Helen Conway doesn’t want to be accused of telling women how they can “fix the workplace gender equality” issue. But the head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency does believe we all have a role to individually play in addressing the lack of women in leadership and continued pay gap between men and women.
While plenty of organisations have a long way to go in meeting the structural and cultural barriers holding women back – and Conway’s always happy to share ideas that can help – she’s added a new piece to her pitch regarding what needs to be done: the role women can proactively play in progressing our own careers.
Speaking to me following her presentation Wednesday at the Australian Executive Women’s leadership Symposium, Conway shared six tips she believes can personally help women at work. They’re not all tips she’s taken on herself – she does, for instance, admit that she never really had a sponsor – but they’re tips she’s confident can help women get ahead.
In short, Conway’s six tips urge women to:
- Not accept the status quo
- Understand and be able to articulate your value to an organisation
- Develop key competencies e.g. influencing skills, negotiating skills
- Seize opportunities when they arise
- Find a sponsor
- Be robust and resilient
The first relates to in issue Conway’s encountered from both spectrums: the notion that workplace gender equality has been “solved” (particularly from younger women) or that the issue’s simply “too difficult” to solve (from older women). She believes we should all continually remind ourselves of the extent of the problem and the fact we can personally contribute to solving it, even simply by referring back to the facts and figures to demonstrate just how much work there is to be done (and WGEA provides plenty of updated numbers to help).
“We can’t throw our hand up and says ‘there’s nothing we women can do’,” Conway says. “The ‘woe is me’ won’t work.”
From there, Conway believes women should ensure we can articulate our value to an organisation or a potential employer. That involves expressing who you are and what you stand for clearly, creating your “30 second elevator pitch”, and being able to voice the key skills and experience you bring.
Learning how to negotiate – and getting over any perception you’ll be seen as aggressive – is also essential for acquiring the jobs we want and the pay we deserve. “My view is you have to overcome that reluctance to negotiate just because you’re concerned of that perception issue, then you need to prepare for a negotiation [regarding yourself] just like you’d prepare for a business negotiation,” Conway says. She concedes it’s not always easy, and that it takes a certain level of confidence that may not feel natural. But learning to back yourself is so important in all life situations, and will ultimately help at work too.
Meanwhile opportunities should be seized as they emerge, even when the timing’s not perfect. Conway referred to her own foray into leadership with this tip, noting how after leaving her law career for the NRMA she may never have worked her way up to the high-profile general manager role if she never agreed to volunteer for an internal management development program. That program led to her being offered the NRMA’s support to take on a scholarship at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management and her senior management career later taking off.
As for getting a sponsor, Conway believes the more popular push to find a mentor can be a bit of a “cop out” for women, given mentors can’t always offer direct assistance for getting ahead. She believes we should be approaching sponsors – something that can require those strong negotiation skills again – and finding men and women in and out of our organisations who are willing to directly advocate for our career progression.
The be “resilient and robust” piece of Conway’s advice was reinforced recently when she travelled to Nepal as an ambassador for Habitat Women and saw first-hand just what the women leaders of Nepalese villages encounter day to day. She was inspired by the fact they battle on while facing numerous challenges in attempting to manage functions like the village bank, micro finance and sanitation training.
“It was a great lesson for me to see what they were prepared to do,” she says. And they’re lessons that apply to any life and work situation. “The fact is you’ve got to be able to go on. You may get to 3pm and think ‘why am I doing this, I’m the only woman in the team,’ but you go on.
“Just go home that night and have a glass of red. Then get back into the fray the next day.”