01 February 2012

women leaders in the workplace...

Uni mates of ours own two fantastic and successful online retail businesses Shoes of Prey (for customised bespoke shoes) and Sneaking Duck (for funky and trendy glasses) - definitely check them out if you haven't heard of them yet.   They also write about their various entrepreneurial adventures on their blog which gives some great insights into the start up world and owning your own business (another must read to add to your google reader).

Recently Michael linked to this great TED talk by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg about women in senior leadership roles in the workplace.   When you watch it, remember this talk is targeted at women who choose to be in the workforce.    We all know that not all women choose to be in the workforce (especially after having kids).

The talk was very inspiring and particularly resonated with me.  I work in a very male dominated industry. I want kids and when I have them I want to be a good mum.  I know I am smart, capable, good at my job.  I am career oriented and ambitious and want to be challenged and fulfilled by my work and my career.  How do you reconcile all of this?

Women in the workplace do face challenges that men don't.  A lot of these challenges arise out of perceptions of women which can be difficult to change.  Even as a woman I know I am guilty of these perceptions or misperceptions.   If we are executive, confident and decisive (which are traits valued in senior male executives) we are often labelled as a bitch or unlikeable.   Then if we are 'girly', softer or friendly we are often labelled as 'not executive enough' or 'not confident' in her abilities.  It is a delicate balance. 

These perceptions not only occur at work but in everyday life.  The other day, the Mr and I were at the bank talking to our bank guy about some investments and we had to sign some forms.  I signed quickly and decisively and our bank guy consequently described me as 'domineering'.   Now if that isn't a negative perception, I don't know what is (just from me penning my signature on some documents!).   Our bank guy had also made a mistake and told us something that we could do when we actually couldn't.   When I queried this, I was quite forceful and definitive (because really he should've known better!) and I am sure he was thinking I was some hard assed bitch.   If a guy had been telling him the same thing and in the same way, I am sure his perception of that guy would've been very different.

Changing perceptions takes time.  It also takes women being in leadership positions to help facilitate this change.  Until then, we need to work out what we can do to get us where we want to be and what we can do to make sure we don't pass up opportunities that help us along.  Some of the tips therefore that Sheryl gives in her talk are particularly relevant and I think a good reminder for working women:
  • Get a seat at the table.  Don't underestimate yourself or your abilities and don't let others take credit for your work (because you worked bloody hard for it!)
  • Speak up and keep your hand up
  • Don't leave before you leave: stay focused and driven until the time you have to leave (eg for maternity leave).
It is a constant balancing act but I think we should all go after what we want, whatever that may be.  If you don't go after it, you will never have it.

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