Comeback after kids: how to survive a career break

by Rebecca Dalton

Heat, hay fever, and wan-faced teenagers: it must be exam time. If you have a child going through this particular torture, you’ll appreciate the fine line between stressing the vital importance of it all, and not completely stressing everyone out about the vital importance of it all.

We can probably all remember writing as if our lives depended on it in that sweaty school hall. And yet, a few years – perhaps two jobs - down the line, those qualifications start to lose their significance, start to gain a little dust down at the bottom of our c.v.

But what if everything on your c.v. looks a little dusty, feels like ancient history? It’s problem for anyone who’s taken an extended career break, and that, disproportionately, means women.

Julie Coates, Head of Human Resources at Lockton Companies LPP, says life experience shouldn’t be underestimated. Her key tips for returners putting together a c.v. are: try to show you’ve kept up to date with the industry – read the trade publications for instance; highlight any new qualifications and any voluntary roles; and absolutely don’t be apologetic about taking a career break. She adds: “You gain skills and knowledge from every experience you have in life but it’s about working out how they are relevant to the working environment.”

One mother of two, who returned to her career in procurement after nearly a decade away, applied for nearly 30 jobs before securing an interview. Two years on, she’s been promoted twice in her new job. She says: “My advice would be to keep a spreadsheet of all jobs you apply for: company name, role etc. and a folder for the job specs. So that in a month’s time when they offer you an interview you have some chance of remembering what you applied for!”

She admits it’s easy to lose confidence: “A number of things go through your head: am I too old, how junior will I have to go to get a foothold, how much have things moved on. And how do I make those years ‘disappear’ or appear useful.

“You start to feel absolutely useless: the longer you are out of work, the further away any likelihood of returning appears.”

A senior marketing executive, who sees dozens of c.v.’s, says: “A career break doesn’t put me off. If they’ve done it once, they can do it again. However, I do normally go straight to look at the references. If they’ve managed to keep in touch with at least a couple of people in the industry – and hopefully senior people, that’s a huge advantage.”

He added: “Selfishly, if someone’s children are older, they’re less likely to want time off for every cough and sniffle.”

Voice At The Table’s CEO Rina Goldenberg Lynch says: “That might not be the most right-on way of putting it, but businesses certainly stand to gain much more than they realise from returners. Our role at Voice At The Table is to help companies adapt their practices to get the most out of this hidden workforce.”

The new regulations on gender pay gap reporting are forcing this issue up the agenda. However, the problem is not that organisations have been deliberately trying to make things difficult. It’s more that a lack of imagination, combined with long held perceptions about people who’ve been “out of it” for too long, are creating obstacles. Times are changing – but it’s taking time.

What’s a network to do? Do’s and Don’ts for running a successful in-house network

The rise of the in-house women’s network over the last few years has been remarkable.  I watched them grow from informal gathering of a few colleagues to being influential partners to the organisation.  Having chaired a number of networks myself, I understand their challenges and often work with network committees to help them identify their purpose and set strategy for maximum impact.

Here are a few tips of my own to the running of a successful, influential network:

DO have a strategy

It is difficult to have impact without a clear strategy.  A clear strategy makes it easier to ask for resources and to attract volunteers.  Network leaders should identify the network’s purpose, set goals and determine how they are going to achieve them.

DO represent the grassroots

One of the great benefits of a women’s network is that it is squarely rooted in the junior and mid-levels of seniority within the organisations and understands the challenges of women at those levels (e.g. need for flexible working, appreciation and promotion transparency).  Networks listen and represent those challenges up the chain, providing an essential and often-lacking communications channel between management and team members.

DO provide safe spaces

Networks are great at providing a forum for discussion of stimulating topics that may not get aired, such as what it takes for women to thrive or how to treat others so they feel valued.  One crucial function, therefore, is to hold that space for members so that they can discuss challenges, apprehensions and experiences in a judgment-free, supportive environment.  Whether it’s by hosting lunch-and-learns on specific topics or running facilitated discussions, a safe space in which members can debate and think is worth its weight in gold.

