Practical advice for women on how to get ahead

Why are women still failing to fulfill their potential at work? It’s a question that dogs many HR teams who see talented women dropping out despite pressure to increase diversity in the top positions. There have been lots of articles and books advising women on how to work harder, be superhuman and try to get their partners to do more at home in the last few years, but women have been doing all of this and the gap between men and women remains, with men often stuck in their own gender stereotypes at work.

Many argue that the system or the work culture needs to be changed, but how do you do that without getting a sufficient number of women into senior positions first? A new book gives some practical advice on the day to day of negotiating a workplace which appears not to help women succeed.

The Glass Wall by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob details steps women can take to get ahead, from not fearing failure, knowing how to ask for a promotion and knowing what to do if you are told no to understanding when and how to use your anger, using advocates and knowing when to walk away.

Both writers have made it to the top in their own professions. Sue Unerman is Chief Strategic Office at MediaCom and Kathryn is CEO of cinema advertising contractor Pearl & Dean.

As part of the preparation for writing the book they commissioned research across three countries to see how men and women think about their careers and found some very different answers. Women, for instance, were much more likely to admit to ‘masculine’ traits in the workplace than men were to admit to ‘feminine’ ones. Men were also significantly more likely to rate themselves as ambitious than women.

Interestingly, the authors point out that when women start work research shows they are more ambitious than men, but that confidence drops as time goes by. “The reason is that they don’t feel supported by their managers, and they have a hard time fitting into the stereotypes of success that they see within their business,” they write.

Their survey also showed women were more likely than men to think they faced gender-related barriers to progress at work, with two thirds of women in the UK saying they have actually experienced barriers to their career success. Nearly half of UK women surveyed for the book thought maternity leave had affected their career progression.

The book gives advice for managers on how to support women better as well as suggestions for individual women seeking to fulfill their potential at work. Success is defined on a woman’s own terms so is not necessarily making it to senior management. It ends with 82 strategies for female success in the workplace – 41 for those on the way up and 41 for managers. Here are a selection of those for women:

– Ask for what you want. Ask for the help you need.
– Look at how the men around you behave. Don’t let yourself be left behind because they self-promote more aggressively than you do.
– If you feel that your career path is blocked, if you feel that things aren’t fair, or aren’t moving quickly enough, then break the rules.
– If someone puts barriers in your way, use them as a leaping-off point. Use the energy that anger gives you to propel you towards your objective.
– Feel the fear, but do it anyway. Don’t let nerves put you off.
–  Be funny. Use humour to lighten the atmosphere. Store up a selection of jokes and deploy them at will. Too much seriousness implies a lack of confidence.
– Be seen – make sure that you are visible.
– If you don’t like the tone of the banter around you, do something about it. It’s a good idea to give as good as you get. If the situation needs escalation, then don’t hesitate to seek formal support to stop it dead.
– Pick your fights. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t forget the things that annoy you, but save your anger for when it will count.
– Play the numbers game. If you hear a ‘no’ the first time you ask for something, don’t see that as the end. Keep asking.

*The Glass Wall by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob is published by  Profile Books, price £9.99.

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