We hear a lot about how women are backward in coming forward, that instead of leaning in they lean out so far they don’t even take a seat at the table.
Whatever the cliche, it is sadly true that many young women don’t have the confidence to back themselves by putting their hands up for the next big career move. And this is despite years of talk about increasing gender diversity at all levels in organisations.
There’s no shortage of advice out there about what women should do to succeed and how they should conduct themselves – be more assertive, know how to network like a man, seek out mentors.
The net effect is to leave young women feeling that they have failed themselves. Many women come to believe they must almost become someone they are not, so this new personality will somehow do what hard slog has so far failed to achieve – it will catapult them into upper echelons of their field.
Anna Burke, the outgoing House of Representatives Speaker, recently made an excellent point when she said: “The problem with women is that they think effort will be rewarded and recognised. They work like girly swots and naively think that they will get meritorious selection. The problem is, there is no meritocracy.”
Burke was, of course, writing about politics, which is a tough game. But climbing the ranks in the private or government sectors is just as tough.
So what’s a woman to do if she wants to aspire to the C-suite? As someone who needed a cattle prod in the shape of a very determined company president to get me to see how I was holding myself back, I’ve learnt that the key is to speak up about your ambitions and find a sponsor who will help you achieve them.
This, however, is easier said than done for many women, who prefer to put their heads down, work harder and smarter than everyone else and wait for recognition to follow.
They seem to have missed the plain truth of success: that it is a combination of talent, luck and a timely push along the career path by someone who believes you’ve got the goods.
Why won’t most women voice their career ambitions? They might fear being thought of as aggressive. They might lack the confidence to speak up. Or perhaps they look at what’s involved in the top jobs and decide such a role would add an impossible burden in lives already filled with multiple demands on their time.
In my case, I was in a senior role at Dun & Bradstreet and I believed I’d gone as far as I could, especially as my male colleagues had been loud and clear that they were lined up ahead of me.
It took a very determined sponsor to propel me into the chief executive’s chair. He was the global president and he appeared in my Melbourne office unannounced one day to tell me he was giving me the top job. I’m ashamed to say my response was: “No way. I can’t do it.”
Happily for me, he insisted. He put his own reputation on the line to make me the first female chief executive in the firm’s history. And I worked even harder to reward his belief in me.
How thinking such as this appears in the data around women’s participation in the workplace is stark. Somewhere between entry-level recruitment and the executive level Australian companies are losing or failing to develop talented women, wasting a vital pool of potential.
There have been more women than men graduating from Australia’s universities since 1985. Women make up 45 per cent of the graduate workforce, yet in ASX 200 companies only 9.7 per cent of executive key management personnel, 3.5 per cent of chief executives, and 15.7 per cent of directors are women.
Much is being done to try to improve these numbers. At Chief Executive Women we offer scholarships to attend some of the world’s top executive education institutions. We are also working with groups such as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s Male Champions of Change to turn talk of increased gender diversity into action.
All of these programs are terrific and much needed, but adding a sponsor to the mix is like throwing rocket fuel on to the career trajectory of our talented young women.
A good start is to clear the blurred lines between mentoring and sponsoring. A sponsor goes in to bat for you.
They are an advocate, someone who puts their own reputation on the line for you, and whose recommendation will open those doors you have been desperately trying to batter down. Mentoring is still important in helping you navigate the complexities of your career, but you can buy a coach who will give you advice and feedback.
Sponsors have to take a leap of faith. Mentors don’t necessarily need to have skin in the game.
In my case, my boss had to convince me to accept his sponsorship. Not one of my male colleagues would have hesitated. Men have an innate confidence and seem to do these things effortlessly – the networking, the speaking up to the boss. They have no qualms about expressing their desire for their next job or the next deal they want to lead.
For women, constantly knocking on doors without a sponsor can be demoralising.
Sponsorship means that behind closed doors a woman’s achievements will get the hearing they deserve and, hopefully, those doors will open.
It’s time for Australian organisations to make sponsorship standard practice, in the same way mentoring programs are becoming more common. Look beyond the staff beating down your door for opportunities and invite the wallflowers to enter the competition for top roles.
This piece was first published at The Australian. It is republished here with permission.