The current shape of female careers is a triangle with a very wide base. It remains a squat-looking triangle as the idealistic and ambitious young graduates are many and the numbers of women CEOs and board directors are few.
The middle-management level is, for most women, the peak of their career and so it bulges slightly less than the graduate level as early promotions are achieved, but then totally trims out as women reach the triangle’s pinnacle.
The shape of opportunity for men currently is instead a trapezium that definitely reduces in width at the top but still offers breadth up there, rather than a skinny point. If there was true equal opportunity for men and women, the shape of our careers would be the same.
I discussed the question of how we get from the triangle to the trapezium with a range of senior women in leadership roles within companies large and small. The following is my summation of the discussions we have had:
- Let’s start the mentoring of women almost as soon as they graduate from university. My personal observation and experience is that women start their careers with all of the confidence of their male colleagues but then begin to lose that glow when they open their eyes to the breakdown of gender in senior ranks. If there are few or no women at the top providing role models then it’s hard to imagine yourself there. It’s a vicious circle that will only be broken with real effort from male and female leaders. Organisations need to link these promising young women to a mentor, male or female, who can keep their confidence levels high and ensure they remain focused on the grand prize.
- Provide working mothers, who are often mid-level managers, with the support and flexibility that will allow them to return to the workplace in the same or an equal role and continue the career push up. The only way this will work effectively for everyone is if there is an acknowledgement of the benefit to companies of those women returning. It begins with the value placed on those managers and their contribution to the company, but also to the community that is the customer base for the organisation.
- Understand that women in executive roles expect to be rewarded for output rather than political attractiveness. We are not remotely interested in anyone’s opinion of our sex appeal as leaders so we are unlikely to ever spend the majority of our time schmoozing up or involved in internal campaigning. We have so much to do in so little time so we make the most of it. The women who have managed to get to the top without changing the way they do business have often had a male champion in their organisation or on the Board. In many cases the champion has done the selling-in that has allowed them to remain focused on the work that gets results for the company.
What else can be done to change the shape of opportunity for female careers?