DON’T take on too much

I frequently see networks attempting to deliver the work of another work function, like running soft skills training or helping deliver CSR strategy. While it’s great to cooperate, networks should set boundries between their responsibilities and the responsibilities of support functions.  Networks are run by volunteers whose precious time should be spent delivering on their clearly defined and cautiously guarded remit.

DON’T exclude people

Some women’s networks resist opening their membership to men.  In my experience, this is a mistake.  Men who join gender networks identify with their agenda and want to help.  It would be foolish to turn down members who are supportive and can help raise awareness.  This is also an opportunity to model the behaviours you’d like to see, by treating others the way you’d like to be treated: welcomed, valued and included.

DON’T be afraid to ask for a healthy budget

As women, we tend to shy away from asking for a robust network budget, feeling undeserving or unimportant.  As a result, we often pre-empt the outcome of a budget conversation with our own misgivings.  Yet having a budget that allows networks to achieve their stated goals is crucial and empowering.  Do what it takes by enlisting senior allies, collaborating with other networks and clearly identifying the commercial benefits of the network’s existence.  Above all, don't underestimate the value of your contribution to the organisation.

If you would like me to help your company’s network, please get in touch.

The Gender Pay Gap

Guest blog by Jacqueline Heron

In the beginning

With one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe, in 2015 David Cameron set out to end this ‘scandal’ within a generation. In 2018, Theresa May said she wanted her government to end the ‘burning injustice’ of the gender pay gap.  As a first step, organisations with over 250 employees  published the gap in hourly pay between men and women on April 4th 2018. This will be an annual exercise.

It’s somewhat of a blunt instrument.  A company might have a gender pay gap if a majority of men are in top jobs, despite paying male and female employees the same amount for similar roles  - and there’s no adjustment for employees’ different roles, so CEOs are compared directly with PAs. Gaps can be skewed by a few high-earners.

However, everybody’s talking about it - from Boardroom to shareholders to customers and employees.  And what’s clear is that most of the UK's medium and large organisations pay women significantly less than men, and that there aren’t enough women in top paying jobs.  No surprises there but it’s useful to have it in black and white. And what we’re seeing so far, is that many organisations are recognising that this isn’t good enough and are publishing the actions they plan to take start closing those gaps. Since this will be an annual exercise, we can monitor their progress.  It’s a case of ‘what gets measured, gets done.’

The results are in

Of the 10,019 firms that submitted gender pay gap data  only 2,255 (22.5%) have a median women's hourly wage that is equal to or higher than that of men. The remaining 7,764 (77.5%) pay women less than men. Across the UK, men earned 18.4% more than women in April 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It impacts all industries: The construction sector reported the worst average median gender pay gap at 25%. This was followed by finance and insurance at 22% and somewhat surprisingly, education, with a pay gap of 20%.

And the gender pay gap becomes the gender pension gap

Older women are disproportionately affected, with those in their 50s experiencing an 18.6% pay gap, compared to 5.5% for women in their 20s.  This worsens as they reach pension age.  HMRC data has shown the gap between the amount of pension income received by men and women is widening. Women received just 37% of the total amount of income drawn from pensions last year, down from 39% in 2012-2013. Last year, women received £46.5bn in pension income, while men received £79.3bn.

The reasons are complex

Most industries fail to promote enough women. This is a global issue. McKinsey’s found that, whereas half of graduate entrants in American law firms were women, only one in five equity partners was. A study by SKEMA Business School in France found that, although women made up 52% of banking employees globally, only 38% of middle managers and 16% of executive committee members were women.

Men’s and women’s salaries start diverging from the childbearing years. Women pay a significant financial penalty for being parents. They may also play a non-parental care role – unpaid work looking after relatives, partners or friends with illnesses or disabilities. As a result, they are more likely to work in part time roles which are often lower paid with fewer opportunities for progression.

Structural discrimination plays a part. One in nine new mothers is dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly that she leaves, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Subtler biases favour men in hiring, performance reviews, pay and promotions. A study in 2016 by Warwick University found that, among workers who asked for pay rises, men were 25% more likely than women to be successful.

As does unconscious bias. Take academia, where studies have shown that unconscious bias comes into play when science faculty members receive applications from students with feminine names, judging women to be less competent and less hireable than a man with an identical CV.

