corinne Grant’s article is worth a read as well. http://thehoopla.com.au/wtf-having-all-anyway/
When I wrote this I hadn’t read the ‘letter to my daughter’ that a woman called Susan Patton wrote to her daughter but agree with Wendy Harmer’s response- link below.