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Smart women get noticed and promoted. Jessica Lacey speaks to the experts about how it's time to embrace your inner show off and be seen.
If you returned to work this month full of optimism and drive, only to have your male colleague promoted above you yet again despite tripling your efforts throughout the pandemic, welcome to the majority ladies.
Women are still vastly underrepresented in the higher levels of the business world. Even though the push for workplace equality is long-established, when it comes to management roles, the men are still sweeping the board(room). The 2021 McKinsey Report showed women are still being promoted at a slower rate to men, that females only make up 24% of C-Level (Chief Executive) roles and that women of colour are most severely represented of all demographic groups. The same report also discovered women in general are more prone to suffer burnout than men - most likely due to additional home and family demands.
It’s easy to feel discouraged at the numbers but when we strive for equality in the workplace, we’re not looking to pit the sexes against each other. Men do not need to step aside, nor women take over; equality recognises that men and women offer balance and both are vital. We all need to make more room at the highly lacquered table for women and for that to happen, it’s time for women to re-think how they represent themselves at work.
“There's work to do for everyone in re-balancing inequality but a lot of it is about facing some hard human realities. Rather than getting frustrated and trying to push against these inherent dynamics, women need to be savvy and work around them. The people who do that, have a strong competitive advantage”, advises consultant and speaker Gill Whitty-Collins, who is also the author of seminal workplace bible Why Men Win At Work. Gill admits herself that her research findings often aren’t what women want to hear but she stresses that if women accept the fundamental human realities of the workplace, they will be significantly more successful in their chosen careers. So what exactly are the new rules and how do we win the game? Or at least tie?
“Let's start with belonging and the invisible power of culture,” says Gill Whitty-Collins. “If you're in a work culture where you feel you fit in with everyone around you, it will have a relaxing impact on you. Without realising it, you’ll feel comfortable and more confident and that means you’ll perform at your best. Then obviously, the opposite is true. So, if you find yourself in a workforce when you look around, you feel quite different for everyone – like they're all a gang and you’re not part of that - you don't feel confident, you don't feel comfortable, you’re not relaxed and that paralyses your performance.”
From the gender equality point of view, this is more likely to happen to a woman because when she gets to senior level in an organisation, she'll look around her and see 80-90% men. But this is a human reaction, not specifically a gender one: put a Black man in a white dominant culture and he will feel all these things; if you put a Black woman in a white female dominant culture, she will too.
This lack of belonging distracts us from playing to our strengths and instead, causes us to copy and borrow the behaviours that we see working - another dynamic that Whitty-Collins identifies in her research. “Repeatedly, women try to adapt and dilute themselves to fit in male dominated environments. But if there's one thing that’s profoundly true in life, it's that we only succeed by using our own strengths. Don’t fake confidence; people smell inauthenticity and are instantly turned off. They won't say it aloud or accuse you of being inauthentic, but what they will say is there's something a bit off that they don’t feel quite comfortable with.”
“Every woman I've ever coached and mentored, which is hundreds, has said to me that they do great work and that work should speak for itself - they don’t see that they should have to market themselves or show off. The reality though, is that they do and it isn’t enough to simply do a good job," explains Whitty-Collins.
"Bosses look down on the organisation, seeing the tops of multiple umbrellas. They don’t see the work unless they’re in a meeting with you and even then, they’re seeing your representation of the work. Unless women, or any employees, lift up those umbrellas to show what they’re doing, the boss might not have any idea of how brilliant the work is.
"Bosses are human beings and when they're making decisions about who to give jobs to, they’re human decisions more than spreadsheet decisions. Men in general, seem to be more savvy about this and make the effort to carve out that time. If you don’t invest in that too, frankly, you’re going to see a lot of men who you don't think are better than you - or you don't think work as hard as you - getting jobs and promotions that you want and think you deserve.”
Empowering stuff and well worth implementing, but what about when you’re not firing on all cylinders and don’t feel able to show up from a place of confidence? A UK parliament committee found that in 2019, 900,000 women in the U.K. left their jobs over an undefined period of time because of menopausal symptoms. The inquiry is still ongoing, but the aim is to implement supportive working conditions for women experiencing menopause, something spearheaded by GEM M founders Heather Jackson and Sam Simester. GenM is a platform that endeavours to enable brands to better support women going through menopause, improving their visibility as consumers and normalising the menopause conversation in the workplace.
Sam Simester was knocked sideways by the perimenopause. “I was running a global supply chain at the time, travelling a lot every month throughout Asia and the US, but I was all over the place and I was woefully unprepared for menopause,“ she confesses. “It got to the point where I was experiencing anxiety attacks and a huge loss of confidence.” She struggled to keep it together at a time when the business needed her, and so she resigned. “For those of who know me well, that was just not something you would expect to see in the same sentence as Sam. I've always been fully dedicated to my career, so it was only when I sat down and had a truly honest conversation with my very compassionate CEO, that we managed to come up with a solution.” They identified she needed support and some time out, “and the great news is, I'm still working.”
This candid approach to her menopause symptoms is the reason that Sam remains a board member at Innocent Drinks and triggered the GenM mission. In the 2020 GenM Invisibility report, 88% of the women surveyed said that they wanted their employers to do more in supporting them and to be aware of what they’re going through.
“These are women whose careers are on a high and who are vital to the productivity of their workplaces. Their employers should be well-informed and properly able to support their employees. These are powerful statistics and the main reason why GenM was started,” explains Heather Jackson, the other half of the GenM dynamo. “We have a responsibility to the 15.5 million women currently going through menopause in the UK - and potentially 1 billion globally by 2025 - to cultivate greater understand and awareness.”
Many women in very senior positions in larger global organisations are surrounded by men (or other women) who are fiercely competitive. Trying to start having a conversation about a very personal experience, like menopause, is probably not something that they feel that comfortable doing.
“It starts with saying it out loud, showing your vulnerability and helping yourself take control - this is a symptom, it's what I'm feeling and there might be consequences. I didn't know what was coming next but what I wanted to be able to do was to feel comfortable saying, I don't feel great today or I'm feeling a bit warm, I'm just going to go outside or I might just need a little bit of time out here or I'm sorry I can't quite remember that.”
Owning your menopause symptoms and opening up the conversation not only allows your colleagues and management to better understand your circumstances, but creates the environment for you to work in the best way to fit your life and maximise your productivity, creativity and drive. That may be working from home, having more flexible hours, being able to respond to work developments over email or set essential boundaries. Braving that initial vulnerability also sets the standard for the other women in your team. This, in turn, helps to create a stronger, more supportive female workforce for the future.
Show your workings
Include your boss in your workload. Invest 10% of your work time to communicating what you’re doing. Reach out to say: can I share my project with you? Can I get your input? Human beings are naturally collaborative, and when that project becomes a roaring success, they’ll feel they played a part and will be more invested in your success.
A confident core comes from knowing your strengths
It’s easy to have no concept of your strengths because they’re so obvious to you. When you have an innate strength, it is so natural to you that you presume everyone has it. They don’t. Spend time identifying your top assets and rather than attempting to be good at everything (which no one is) concentrate on utilising and showing them off.
Know your blind spots
You will only look better for saying that you excel at X but for Y, go to your colleague. It shows you are profoundly secure in your own strengths and you’re a team player that recognises strength in others.
Honesty and openness is a superpower
Whether it be menopause symptoms or other personal trials, communicating them in a professional manner will only strengthen your positon, gain you respect and promote understanding around you.
There is such a thing as a bad fit
Know when you’ve tried everything and, if after exhausting all avenues you’re not being appreciated at work, move on. Change offers a fresh start and a new perspective for everyone.