 Working towards a solution

Companies should beware of kneejerk reactions and take time to diagnose what lies behind the numbers. They need to look at how they hire, how they pay, how they promote and ask the question: are our practices fair?

The case for diversity demonstrates a positive impact on the bottom line.  McKinsey found that companies in the bottom quartile for gender and ethnic diversity in leadership were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability. An analysis of the data shows that in companies where women are fairly or slightly overrepresented in the top pay band, the median gender pay gap shrinks relative to the composition of the company as a whole.

Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, Director of the Cambridge Judge Business School Women’s Leadership Centre says: "Whether it is because women are getting paid less for the work that they are doing or because women are not getting equal opportunities to get into positions where the pay level is high – it doesn’t matter what the reason is, but there is a gender pay gap and in most cases it’s an issue of equality and justice. In both cases it’s an issue of an imbalance of some sort."

We should be using the gender pay gap as a means to an end, focusing not solely on the outcome, but rather the lack of equality in opportunities for women.

Your company’s Inclusion Score: Comparing Lyndales’ culture to our Inclusion Criteria

At Voice At The Table, we’ve been working on developing inclusive cultures for some time now: identifying the starting point, describing the look and feel of an inclusive workplace, and supporting our clients in designing and developing their own inclusive and diverse teams.

In this new series of posts, we will be scoring organisations on their attitude to diversity and inclusion.  Assessing companies’ culture relative to our own Inclusion Criteria, we give them an Inclusion Mark, gauging where they are on the journey towards a strong inclusive culture that nurtures diverse thinking and garners its many benefits.

Our 7 Inclusion Marks describe the various stages of that journey:

  • Don’t Get It! – organisation doesn’t see any benefit from Diversity & Inclusion
  • Window Dressing – organisation understands the need to be seen as valuing D&I
  • Let’s Fix It! – organisation sees lack of diversity as a problem.
  • Seeing The Opportunity – organisation understands the strategic importance of D&I
  • Building the Foundation – organisation is actively building a foundation for D&I
  • Growing & Nurturing – organisation is starting to reap the benefits of D&I and continues to embed them into the business
  • Immersed & Fully Benefiting - organisation has established a successful inclusive culture that benefits from the full value of its diverse workforce

This time we look at Lyndales Solicitors, a boutique firm.  With a practice that ranges from civil litigation to family law to commercial property to private clients to company commercial, this firm punches above its weight.

But how well does it fair in diversity and inclusion terms?

The first thing one notices when looking at the team of solicitors at Lyndales is how diverse it is.  The Lyndales team is small and perfectly formed, gender-balanced at 50-50, with representatives of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Granted, at partner level the firm is striving towards diversity (with only 1 of 5 partners being a woman), but if we judge by appearance only, it would seem the firm is keen to address this nuance. And, while the team of lawyers is relatively small, it also spans a number of generations (the youngest member being in their 20s whereas the oldest in his late 60s), adding to the mix of views, experiences and opinions of the group.

Having interviewed one of their senior solicitors, Noga Kogman, I quickly reached the conclusion that the firm is aware of the benefits of diversity and inclusion as a business proposition and is shaping its work environment to attract and retain a diverse mix of people.

How do Lyndales measure up to our Inclusion Criteria?

  1. Working Culture

Noga moved to London from Israel and, as a mother of a young child who is ambitious and career-minded, Noga wanted to work at a firm that can offer her an intellectually-stimulating role and also let her be a mother on her own terms.  Lyndales offered her just that.  Working a full 5-day week, Noga usually works from home once a week and on another day leaves the office at 4pm to pick up her son.  Noga is also free to make other arrangements needed to accommodate her role as a parent and a commercial transaction lawyer.   Noga doesn’t have to hide that she’s leaving to look after her son and doesn’t feel judged because of it.  She feels fully respected and valued by all her colleagues and is therefore able to be fully herself in the office.

In fact, one third of the lawyers work from home one day a week (including a male member of the team) and one of the solicitors also works a shorter week in addition to one of her work days being from home.  In other words, the firm accommodates agile working for everyone who wants it.

Noga describes the culture at Lyndales as healthy and open-minded.   The partners trust their colleagues to be professionals and don’t second-guess how or where they get the job done.  Performance is measured by output and everyone’s targets and progress is openly discussed at team meetings.  People are engaged, committed and happy to be at work – a testament to a tolerant, respecting culture.

