The findings of the research I was commissioned to do by ANZSOG across the Australian Public Service revealed that the most significant barrier to women’s progression into the senior executive service is UNCONSCIOUS BIAS, and its consequence, lack of confidence and self belief.
It was described more explicitly and disguised as something less pointed. But don’t get confused. It’s bias.
The top three barriers were perceived to be:
1. Lack of confidence: women don’t apply for promotions because they don’t think they’re ‘good enough.’
2. Women’s commitment to family: that is, they either:
- Choose to prioritise their families over their careers, or
- Assumptions are made about their reliability, availability and commitment.
In both cases, women miss out on the challenging or high profile work required to develop the skills, experiences and reputation they need to progress their careers.
3. Lack of mentoring: there aren’t enough senior women to be role models or mentors, and blokes are more likely to have informal mentors than women.
Depending on what organisation they work for, the next three barriers were perceived to be:
4. Exclusion from informal networks: men prefer the company of other men so women miss out on valuable information, knowledge and opportunities provided to their male peers informally.
5. Lack of visibility: women are less likely to have the same exposure to the executive group – especially if that group is mostly male.
6. Personal style differences: women’s communication style is not regarded as ‘authoritative’ enough and assertive women are penalised for being too ‘blokey’.
Without exception, all these perceived barriers reflect cultural, gender and/or organisational bias. Some of it is conscious and deliberate, most of it is not.
How could women’s confidence not be eroded when they:
- Feel torn between their families and career or are penalised for having a family (or in some cases for being of child bearing age);
- Lack the same encouragement and provision of advice and mentoring as their male colleagues;
- Receive consistent messages that they don’t fit in;
- Miss out on challenging work or assignments because of assumptions made about them;
- Suffer criticism for being themselves or attempting to communicate effectively.
Some organisations are taking steps to increase the level of awareness of unconscious bias and inadvertent discrimination. Some executive teams have recognised the importance of creating more inclusive workplace cultures and practices.
However if we waited for all organisations to follow suit, nothing is likely to change soon. So it’s up to all women to take action! You must
- Understand the context within which you are working: it is rarely an even playing field: Working hard and doing a good job is insufficient for career progression: you must be seen and noticed for the results you deliver and that is up to you.
- Know what is required to progress in your organisation and be strategic:
- Actively seek champions, mentors and sponsors
- Develop your networks
- Ask for challenging/high profile work
- Seek feedback
- Develop a career plan and explicitly ask for your supervisor’s support to get the development opportunities you need.
Notice the potential for unconscious bias (your own and that of others):
- Pay attention. Be mindful. Listen generously.
- Challenge your assumptions:
- About yourself, your capability and your options
- About others, their capability and options.
- Support other women:
- Communicate women’s achievements widely
- Encourage junior women to apply for positions and senior women to share their stories
- Ensure women in your team get the same opportunities and experiences as the men.
- Do not ignore comments or behaviour that perpetuates inequity and bias: Confront it. Name it.
- Don’t take knock backs personally: the organisational culture and systems that perpetuate bias are bigger than any individual. It’s not about you!
- Always ask: 50/50. If not, why not?