Career Advice, Watercooler

Break Your Own Glass Ceiling

Women have come a long way in the workforce, obviously. But many of us are still passed over for the top jobs. Case in point: Only 15 women CEOs currently lead Fortune 500 companies. And while gender bias may still play a role in the situation, Lois Frankel, Ph.D., says that much of the blame can be placed on women themselves and the career-stunting behaviors they unknowingly exhibit at work. Frankel’s new book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, released this month from Business Plus Press, offers 101 unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers.

According to Frankel, the problem for many women is that the “girlish” behaviors they are taught as children, such as focusing on being attractive, warm and supportive, may contribute to early career success but usually won’t help them reach higher goals and aspirations. Acting differently can be scary: “When others question our femininity or the validity of our feelings, our typical response is to back off rather than make waves,” Frankel writes. “We question the veracity of our experience. If it’s fight or flight, we often flee. And every time we do, we take a step back into girlhood and question our self-worth. In this way we collude with others to remain girls rather than become women. Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”

While there’s nothing wrong with stereotypically female characteristics, overdoing it can be detrimental. “Women bring a unique set of behaviors to the workplace that are needed, especially in today’s climate,” Frankel writes. “Our tendencies to collaborate rather than compete, listen more than talk, and use relationships rather than muscle to influence are the very same behaviors I coach men to acquire. But it’s all about balance. Just as men can overuse their stereotypical characteristics, so can women.”

Here are a few of the stereotypically female characteristics that Frankel says can limit a woman’s career growth.

  • Giving away your ideas. As a freelance journalist whose income is based on how many ideas I can sell (and then turn into articles, books, etc.), I know the value of ideas. Share your ideas at the right time, to the right person, and speak loud enough and clear enough. And don’t let someone else take credit for your idea.
  • Using preambles … and explaining. Many women qualify everything they say in a meeting with a lengthy preamble, “as a means of softening their messages for fear of being perceived as too direct or aggressive,” Frankel writes, or follow their statements with lengthy explanations. But these preambles and explanations are often pointless and detract from the point. “Let your mantra be: Short sounds confident,” Frankel writes.  
  • Waiting to be given what you want. Many women would rather take a chance that their supervisors can read their minds than to ask for what they want or need. Whether it’s a more flexible schedule, a pay raise, or a chance at a new project, why not ask? In a one-on-one meeting with my boss, three months into my first job as an editorial assistant at a small magazine, my boss praise my editing skills. Quiet and scared, I said, “Thank you, but I really want to write.” He seemed surprised but he gave me a chance, and within a few months, I was regularly writing features for the magazine in addition to my editing tasks. If I’d never asked, I may have never been given the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do.

What “girlish” behaviors might be holding you (or other women) back? Any tips for avoiding these behaviors without abandoning the female tendencies that make us good employees and collaborators?