Noga feels that there is a genuine interest in diversity at the firm, beyond it being a requirement imposed by the SRA.  The firm has an open-minded approach to candidates and views CVs without regard to a person’s background, name or gender.  The firm is genuinely interested in attracting people from various backgrounds (reflected in the composition of the legal team).

Interviews are conducted by a wide group of people to ensure a lack of bias and a good personality fit with all.  It is therefore not uncommon that lateral hires come from bigger City firms to find a home that respects their varied backgrounds and values their technical skills.

When asked about the firm’s leadership style, Noga explained that the partners are inclusive and considerate.  Noga and her colleagues are routinely engaged in most decisions that affect them directly, from office moves to new hires.  Partners consult with their colleagues regularly and listen and act on feedback.   Partners can be described as balanced in their attitude, open-minded and professional and the tone for the firm’s culture and business is set by its managing partner.

  1. Retention, Development and Promotion

In terms of retention, Lyndales story is strong.  Most lawyers stay for a long time, with hardly any turn-over of legal staff.  The two longest serving partners are the founders, each with 40 years under his respective belt. The firm recently expanded with 3 lateral hires and a newly-qualified solicitor who trained with the firm.  The female partner at the firm returned from maternity leave to work flexibly, working 4 days per week, one of which is from home.

Lyndales do not offer special arrangements for parenting, such as maternity coaching or specific policies around maternity, although one might argue that, with an open attitude towards accommodating most flexible working requests and a friendly open-minded environment, such support services aren’t strictly necessary.  The firm’s maternity leave is comparable to that of any bigger firm and it encourages fathers to play their role in child care.

The firm encourages lawyers to maintain their personal development, supporting their individual training initiatives.  As a small firm, it doesn’t have a central training department yet encourages each person to think about their own growth.

As with most other law firms, the path to equity partnership isn’t entirely transparent, but according to Noga, the partners are aware of this and are keen to address it.  The managing partner has taken it upon himself to ensure the partnership track is transparent and is actively working on making it so.

  1. Diversity as a Market Force

The drive for a diverse and inclusive culture in this case is not coming from the outside world.  While it would be fair to say that clients do think about diversity and prefer to work with diverse and able teams (and, as a result, benefit from their more creative and insightful solutions), in the case of Lyndales the firm culture is naturally inclusive and is designed to give lawyers independence, responsibility and accountability.  As a result, the firm benefits from the diversity of its people by allowing them to bring their whole selves to work and tap into their diverse backgrounds and experiences.

  1. External Evidence of Commitment

In terms of the gender pay gap, the firm is too small to have to report on it, but internal sources suggest that there is a gender pay gap at the firm (currently not quantified), as a function of the fact that, at partnership level, there are more men than women.

The firm is not a signatory to any diversity charters (including the legal diversity and inclusion charter) and is too small to need Employee Resource Groups or networks.

This short overview of the firm’s culture against our criteria leads us to award Lyndales Solicitors an Inclusion Mark of Growing and Nurturing their existing inclusive and diverse culture.  This puts the firm in a prominent position in the legal industry, proving that D&I is not something that pertains only to bigger organisations.  As a diverse and inclusive culture is something that can be nurtured from the outset, the size of the business doesn’t matter. Small businesses like Lyndales stand to benefit from an inclusive environment as much as (if not more than) any bigger organisation that puts D&I front and centre to its growth strategy. Congratulations, Lyndales! You’ve accomplished a remarkable feat without trying too hard!

If you would like us to review your organisation’s diversity and Inclusion Mark, please email info@voiceatthetable.com

 

Do you feel out of it? by Joanna Gaudoin*

How are you feeling about your career? Do you feel you are progressing as you want to? Importantly, do you enjoy the environment you work in?

There can be lots of things that prevent the answers to those questions being positive but one core reason is rife in workplaces - office politics.

The simple fact is where you have people with different values, goals and assumptions, office politics will be there, so that will be everywhere then!

