Women told: be bold

Women need to take more risks and be bolder, an event on women’s career progression heard last week.

C-suite expert Dr Danusia Malina-Derben, speaking at The Voice at the Table event hosted by Hogan Lovells, focused on three main themes: risk, failure and ambition.

She asked 40 of her clients from a range of industries about a number of questions, including how women can leverage their talents, what differences – if any – they thought there were between men and women’s attitudes to ambition and how men and women deal with risk and failure. The views she got back included that women avoid risk, although when they take risks they are normally right, and that women underestimate themselves.

Dr Malina-Derben, a mum of 10, said: “There is such social pressure on women to be perfect and not to get things wrong. You have to actively work on your risk-taking muscle. Successful women risk failure.”

Not taking risks, she said, could hold women back in their careers. Other findings were a perception that women don’t bounce back from failure like men often do. “Women are paralysed by their fear of failure,” she said. “We have to be able to fall on our faces and get back up again.”

Dr Malina-Derben said that through her work she had listened to a number of successful women talking about their careers in public. She said they nearly always said their success was accidental, a question of luck and had not been planned. “Women don’t like to admit to being ambitious in public,” she said, adding that in private it was a different story. They had an ambivalence about ambition yet to succeed they need more ambition than men because they have more obstacles to overcome.

She recommended that ambitious women should not be afraid to congratulate themselves on their success, have both a mentor and sponsor and not be afraid to “be impertinent” and speak out against the status quo.

Gender dynamics expert Dr Pauline Crawford said women were at a tipping point in the workplace and needed to work with men to make the most of their different approaches to work and to change the rules of their career progression. She said they should see conflict as a positive force and dare to challenge traditional ideas about women in the workplace. “Change the conversation,” she said.

In another session at the Changing the Playing Field event, there was much discussion about the importance of mentors for career progression – intergenerational mentors, reverse mentors and male and female mentors. Tony O’Donnell, Engineering Director at Morgan Sindall Construction and Infrastructure, said one to one mentoring was important to support women’s career progression and that mentors and mentees had to be properly matched. Managers with traditional ideas would be changed by seeing effective women leaders in action, he added. Sarah Crowe, corporate responsibility, equality and diversity manager at The Law Society, said external business factors could also bring change, such as client demands.

Crowe said women should be bold and ask people they admired to mentor them. They did not necessarily have to be in their organisation or industry, but had to be someone they felt would provide the inspiration they needed. Lawyer Susan Bright added that women should also offer to mentor others.

A clear distinction was made between mentors, coaches and sponsors. According to the organisation Catalyst, mentors formally or informally help you navigate your career, providing guidance for career choices and decisions. Coaches provide guidance for career or other development, often focused on soft skills rather than technical expertise. Sponsors are senior leaders or others who use their influence to vouch for you so you get work opportunities, promotions or jobs.

People may need different mentors at different points in their career, said the speakers. They also noted the need to create more flexible work environments which allowed women to flourish and spoke about the importance of sharing best practice.

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