Shatter that glass ceiling and thrive in the workplace.
A young woman by the name of Mary lived in Boston in the early ‘70s. She was proud of her professional role working in a local bank’s fraud detection department. She enjoyed the camaraderie of professional life and her financial independence — right up to the point when she turned 27 years old and got married. Her husband and her mother both insisted that she must leave her job at the bank to focus on being a homemaker, so she resigned, never to return to the workforce again. If you ask her about that decision today, she will recall her working girl days wistfully, yet insist there was no way she would have been able to combine her professional life with being a wife and a mother.
A lot has changed since those days. Women have benefitted from decades of legislative changes, training, and social support. They’ve taken up professional roles in businesses and nonprofits across the country, and no one questions the possibility of hiring or working alongside a dedicated woman. However, there is still work to be done for women in the workplace.
According to Catalyst.org, women make up just under half of the U.S. workforce (46.8%), yet less than 20 percent of S&P 500 Board seats are held by women. The same research shows that women hold only 4 percent of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies. To be sure, there are special women-only professional conferences, mentoring programs, and dozens of books with titles like A Woman’s Workplace Survival Guide that are meant to bridge the gap.
As a professional woman, my take on this issue is twofold. First, there is clearly room for more women in leadership positions in companies of all sizes. Second, aren’t we ready to move on from the “survival” take of the early research into the subject? Shouldn’t women in senior management positions not only have a way of making it to the promotion, but also thriving there?
I believe that the path to leadership can be a fulfilling and deeply satisfying experience for both men and women. Leading is a fantastic way to grow beyond what you think is possible or easy. Here are five ideas to get you started on getting past the glass ceiling in the workplace:
1. Nurture your network
Networking is important for professionals of both genders, and particularly vital for aspiring women-leaders. Find your cheerleaders and be sure not to limit your support crowd to women in the workplace only. Nurture connections with individuals who will be your advocates when you are not in the room. Many companies offer the benefit of connecting professionals with experienced mentors, and that’s a great start. However, you need not stop at one formal mentoring relationship!
2. Invest in yourself
To grow in a professional career and move past the glass ceiling in the workplace, you need to work on your own skills, abilities, and confidence. No matter how good you are at your current set of responsibilities, a promotion will likely require you to master the tasks you have not done before.
Some of the best advice I have ever received as a professional is to “act a level up” — pushing your performance to the next level before you are promoted. There are several ways to accomplish that. You might begin by actively seeking out opportunities to get more education, experience, and training that will support your next steps as you grow professionally. You may also use coaching and mentoring as a tool to identify your blind spots and work on overcoming them.
Remember that not all qualifications and characteristics judged by the promotion decision-makers are technical in nature. Women can sometimes sabotage their own paths to senior management roles with small and seemingly minor things, like using a question-like tone when making recommendations or requests (which can make them appear uncertain). Work on all things, big and small, technical and soft.
3. Stay visible
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said “You can’t lead from the crowd.” I love that quote because it highlights the confusion that women can sometimes have about being in the spotlight. Visibility does not require you to be boastful, overly aggressive, or hog all the credit. It does mean stepping out of your comfort zone to lead a project, present a report to the board of directors, pitch a proposal to a client, or join a committee. You may also consider joining a professional association or writing for professional blogs and journals to create a personal brand as a subject-matter expert.
4. Own your personal brand
Speaking of branding, most professionals aren’t aware that they even have a personal brand — let alone take the step of actively managing and shaping it. In order to progress past the glass ceiling in the workplace and into senior management positions, you must be intentional about who you are, what you do, and who you do it for. Establish subject-matter expertise and become known as a great resource, problem-solver, or relationship builder.
5. Manage your expectations
No, this does not mean that you have to set the bar low. Realistic expectations simply require you to step into the process with eyes wide open and clarity about the effort and the time your goal will take. The best way to establish realistic expectations is to talk to people who have done this before, so don’t take your advice from Siri alone. Ask your mentors and supporters about the biggest challenges on their way and what advice they wish they had received when they were in your shoes. These conversations will help ensure that you don’t get disappointed and give up halfway through, all the while blaming it on the barriers you face as a woman.
In the same breath, be sure to ask for what you want. People can’t read your mind! You will not get the desired spot on a ground-breaking project just because you show up early and leave late — you must ask for it.
6. Thrive as a woman leader
Although gender discrimination is becoming less commonplace, it pays to know your rights as a woman in the workplace. Remember that you will continue to get whatever you are willing to tolerate, so set your boundaries and elevate persistent issues without waiting for them to work themselves out. To carve your road to success, you must be your own most diligent and steadfast advocate.
Study those who have succeeded before you, keeping in mind that your path will look different. I have found that books like Getting There by Gillian Zoe Segal can be a fantastic supplement to the real-life mentoring you receive on the job.
Finally, work on the limitations you hold in your own mind. In the words of Amy Cuddy, a researcher and author at Harvard Business School, “The way you tell your story to yourself matters.” When you encounter an obstacle, be mindful of how you explain it in your mind. If you have a tendency to take a setback as a sign of personal and persistent failure, work on reframing it.
In the end, getting that promotion is a product of many factors: your own hard work and strong mental game, good alignment of project results and feedback from other professionals, and the needs of your company. Lean on your network, keep your eye on what matters most, and remember that you are capable of great things. Your results will show it!
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