Research shows that at its worst negative office politics is one of the biggest causes of stress at work. As well as a negative impact on individuals, it can be highly detrimental to organisational performance. A lack of trust, high levels of conflict and lack of faith in top management lead to poor and inefficient decision making and ultimately lack of action and productivity. If you experience all of these in your organisation then the political climate is likely to be extremely negative. Some of these will be present in most organisations.

Another key indicator that office politics is in a negative state is rumblings of people "just wanting to do the day job and not wanting to get involved in other stuff". This state of mind frequently leads to people not progressing in their careers and in many cases the loss of valuable talent. Research also shows that women typically have less time for negative politics and are more likely to try to avoid it, which can affect career progression

However, politics can be positive, it can be turned around. Once people understand what politics is, why it happens, their current behavioural profile and the effect their own behaviour can have on the overall environment, progress can be made.

As a licensed practitioner with the Academy for Political Intelligence (http://www.tafpi.com/), and an associate of Voice at the Table, I run diagnostic profiling with groups and individuals, so they understand their current behaviour and understand that of others. This is looked at in the context of the organisation, it is not simply a personality test. This is supported by looking at the behaviours that need to be focused on going forwards at an individual, tailored level to influence the overall political environment and the progression of individuals in their careers.

Imagine the impact better decision making, increased action taking and a more trusting office environment could have on the performance of your organisation and the career progression of those in it?

What could it mean to your organisation to have improved morale, increased knowledge sharing and productivity, together with increased retention rates?

As an individual, imagine if you knew the key things to focus on to progress in your career and manage the challenges of how you work with others with less stress?

Testimonial from one of my recent one-day workshops on positive organisational politics:

“We were hoping for an off-site event at which our Business Services team leaders would pick up useful skills and insights to help them deal with the increasing pressures of a demanding ‘high touch’ professional services environment.  Joanna exceeded our expectations.  She won the confidence of the group from the outset and proved an open, insightful and action-oriented facilitator.  Our group came away energised by Joanna’s skills exercises and universally positive about Joanna’s impact on the group.”

Director of Business Services, Leading Global Law Firm

*Joanna is Founder of Inside Out Image - Personal Impact & Influence Consultancy

If you'd like to understand more about how this works at an individual or group level, contact us to find out more. This is not something that is taught in business schools and very rarely on training courses. Typically, progress can be made in this area in a day with a group or 4 short sessions with an individual.

It’s Not Fair! Guest Blog by Joella Bruckshaw*

It's not fair that women get paid less, are passed over for promotion, penalised for having children and criticised for being assertive. Our unhappiness with this state of affairs has been growing since well before women got the vote, 2 centuries ago. Now we are much more in touch with the social and economic cost of being a woman in our society. What we are less aware of is the cost to men.

Men suffer too. They are trained to hold back their emotions, to go out and be tough and never to show ambivalence or uncertainty. It isn't that they don't experience emotions it's more that they have less scope for their expression thereby becoming more comfortable with them. As a result, when they are faced with human tragedy, like a divorce or the death of a loved one, they are more at risk of depression, over using drugs, especially alcohol, of being violent or throwing themselves into work as a way of numbing the pain. Or dare, I say it, becoming sexually dangerous!

In the work place, everything to do with emotions is weak and is attributed to women who, by association, must also be weak! Because they have little experience of talking about their emotions, men may not develop the perceptiveness that comes from being familiar with a wider range of emotional response. The lack of emotional intelligence can play badly when faced with the need to influence people around them, to get buy-in and be downright disastrous if they are tasked with leading a senior management team.

This state of affairs makes it difficult to ask for help. Soldiers are trained to withstand all kinds of trauma, physical and mental and if they subsequently suffer from PTSD, it is very hard for them to seek help. If you aren’t supposed to have a problem why would you expose yourself to ridicule, as much from yourself as anyone else? Consequently, they may never know the regenerative benefits of falling apart and rethinking your game plan, a gift that is given to women every month!

Many men don’t realise how important they are to their children because traditionally, leaving the childcare to the woman has been a cultural norm. Consequently, they tend to lose out on the intimate parenting moments women experience that build a life time bond and embed valuable learning about how to be with others. Although this is changing, it will be hard for the younger generation to deliver on this change of heart as they are less likely to have had a good role model in their own father.

