How to thrive at work (and life) as a woman

21 Mar

Last week we celebrated International Women’s Day which brought up many conversations, some about progress and some about the inequalities that still exist today despite said progress.  We talked a lot about why there are still so few women in leadership and how we change this.

I’ve worked in leadership and personal development for many years so much of this is close to my heart and being a woman, something I’m passionate about.  Women have faced many challenges over the years and even now many of us seem to do it tough, partly due to the world we’ve grown up in but I believe also partly to do with our own thoughts, views and expectations.

I’ve watched women both in and out of work try to juggle many balls.  To be the career woman and compete with men at the top table.  To come home and be a good mother, make delicious meals for the family, pick the kids up from school, arrange the family social engagements, keep the house clean, ring the parents and try to ensure we don’t forget anyone’s birthday!  All whilst ensuring we wear the latest clothes, go to the gym, make the 6 am yoga class, keep our weight down and always look our best – no wonder it seems so hard.

I’ve never felt as a woman that I’m less capable than a man or less worthy of being at the top table and I grew up with no women role models in business.  I worked mostly in manufacturing and in my first senior HR job when promoted at 25 in a timber factory I was the youngest manager and the only woman.  I knew most of the guys doubted my abilities on both counts but it drove me to prove them wrong and deliver on what I knew I was capable of, even though I knew I was, at times, out of my depth.

What followed was the climbing of the ladder progressing in my career but also the development of me as a person which ultimately ended in me realising I was on the wrong ladder!  At the peak of my career I decided to give it all up to follow my passions as a writer.  At the same time I went through my own journey of self-discovery, finding my authenticity, comfort in my own skin and a self-awareness of who I was and what I wanted.  Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.

I’ve been lucky to work with some great male colleagues and also some not so great over the years and whilst I believe they play a huge role in aiding our success (the majority of leadership roles, and therefore positions of influence, are occupied by men) I also think the buck stops with us.  If we don’t value ourselves or think we’re capable of the job or think we deserve a seat at the table how do we expect anyone else to?  As woman we are responsible for setting the boundaries and the expectations on what is acceptable and expected.  If we go into a room feeling second class or like we don’t belong we put ourselves at a disadvantage and create conditions for this to be accepted by others.

Last week I heard many women talking about leadership using the comparison to their male counterparts.  ‘A man would do this’.  So What?  Why do we compare to them?  Being successful is not about being more like men but being more like ourselves.  Sometimes I feel like as women we’re waiting for someone to sign a permission slip for us to succeed, for it to be ok to achieve our potential and be as great as we truly are.  Well in the spirit of my comment above – men don’t ask for permission, why do we?  Why as women do we have a need to feel validated outside of ourselves, to be invited to speak?  A lot of this comes down to self-confidence and belief.  How can we expect others to believe we’re capable if we don’t?

This is easier said than done.  For many years I’d offset my Imposter Syndrome with the ‘fake it till you make it’ technique.  I’d tell myself over and over in my head that I was confident and capable until that message sank in.  I’d remind myself of all the feedback and praise I got and use the words of others to help my own brain understand what I was really capable of despite my own doubts.  I’d keep a list of my achievements in the back of my notebook and add to it each day.  Positive thinking and a positive mind set are key, it’s having a ‘can do’ attitude.  The belief that anything is possible and any set back can be overcome.  As Henry Ford said ‘whether you think you can or you can’t you’re probably right’.

It seems that men find this easier than women.  In my years in HR and Leadership countless times I’ve come across men who consider themselves capable of jobs that outweigh their skill set and women who think the opposite, the jobs they are more than qualified for they still see as a stretch.  Add to that the tendency then for men to ask for more than they are worth and women settle for less – this is surely a contributing factor to the gender pay gap and one we contribute to ourselves because if we ask for less we’ll be paid less.

There are other differences I’ve noticed during my years in the corporate world.  Women seem to want to devote a lot more time and effort into making their work perfect whilst men seem to do ‘just enough’.  Sometimes this is driven by our perfection and the need to do the best job possible but sometimes driven by an unconscious belief that we have to work twice as hard as men to prove our worth.  Many of these women I witness outperform their male counterparts and it’s less about the hours they work and more about the abilities they have.  Sometimes as women we struggle with presence.  Not speaking up, worried an idea is not yet perfect enough to be shared, or that we may not have the authority to challenge the discussion taking place.  I’ve seen women shy away from taking credit for their own good ideas or even letting their male counterparts take that credit on their behalf.  But how do we get noticed beyond letting our work do the talking?

I don’t believe we need to be more aggressive or assertive to break through the glass ceiling.  It’s about being savvy, letting our work do the talking and taking deserved credit for that work.  Others need to know who you are and see what you’re capable of, this implies having a presence, being noticed and taking the opportunities as they arise.  But in a bid to be noticed it can be too easy to try too hard, to be louder, more aggressive, more noticeable.  It’s tempting to fall into the trap of, if you can’t beat them, join them.  But success in leadership is not about being more like a man but being more like yourself and confident that this is enough.  I’ve found if we build good relationships when we talk people listen and it’s less about who is male or female around the table and more about who adds value and contributes.

As women, we have so many natural abilities that make us better leaders.  Emotional Intelligence is now seen to be one of the must have skills for successful leadership and it’s often something women possess naturally.  It helps us with empathy, resilience, people skills, relationship management and communication.  It’s our motivation in the face of set backs, the ability to understand and manage ourselves and others, it’s the awareness we have of both ourselves and others, it’s our passion and it’s our ability to make good decisions.

Our current position may be impacted by history, by the cultures we grew up in and what we’re lead to believe but it’s also within our control and down to us.  Our mind set, our attitude and ultimately our self-belief.  The buck stops with us if we want to change this.  Yes we may have had it hard in the past but there’s never been a better opportunity, it’s never impossible and it shouldn’t be as hard as we make it.  The only person stopping us is ourselves.

By being yourself and letting your results do the talking you’re already proving your worth.  We don’t need to act more like men to get noticed to earn our seat at the table.  We don’t need to be more assertive or change ourselves in some way to be seen as a leader, we just have to be good at what we do, embrace our authenticity and believe in our own worth.

Top tips for women at work:

  • Know yourself
  • Empower yourself – own this
  • Know what you want
  • Align to your values
  • Have an open mind
  • Learn and reflect
  • Take credit for your work
  • Take your opportunities – platform to be noticed, networks for those who’ll support you
  • Be resilient
  • Take time out for yourself
  • Trust your intuition
  • Find a mentor
  • Leverage your strengths
  • Set goals
  • Dream big – don’t limit yourself
  • Always do your best work and let that do the talking
  • Face your fears, get out of your comfort zone and believe in yourself