A friend of mine made a sharp observation of her tween daughter playing netball last Saturday. Once she was off the sideline and into the game, her natural tendency to ‘please’ disappeared and she attacked unapologetically, with the gutsy aggression necessary to help her team win.
My friend noted how great it was to see young girls who in many ways are still conditioned to wait sweetly for opportunity to come to them, also learning to get on the front foot and fight. When the whistle blows, they’re being trained to take risks like the boys do, including risking being seen as highly competitive. Such a simple moment that’s symbolic about what is missing for teams of women across Australia.
Risk is the real issue
The standard narrative for women wanting to level up to the shiny marble floors of the corporate arena is to find a mentor and "lean in". These messages are certainly relevant but disregard a key issue holding women back - in my practice training around 500 corporate women per year to communicate with authority, I don’t see enough acknowledgement being given to our natural and inherent discomfort with risk.
Women seem to love consensus, we’re natural connectors and we often seek signs of approval before we step out in front of the group. Our social feeds are loaded with motivational language, but what’s missing is encouragement to take more risks so we’re comfortable with routinely testing ourselves and even daring to fail after having a go. The science says it all: thinking about confidence doesn’t give us more confidence. Our neural pathways respond to action, so we need to take more risks, more often. We also need to recognise how to build resilience so when we do miss the target, instead of giving ourselves analysis-paralysis, we’re on auto-pilot to bounce back and have another go. Just like the best sportsmen and women do at the start of every quarter.
Employers are looking
I truly believe that this is the golden age for claiming authority over our career. Many employers are pro-actively looking for ways to promote women. The statistics are certainly yet to catch up, but there’s genuine movement underway which is starting to be reflected in the data. Some ASX businesses are attaching financial incentives to roles that meet gender targets. Last week I met with a major Australian employer overhauling its maternity leave policy, so when women return to work they’re met with genuine support ensuring their career trajectory can continue without interruption.
As a provider in the space, I‘m seeing far more businesses invest in leadership programs trying to push women into taking a chance on extending themselves at work. There is a growing realisation by employers and advocates of workplace equality that the historical tendency for women to wait to be "noticed" has not served employees or employers.
Take a few notes from the blokes
Breakthrough moments in my career have happened when I’ve observed the direct cut-through achieved by high ranking executive men around me. Even in a simple email or meeting, they’ve effortlessly demonstrated the defining characteristic of the corporate man – confidence in their capacity and entitlement to be heard.
If we want impact and more influence, pay close attention to their collective lack of apologetic language, their signals of self-assuredness and absence of ‘pitching up’ in their vocal patterns, a classic sign of approval-seeking. A 2011 study (The Emergence of Male Leadership in Competitive Environments) shows that men tend to overestimate their ability. In this context, if we examine their communication style (the same style expressed by confident women) there’s much to gain from and emulate about their practical style. Imagine a task as simple as walking in to brief an executive panel on a project.
You walk in without apologising or a delivering a running commentary about the weather or weekend sport. You embrace pause. You take your position at the top the table and declare a headline that is directly relevant to the audience. Engagement is assured. By adopting a few, basic ‘Type A’ habits, you’ve grabbed the room and in less than a minute, established credibility and captured visibility at an executive level. Let me be clear, this is not about ‘behaving like a man,’ it’s simply about recognising which signals legitimise authority and using them.
This is where the business of risk gets real. And for mid-career women, this can be confronting because we’ve grown up before third wave feminism - with its direct insistence on women taking up space, assuming power and refusing to be self-deprecating to make them less threatening when they want to make an assertive point.
We’re used to an environment where women assume the support position at work. Competing without feeling ashamed of this "unattractive" quality is not part of an office culture that we’re necessarily at ease with. This is precisely where we need to defy a programmed instinct to please and take risks to rewire our unconscious behaviour. In this way we can start putting ourselves on a level playing field instead of waiting for one to arrive.
The rules of engagement here are simple: park the emotion that we attach to fear and risk and ask for what you want. Negotiate for what you need. Identify the gaps and up-skill accordingly. And if you really want to be in the game of career growth, then rely on you and only you to be the change. Big business is providing real opportunity for development. So don't wait to be rescued, start asking how you can be supported and step (with a hint of swagger) off the sideline.
A few netball games have passed and my friend Wendy reports that it has been pure joy watching her tween daughter and her fellow team mates learn to be gritty little fighters. They’re slowly marching up the local ladder.