“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” Author Alicia Walker could be talking to many women today. We have generations of powerlessness in our genes, but it’s time to play catch up.
Being a search consultant with specific interest and keen focus on Women’s Leadership, I may tend to notice things a little more than most. While it may be largely a South Asian perspective, and cultural milieu, be it a conference, a chat , or an interview, the numbers of women “owning themselves” or “wading into it” are not as many as they should be.
Vinita M, 32, a techie at an Indian IT MNC feels the pressure, at the sidelines of a Women in IT conference. “I just want to do my bit at work, keep learning, and then get back to my family. It’s like I’m missing something, but I don’t know what. I have this feeling of disquiet, like I’m hiding or holding my wings close. Don’t really know what I should do.”
I think women still have some difficulty in stepping up to the table and being all they can be. Organizations and other women, as well as society, are expecting more and more from them. Opportunities abound. Chances need to be taken, boundaries explored. It’s hard to raise one’s hand and add one’s voice. I am not saying it comes from weakness. I think it could sometimes come from a sense of pragmatism or security where an unnecessary intervention doesn’t seem to add value.
Certainly, one size does not fit all. Women are so different based on their economic, social, educational background, age, work experience and the organization they belong to. In addition, one needs to acknowledge one’s individuality, womanhood and profession, as well as the broader role the economy and work society expects. Many South Asian women are also culturally stressed about seeming aggressive, pushy or manipulative and that is another intangible one has to recognize and overcome.
Apart from an increasingly demanding social and economic fabric today, the push to move center stage comes from the organization or from the woman herself. Ideally, it should be a combination of both, where women have a nurturing and supportive environment to propel their newer, stronger self forward. In any case, women need to also independently develop this part themselves. Here are ten things women could consider doing.
- Ensure fundamentals. Job skills, management and people skills are assumed as basic these days, but need to be constantly developed. Confidence is critical. One way or the other it has to become central to one’s persona. In addition, public speaking, crisp writing, negotiation and effective networking have also become important for women who want to step up.
- Understand leadership and power. Many of us don’t wear it well, or wear it with awkwardness or stridency. Learn to internalize and embrace it. In taking center stage, this is one of the most difficult obstacles. Women perceive the burdens of leadership outweighing the benefits – including 60 percent of U.S. women and 65 percent of U.K. women. This perception is damaging and counterproductive- Power is also empowering, a change agent and inclusive. I use the capital P in Power deliberately.
- Outline and share goals. Do not be afraid to share what one hopes to do. Studies show that women are typically self-conscious about publicly sharing their aspirations and goals even within a smaller circle. They would rather ensure that, in case they fail, they do it quietly, outside the spotlight and brush it under the carpet. However, that is precisely the reason why they should share! Defining goals allow a buy-in from colleagues and well-wishers, a vocal reminder system, creates potential collaboration, puts it ‘out there’ and allows a stretch.
- Learn to love the spotlight – with substance. Own your space. Find a platform to share successes, stretches, learning. All organizations have a way of celebrating their winners. It could be the company town hall meeting, an internal newsletter or an external industry network. It could be a community meeting, a church association, an alumni network or any other personal space as well. Getting due credit for work is an important step and motivator in getting ahead.
- Go outside one’s comfort zone. Step up – for jobs, suggestions, promotions, inputs. Raise your hand. Waiting politely for an organic move forward is great, but c’mon it’s what one’s parents did. Today is an economy of plenty, with many options and choices. Look at something different, try to bring personal and professional passions together, offer to lead a training program for a different industry group, or ask for a sales or functional role that allows one to learn a different work skill and perspective. Then, come at this with all guns blazing in order to make it succeed. I worked on a critical civic issue last year which was outside my comfort zone and the team’s success in this was a huge morale booster for me. I realized that what I had and exercised was leadership that transcended closed spaces like “corporate,” “government,” “non-profit,” etc.
- Stop over thinking it. Develop a thicker skin. An awful thing to say, perhaps, but women tend to be far too sensitive to the downsides of stepping up. We pick endlessly at the scab. This is professional, do not make it personal. Owning the effort, avoiding over analysis and dismissing potential negativity will allow one to forge ahead.
- Deal with rejection and failure in a matter of fact way. A sound piece of advice for women today. Stepping up doesn’t always imply instant acceptance. Many women feel that the sheer effort of plucking up the courage to ask for something automatically assumes assent. If not prepared, a “no” or “not now, thanks” can shatter perilously built up confidence and do much damage. It is the single largest reason why women avoid stepping up again. One cannot control the environment, but can instead be relaxed, humorous, and forgiving of oneself and the situation. However, do pragmatically explore the reason for failure, so that adds to next time’s learning.
- Compete with self and others. Life is about healthy competition for growth as well, but a sound benchmarking with similar people, a desire to take the best from all, and reduce weaknesses, while still retaining one’s basic core, needs to be encouraged.
- Find a coach and champion, both inside and outside the organization, who is rooting for you. An inside coach helps one better navigate the system, spot exciting opportunities and save one from reinventing the wheel. An external coach keeps a more holistic eye out for one- not just the work successes but life growth as well. Knowing someone is on one’s side is a fabulous boost, but many women neither seek nor actively leverage this.
- Take one for the team. Many women feel a discomfort about being the token woman, being part of a possible diversity quota, or worse, having something the external world feels they are not qualified for or deserving of. I frequently hear “Hey, what does being a woman have to do with being just darn good at what I do?” Accepting the ownership for both is part of the mandate. Every center stage moment must also acknowledge one’s gender – one carries the flag for the team. Get comfortable with that.
“Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you'll regret the things you didn't do more than the ones you did.”- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.