Q: I'm a woman executive with an information technology specialty in a large company. What can I do to improve my chances of moving up the corporate ladder?
A: Throughout our career, we continuously learn about our management style, how we lead others through interpersonal communication and how we cope with stress and other workplace challenges. Becoming more self-aware gives us great leverage in consciously exhibiting the type of behavior that gets us where we want to be.
Seeing ourselves clearly does many things: It allows us to control impulses and select the most appropriate behaviors. It shows us how to avoid reacting in negative and potentially self-limiting ways. Knowing our strengths and limitations makes us more understanding of others. Gaining an understanding of issues reduces conflict in us and at work.
Our perceptions represent the way we see how the world works and they also strongly influence those we live and work with. Catalyst, a New York nonprofit research group, asked 296 executives of both genders to rate by percentage the effectiveness of female and male leaders on ten different leadership behaviors. Both genders said men are better at networking, influencing upward and delegating. “Women as well as men perceive women leaders as better at caretaker behaviors and men as better at take-charge behaviors,” says Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst. “These are perceptions, not the reality.”
Three decades after droves of women started business careers, and at a time when fifty percent of all managers and professionals are female, women still comprise fewer than three percent of Fortune 1,000 CEOs and just eight percent of Fortune 500 top earners. Women are severely underrepresented in leadership positions across industry sectors. The percentage of women Executive Officers and board directors in Fortune 500 companies is stuck in the teens and single digits, while only about 26% of Senior Officers and Managers are women. The glass ceiling remains unbroken.
A survey of women in high tech by Deloitte, the accounting firm, and pollster Roper Starch Worldwide reported that three of every five women in the information technology industry would choose another profession if they could, because of a perceived glass ceiling. Women, surveyed by Deloitte and Roper, say they're perceived as less knowledgeable and qualified than men. One woman surveyed says that women have a tough time "being taken seriously" in high tech.
Every corporate culture has ingrained biases where management attempts to maintain the status quo. This cultural immunity to change is especially difficult for women being denied promotions when the leaders of the company don’t realize they are doing it. If men don’t think women belong in corporate leadership positions, they can create subtle male resistance in work environments where women find it difficult, if not impossible, to move up.
Since male executives have shaped the culture at most companies over time, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to gender-based differences in communication styles. A report, "Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities?" by Catalyst found that 81% of women said that "adopting a style with which male managers are comfortable" is an important or very important strategy to advance one's career.
Communication styles rooted in childhood training or unconscious beliefs can be tough to change. A first step is becoming aware of how you talk at work. Here are some pitfalls that women especially can encounter in the workplace:
--using too many words to deliver serious messages
--downplaying your contributions
--using vague language
--phrasing statements as questions
--using an upward inflection at the end of statements, which indicates doubt.
Working with a mentor or personal coach can help you to be clear on the communication style at your level within the company and to confidently practice this style so you will be heard at work.
People who solve any serious challenge are the ones who change the way they think about themselves. They convince themselves that they can change, and they do change. Believing comes first, then change, not the other way around.
John Agno: When Doing It All Won't Do: A Self-Coaching Guide for Career Women (ebook at $9.99 and paperback Workbook Edition at $14.99)