How can women achieve success in the workplace?

Diana Parkes knows only too well the challenges women often face getting to the top in their chosen professions.

She was a management consultant for a variety of big corporates and was promoted up the ladder. She says promotion was relatively straightforward and objective in the early days, but things changed. “As you go higher up the criteria for promotion are more vague and less structured,” she says. She reached a fairly senior level and a vacancy came up on the board. She was the obvious candidate as she had all the relevant experience and qualifications. However, the company passed her over and gave the post to a man who lacked the same level of experience. She continued with her career, but then it happened again at another organisation. Once again a man with less experience was appointed instead of her. She resigned, forfeiting a good salary, and decided to use her knowledge and skills to try to identify what would enable other women to rise to the top of the career ladder.

That was in 2007. It was the start of a huge learning curve. Diana initially planned to write a book which would “set out the practical things that women could do to take control of their own destiny and make their career aspirations a reality”. That idea mushroomed into the Women’s Sat Nav to Success, “a diverse network of highly commercial people with a contemporary and refreshing view on leadership, success and talent development” with a strong focus on the importance of bringing female talent to the fore.

That focus is built on the painstaking research Diana has conducted into the challenges women face in getting to the top. Diana was inspired after reading Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders in the Harvard Business Review. It was a groundbreaking academic study which sought to outline a portfolio of strategies women could use to progress their careers. “It was highly academic. I wanted to create something very accessible and relevant to as many women’s lives as possible,” says Diana. She started putting feelers out to interview women who had made it to the top of a wide range of organisations. “I wanted to come up with the most robust portfolio of strategies,” she says. She has done around 50 interviews, lasting between one and a half and seven hours. She reckons she had around 300 hours of interviews to transcribe.

The women talked about their careers and about any instances where being a woman made it more challenging for them to rise up the career ladder. Diana also asked them what critical strategies women could use to accelerate their career progression. After the interviews she went through the transcripts in detail, pulling out key themes so she could develop a comprehensive suite of key strategies women could use.

Limited expectations
She was struck by how women were more likely to identify their weaknesses than their strengths in any assessment of their skills and by the fact that only two of the women she interviewed had ever asked for a pay rise. “I was interested to find out what was going on that made it so difficult for women to promote themselves,” she says. “Confidence-building workshops and the like only scratch the surface.” She decided to do a psychology degree to look in-depth at what it is that creates limited expectations about what girls and women can achieve and how that affects what roles they get offered at work, when they get heard and what they believe they are capable of. “It deeply affects what we put ourselves forward for and how,” she says.

Diana adds that it is clear from research that women are already limiting their career opportunities before they have children based on “an internal recognition” that they are likely to be the main carers if they do have them. She agrees that there is a danger that the fact the challenges faced by working mums are much more in the news these days may make them more likely to limit their expectations. However, she says her research is very much focused on solutions. “By understanding why women do not ask for promotion and why they are not heard we can then do something about it and head it off at the pass,” she says.

She is not sure that things are improving that much for women at the top. She thinks it is still difficult to talk about the challenges they face. “They have to be really careful in playing the feminist card. It takes courage. They have to be wary about helping other women,” she says, adding that because the number of women at the top is still relatively small they can feel a lot of pressure to help other women. Some of the women she approached said they couldn’t risk being associated with her work. Those who did have been very supportive and are keen to see it published.

Diana says what she was fascinated about when talking to the women she interviewed was that all the women had different values and that success meant different things at different phases of their lives. “Women need to know what success means to them and understand that their values might change over time and they should do work that they love as that will help them overcome the challenges they are likely to face along the way. It will help them through tough times,” she says. She thinks it is important that women recognise how society might limit their expectations so that they can achieve their full potential. That means recognising all their skills. Diana says women tend to be more secure in talking about their technical skills rather than their general competencies.

She will pitch her book to publishers in the next few months and will launch the first annual Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey in the autumn. This will identify where working women in the UK are against the 20 critical strategies for career fulfilment she has defined. The survey will also measure the impact of these on women’s engagement with their employers and their attitude to career progression.

She plans to use the book to highlight challenges for women in particular industries, at particular stages in their lives and to inform both employers and policymakers about how they can help women progress. Diana has already run a pilot of the survey. A quarter of the women surveyed said they changed their approach as a result and that it had benefited them. “That’s very encouraging,” she says.

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