I’ve had some exciting news and I’m bursting to share it; one of my favourite women, (an ex coaching client), has been appointed CEO of her company! I’m so thrilled. I will be interviewing her soon for inclusion in the Speak Up journal as an inspirational woman, but I wanted to shout out her success (with permission, although I’m not naming her at the moment), because when we first started working together she was on the verge of giving it up altogether and opting for early retirement. She felt tired, undermined and ‘just not good enough’. What a loss to the corporate world that would have been.
Sadly her dilemma is not an uncommon one amongst senior women. As she had risen within the organisation a male colleague, her opposite number within the company, had begun to make her life very difficult with jibes and snide remarks. Worse, he was publicly undermining her work with the board. The more we explored his behaviour towards my client the more apparent it became that he was, in fact, bullying her. Yet there was an unwritten code that at a certain level of seniority you just ‘got on with it’ and didn’t take ‘squabbles’ to the CEO, her then boss.
My assumption was that he was threatened by her intellect and popularity, an assumption subsequently proved correct. He saw her as a direct threat to his unchallenged succession to CEO. We embarked on a plan to limit the effects of his behaviour and the subsequent negative impact on her progress by changing her behaviour towards him, and by predicting his tactics with the board and pre-empting them. However, at no point did she stoop to underhand behaviour; she was always true to her own integrity and strong internal values and had several full and frank discussions with him. He regarded his behaviour as perfectly acceptable and her non aggressive behaviour as weak. For my client, recognising what was happening was a significant factor in promoting change.
We worked together for a year and gradually, as her behaviour towards him changed and he became less able to intimidate her, she began to see positive results. When appropriate she challenged him, first privately and then, when they that didn’t produce a change, more publicly, but always with a plan of action. She took back control and refused to become a victim. It wasn’t all about him either, it was also about recognising her own ambitions and how, generally speaking, you can’t expect people (i.e. the board) to just notice how good you are. Sometimes you have to explicitly show and tell them.
And now, about 18 months later, she is CEO with full backing of the board and the outgoing CEO. I am so basking in her reflected glory!
Women Discriminated Against at Work
I know from my work that many women experience this; indeed I am working with an almost identical situation right now. How widespread this must be if, in my small client base, I can instantly recall half a dozen excellent senior women feeling undermined and not ‘good enough’ just in the last 12 months.
I want to scream- it’s not you it’s them!
How many good women are we losing because they feel unworthy, or demoralised because they don’t play the game like the men? Their confidence in their abilities is being eroded because of the predominantly male hierarchy and system pertaining in their place of work which doesn’t usually suit women. It’s been designed with only one half of the population in mind, and with that half having a wife at home to do everything outside of work, like raise children, keep home, buy food, allowing them to work late etc.
But the truth is it’s not really them either. We’re all stuck with some outdated ways of doing business and many men are not happy with the old fashioned, patriarchal systems at play. Many recognise that more realistic gender equality would benefit everybody, and not every man chooses to get on by being aggressive or games playing, I know that.
What Can We Do?
Change is needed. We need more women at the top in every strata or organisation. But where to start? Well, short of total anarchy and revolution, I’d advise a two pronged approach. First with legislation; I am a passionate advocate of quotas on boards. Don’t tell me it’ll mean duff women get promotion. That makes the assumption that only excellent men get on boards, yeah right. (More on that here – Should We have Humans on Boards? & Will Boardroom Quotas for Women Undermine Their Credibility? Legislation has often led the way to ensure a fairer society and surely a system which clearly disadvantages one half of the population needs changing by law. Would we tolerate that in any other arena? No. Once organisations know that they will have to appoint more women by a certain date they will put in place other measures which will enable to women to have parity with men at work. Currently they say qualified women are hard to find. Of course they are; they need those opportunities to develop and grow at every level and currently they are few and far between. But once organisations know they have to do it they will stop tinkering around the edges and make sure they don’t lose their good female talent. And if they don’t, I think they deserve what they get.
Secondly, we need to to do much more conscious raising about the current state of play in gender inequality, and I believe we need to involve men in that debate. I know I have courses specifically for women, RenewYou & Speak Up. They are ‘consciousness raising’ courses in many ways, but they are not about denigrating men by any measure. They are about boosting women’s confidence and then perhaps to challenge the systems they find themselves in, and some men do find that threatening. It’s change and most of us instinctively would rather stay with what we know. I don’t advertise it, but I also work with a lot of male managers, many of them with young children at home. Their issues with work are often similar to women’s, except they are burdened by not being thought macho or ambitious if they choose to leave the office on time, or want time off to go to school events. I know the world of work would be a much better place if we had true gender equality.
My client above was supported by the outgoing male CEO. Until she raised it with him he had never considered that sexism or gender had any part to play in the organisation; he thought all was fair, a level playing field. It wasn’t, and my client’s renewed confidence in herself and her abilities allowed him to see that.
We can rant and rave about the current gender inequalities all we like (and I do, frequently) but each of us has to take some responsibility too, for tipping the balance, for doing what we can to alter the status quo, or we truly will wait another 100 years for full equality.
Photo Credit: Andi Braun
Posted on August 26th, 2014 by Jane