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Women in Leadership: Navigating the career maze

Rhian Morgan

Navigating the career maze is a global problem for women leaders. Rhian Morgan talks to a French expert from the Audencia School of Management, Christine Naschberger, as well as US author and business leader Rania Anderson, about how to swerve roadblocks on the road to success

While there are now more women in better jobs, research shows the progress made by women in terms of their careers has actually slowed in recent years.

Whether due to the global recession, the backlash against feminism, punitive government policies, and certainly the pressure to have the perfect work-life balance, among other issues, women in all countries are experiencing roadblocks along the way, especially when they hit their 30s.

According to a study by experts at Audencia Nantes School of Management, in France, we now see the typical pattern of a woman’s business career as a maze full of wrong turns and dead ends. Despite such a labyrinth, women can still reach top positions but need a lot of skill and luck to get there. Often they succeed by following a less traditional, less direct route. 

To analyse the nature of this female career maze, Céline Legrand and Christine Naschberger, of Audencia’s Management, Organisation and Law Department, questioned 420 executives, of whom 226 were women. All age groups were covered, so allowing a better insight into how certain factors that impact a career change at various stages of professional life.

Work-life balance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, work-life balance is a major consideration for working women. The survey shows that a third of professional women of all ages consider that work-life balance holds them back in their careers. Less than 5% of male managers cited the same problem.  

Female managers also expressed the very fact of being a woman as having a negative influence on their working lives, especially between the ages of 31 and 40. The main reason for this seems to be unflattering female stereotypes that make it harder for women to be perceived in the right light within a company.

In the study, 12 % of women aged between 26 and 45 in office management activity said that female stereotypes had a negative effect on careers. Interestingly, no woman under 30 mentioned ‘being a woman’ as a barrier to her career. This could be because the obstacles created by female stereotypes would seem to have more effect as careers begin to mature.

One woman surveyed said: “It may sound stupid but to be a tall, blonde woman is still a drawback in certain firms whose management has patriarchal or macho elements.”

It is also difficult, for instance, to find British employers, especially small businesses, willing to take on women of reproductive age. They cite the expense of maternity leave as a consideration. There has also been an increase in women being made redundant during pregnancy in recent years in the UK – with laws helping employers get rid of women, while taking away employees’ access to pursue unfair dismissal claims by making the legal process prohibitively expensive for the most vulnerable.

The ability to move geographically during a career is also different for male and female managers. While both sexes often cited it as a key to career progress, especially between the ages of 31 and 35, men spoke of mobility in terms of working abroad, whereas women focused on moving from city to city and not between countries. It therefore seems that work-life balance considerations again limit younger working women’s career flexibility.

A final point concerns a trait most often associated with men: ambition. Traditionally, this trait is seen as good for a career. However, the women interviewed were not comfortable with the term. For them, ambition implies selfishness and to use others manipulatively for one’s own purposes. The men interviewed, however, did not speak the same way. They regarded ambition as necessary and desirable in their lives.

Another female respondent commented: “When you’re a woman, you have to do that bit extra to get the recognition you deserve.”

The women interviewed therefore found themselves faced with a dilemma: if they act like men in order to help their careers they are respected but not necessarily liked. If they act in what many see as a traditional feminine manner their careers could suffer. This means they are often obliged to find a balance between acting like a man and acting like a woman, without being either too masculine or too feminine. These women therefore have to rise to the additional and demanding challenge of managing their image in-company. Such an effort can be self-destructive and put strains on both emotions and motivation so having an adverse effect on the standard of work achieved. 

Ambition and career 

The research results thus confirm that women continue to get a rougher deal in terms of career advancement.

One of the co-authors of the study, Christine Naschberger, said: “What came out of the study is that generally bosses tend to see women as less ambitious than men. Part of this is to do with the fact that women can become pregnant and take time off work but, even after the birth of a child, bosses are tempted to think that the woman will be less available and less committed.

“This makes women’s career advancement more problematic because, if bosses have this view, they will give their female colleagues only minimum activities as they will feel this presents less risk. The more important work will thus be given to men. 

“The women we interviewed also sought a work-life balance. They aimed for career success but also obviously wanted to spend time with their families. This means they are often less physically present in the workplace than their male counterparts.

“What many bosses will do is to consider this lesser physical presence as proof of a lack of motivation. This is a ‘short-cut’ that is easy to make: she is there less often than before therefore she is less concerned by her job than before.

“Perhaps the classic example of this is when a woman returns from maternity leave. In principle, she should be able to return to her former post but often she will be given less-challenging tasks that will not allow her to progress as swiftly in terms of career.

“In short, with the arrival of a child the view her boss has of her has changed.”

It’s not just a European problem. American Rania Anderson, business advisor and author of the forthcoming Undeterred: The Six Success Habits of Women in Emerging Economies, as well as founder of mentoring site The Way Women Work, also refers to the career maze, though she describes it more of a game of snakes and ladders  - or ‘chutes and ladders’, as it is called in the United States.

Rania developed a presentation called Achieving Career Meridian, for top female leaders of companies such as Walmart (Asda), Hallmark, and the Central Exchange, to tackle the problem. The presentation provided women with a bird’s eye view of the workplace landscape. It revealed what paths to take and pointed out what routes works best for women. The programme also showed the “chutes” the potential pitfalls that may lie ahead.

Rania discussed six key areas of career management that women leaders should follow, to navigate the maze through to success.

These tips are:

  • Develop your personal brand and promote yourself and your accomplishments.
  • Understand the culture of the place where you work.
  • Undertake the types of experiences that develop you, provide line or profit/loss experience, and are challenging.
  • Continually focus on your professional development.
  • Take on leadership roles and demonstrate strategic leadership.
  • Build and nurture varied networks, mentors, and sponsors.

But what can be done to try to change this state of affairs globally? Audencia state that progress needs to be made on three levels: business, government and society in general.

Work schedules need to be more flexible, so giving women a greater chance to reconcile home and office life. To try to achieve this, some multinationals have set up specific women’s networks, which encourage female workers to help each other to reach career goals.

The State also needs to do more: equality between the sexes is still a work in progress.

Finally, women’s status and condition within firms can only change if men also change. Only when the female partner has a more equal footing in terms of managing children and the household, will women be able to truly realise their potential in business.

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