I met with a client last week who was frustrated and angry about how she was being marginalised by two senior men in her organisation.
This client is very senior herself, has accomplished many great things on behalf of her organisation and is held in esteem in her industry for her contribution.
During our coaching session we explored the nature of her organisation’s culture, identified the male rituals, norms and behaviours she was being affected by and discussed how she might change her communication style and her own responses in order to be better accepted and heard rather than dismissed, by her colleagues.
I don’t think we’ll be meeting again. At the end of the session she broke down and said with despair, ‘why do I have to change how I do things? Why can’t they just accept me for who I am? I have great ideas, but they’re never picked up, or if they are, my boss doesn’t give me credit for them! Why can’t they just support me, acknowledge my contribution and recognise that I’ve got something to add?’
The work I do is twofold:
Typically, I teach women how to get ahead in male defined workplace cultures. I teach women:
- How to speak up without being criticised as ‘too feminine’ ‘too masculine’ ‘too soft’ ‘too direct’… (this list goes on and on and on)
- How to negotiate without getting in their own way
- How to manage hierarchies so they’re seen, noticed and valued for their contribution
- How to advance their careers in workplaces that are created by men, for men.
My goal is to help women recognise the nature of the workplace culture they’re in, so they can adapt their behaviour, modify their style and demeanour in different contexts. The more information they have about how things are done within their workplace, the more power they have to adapt their style, influence change or make different choices.
Basically, I teach women how to act like a bloke without being seen as one.
When they begin to pay attention to their choices, their response could be:
1. ‘It’s too hard. Why should I have to change so they feel better? If my organisation can’t see the value of my contribution because of who I am that’s their problem.’
They then consciously choose to:
- stay at the level they’re at because they don’t want to play the game,
- leave their organisation for another they think will provide greater support or opportunities, or
- leave to work for themselves where they can do what they like how they like and generally be successful, feel more fulfilled and make a bigger difference (which is what I did when I left IBM)
2. Increased motivation and determination to succeed. They use what they’ve learned and with greater awareness of their own behaviour and impact, are less likely to take things personally, will adapt their style, constrain their enthusiasm, limit their emotional responses to ideas and present only those opinions they think will be accepted by their male colleagues. When this happens:
- Some women make it to the top, but they’ve adapted their ideas, communication and ultimately how they think to accommodate the masculine norms and models of their colleagues. This limits their organisation’s ability to reap the value from their difference and we find ourselves led by women who model themselves on the way men do things and their companies lose the value of their different perspectives. Or
- They rise rapidly until they begin a family, or recognise how much energy it takes to play the game, wonder what on earth they’ve done and why, then leave, or
- Despite the strategies they’ve learned, they still find themselves frequently placed second in promotion rounds, lose confidence and esteem, feel less able and worthy to be in their roles and their productivity inspiration and motivation suffers.
The alternative is to: make a decision to increase the numbers of women at the top, change the culture so that women are NOT penalised for how they do things, hold senior managers accountable and create an environment that recognises, values and harnesses different perspectives, ideas and practices.
The alternative is harder because it changes the status quo. It requires commitment and leadership from the CEO.
It is NOT about empowering women (code for making them more like us!) It IS about FIXING the organisation.
It must be led by the CEO who makes it an imperative, recognises the value of more women and wants to harness the value of their ideas, perspectives and opinions so the organisation can
- make better decisions,
- become more competitive,
- access more market share,
- create more innovative products,
- demonstrate publicly that they’re a company that is an attractive place to work.
It must be led by a CEO who is invested in harnessing the potential of everyone rather than unintentionally limiting it.
It sounds hard, but some CEOs are up for it. Last year I was engaged by the Department of Treasury to identify the barriers to women’s advancement, develop strategies to overcome them and it resulted in the Secretary of the Department declaring his target of increasing the numbers of women in the Senior Executive to 35% by 2015. Read more.