Both sexes have challenges brought about by cultural expectations that undermine their sense of themselves and their freedom to contribute. That’s why I focus on the brand rather than the sex of a client. Understanding and taking ownership of who you are and being able to articulate the value it provides, creates a platform for working together and having the conversations that get things done to achieve the best results.  After all, isn’t that why we are in business?

 

* Joella Bruckshaw helps senior leaders make successful transitions drawing on the energy of their personal brand. With a thorough grounding in applied psychology, Joella has worked 1-1 and with groups to generate motivation and behaviour change across all sectors. Her book How to do it by women who’ve done it focuses on how women get to the top. She is a popular speaker and facilitator and since 2003 has worked full time as an executive coach in the corporate sector. www.joellabruckshaw.com

Leveraging Diversity as a Business Opportunity: Capturing the Creativity of Each Individual Team Member.

eggs-in-blue-bowl-1623490The case for the benefits of a diverse corporate culture is well made.  Report after report, measure after measure prove to us that (1) the financial benefits of balanced company boards cannot be underestimated (2) the case for what is often referred to as ‘feminine leadership’ is becoming incontestable, and (3) talk of business survival in the future appears to hinge on that business’ ability to adapt to a more flexible, more collaborative style of management. [1]

So if your company is considering diversity for the sake of diversity, for the sake of appearances or for the sake of complying with client demands, it is missing a trick!  Embracing diversity – the traits which we refer to as 21st century leadership – must become central to any leadership strategy of a company that wants to continue to thrive in the future.

But where do you start?

In my last post, I talked about mirroring the client’s team composition in your own.  This post is about getting the most out of each individual team member, thereby making the most out of the diverse pool of talent that populates our teams.

Stephen Covey famously said "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities."   This makes sense.  After all, what can we learn from someone who has the same views, upbringing and experiences as we do?  Not much!  It may feel more comfortable to have a colleague confirm our decisions, but it doesn’t make that decision better.   Well-considered decisions are those that have been scrutinised from as many perspectives as possible.  Understanding what the repercussions of our decisions might have (like Brexit) requires scrutiny from every angle.   And that can only be achieved if we allow each person to contribute fully and authentically.

Team leaders who understand the strength of diversity recruit diverse teams; teams that are represented by different experiences, personalities, preferences and traits.  It’s only then that a team leader may be able to hope to deliver the most effective and impactful team.

But how does one bring out the contribution of each team member?  After all, a diverse team also means that each person will have a different preference in the way they contribute, participate and respond!  And in a typical meeting, 70% of contribution at a meeting comes from 30% of contributors.

There are a number of strategies that team leaders can employ to change this dynamic. As a starting point, the team leader’s role should be to set up the meeting in advance in such a way that everyone knows they are expected and welcome to contribute.  Meetings should not be about sharing unilateral information; any information that needs to be shared with the team by their leader should be sent in advance or shared in a way that does not require face-to-face interaction.  Meetings are the team leader's opportunity to benefit from the team’s thinking and should therefore be set up to motivate team members to deliver their best thinking.

One way to do so is to understand in advance what contribution you want from the team and set the agenda for the meeting with this in mind.  What is it that you want the team to accomplish?  Is it to come up with a new strategy?  To discuss the pipeline? To consider the financial results of the team to-date?  Whatever the aim, when setting the agenda, a team leader should ensure it is clear from the agenda what that objective of the meeting is.

We also know that our brains think best in the presence of a question.  Therefore, the best way to set up an agenda is to turn each agenda item into a question.  Item One, for example, might be: “Minutes from last meeting:  How can we ensure that all residual actions are completed?”. Item Two might be: “Strategic Direction:  How does your role fit into the bigger strategy of the company?”.  And so on.

This way, each participant understands that not only are they requested to attend but they are also expected to answer the questions on the agenda in the form of a discussion.

Once you have introduced the agenda in the form of questions, the meeting itself will run very differently, with most members standing ready to contribute.  There are a number of other meeting applications that will ensure the questions are then fully addressed and discussed by each member, which I will share with you in a future publication.  If you can’t wait, do get in touch with us so that we can help you transform your meetings into effective business solutions.

How Meritocracy Failed Me and How You Can Outsmart it!

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When I first embarked on my career path, I whole-heartedly believed that the only obstacles in my path would be my own capabilities and efforts.   And for a while, that is how it was.  My career progressed steadily and predictably, navigated solely by my own will.  Until about 15, 16 years into it, when I reached and got stuck in what is endearingly referred to as the ‘marzipan layer’ – that sweet, sticky time in your career life when you feel you’ve achieved a respectable level of seniority and find it quite difficult to progress beyond it.

Having worked in more or less the same environment my entire life, all of a sudden, I realised that I didn’t appear to fit the mould of those in the layers above me and that they – the most senior management team - didn’t fully appreciate all I had to contribute.  And then I noticed one other phenomenon:  other senior women  have started leaving the organisation.

In an attempt to understand what was going on, I embarked on self-awareness and self-development training, naturally assuming there was something wrong with me.  I read, researched, and spoke to other women.  Once I was satisfied that my experience was not unique to me, I came to the conclusion that I was in a meritocratic system that was biased against me, a senior woman.

In my research, I learned that, when selecting between men and women with the same qualifications, companies that adhere to a ‘meritocracy’ were more likely to select and progress men over women.

I was startled.   My entire career was based on the premise that I could achieve as much as wanted.   In fact, the whole point of merit-based systems is that they are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women.

That’s where I was wrong.

The premise of a meritocracy is that men and women share the same attributes, and that assessment criteria apply equally to men and women.

But what about that unconscious gender bias?

Consider the following research published by the Harvard Business Review in 2010* regarding gender bias in the workplace:

  • Married women with children are perceived as less flexible, less available, less committed and, hence, not leadership material.
  • Senior unmarried women are seen as “different” or even threatening and are, therefore, less likely to be supported.
  • Pregnant women are perceived as less authoritative and more irrational, irrespective of how they actually perform.

These biases skew the perception of competence towards those candidates who display the same attributes as those in similar positions, and 'merit' goes out the window.

A useful illustration of this is the story of the New York Philharmonic.  This orchestra (not unlike many others) was plagued by a low representation of female musicians within its orchestra body.  The management of the Philharmonic believed that the reason for this was the fact that male musicians preferred the style of music that the NY Philharmonic was known for.  Nonetheless, the orchestra decided to to put its theory to the test by holding blind auditions, i.e. auditions where the gender of the musician was unknown to the recruitment panel.

Will it surprise you to hear that, based on blind auditions alone, the number of female new hires in the orchestra body went from 10% to 45%?

The blind auditions showed that, in fact, it was a hidden bias towards male musicians that influenced the auditions.  Once the bias was “turned off” by not seeing the musician, gender was discounted as part of the equation and women joined the ranks with just as much “merit” as men.

What is the point I’m trying to make? Simply: women cannot rely on ‘merit’ to do them justice when it comes to career progression.

So what should we do?   I'm a big advocate of embracing the differences that we bring to our organisations and marketing ourselves on the basis of those differences.

Easier said than done, you say?  Consider the following:

Recent studies show that employees and stakeholders across the world prefer leaders that showcase the following traits: trustworthy, adaptable, supportive, selfless, empathetic, conscientious, intuitive, and social.

Research also shows that:

'the historical "great leader" that is macho, infallible, omnipotent, know-­it­all leader has been replaced by a new type of leader, a servant leader who exists to make others a lot better.'**

So, ask yourself:  what can I do for my organisation that is not already being done at the top?  Do I have any of those other people skills that the current management team doesn't?

And if the answer to this question includes a number of feminine attributes that aren’t represented in the existing decision making bodies, then by all means DO use them as the added qualifier for that next career step!

So to summarise:

DON’T

  • rely on merit;
  • compare yourself to those currently ahead of you; and
  • hide the experiences/qualities that make you different from them.

DO

  • point out the differences that you will bring to decision making bodies;
  • talk about how leadership is changing and how you have the necessary skills for future challenges and opportunities; and
  • promote yourself on potential to take your company into the future.

 

* What holds back women? by Charu Sabnavis, LiveMINT, 30 August 2015

** Why Organizations Thrive With Feminine Leadership, Huff Post The Third Metric, 17 September 2015