Friday, October 4, 2013

Stilettos in business

I am often asked to comment on the topic of women in business working in a male dominated industry. The irony is that I have never had an issue getting a job or a promotion because I am a woman. However, I have experienced situations where I have been treated differently because of my gender.

When I am asked to comment on this issue, please understand that I don’t make commentary from an industry perspective. I speak as a woman in business that has had a successful career in my chosen field.

The issue of women at senior management and leadership level is one that is debated worldwide. There is no doubt that there is inequality at a boardroom level in corporate Australia. However, more and more women are taking over the reins in companies worldwide and having equal gender at the top level does impact positively on a business’s performance.

Some stats to consider on this topic are:  60% of graduates are women; we make up 51% of the population and 46% of the labour force. In Australia the number of women in management roles in business sits at about 16%. Given these stats the topic or debate on women in leadership, management and board positions is a relevant one.
Woman often build their own glass ceilings to add to the ones that already exist. So conversations such as “working in a male dominated industry” can in some instances add to our ceilings.

We often say that real estate is male dominated. At senior management level this is true. However there are a number of very successful women who work in real estate as agents, property managers and business owners.
Business is changing especially in real estate and we need to move from being transactional to relationship focused. Women tend to do this better than men. There are number of networking groups in Melbourne that women now belong to that provides them with support, mentoring, coaching and business growth. A number of large businesses have a focus on developing female talent within their organisations and I believe that we need to take on these wonderful opportunities and use them to our advantage.

I am a firm believer that women can have it all- many do- but perhaps not all at the same time. Women must juggle their careers, family and time for themselves and none of this is really straightforward. There is a time to be a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a professional in your chosen career and we need to be able to do all of this without guilt on the choices we make at any one time.
I have never felt guilty for any of the decisions I have taken. Putting kids in childcare at 6 months, getting a nanny, having a job that involved significant travel and time away from the kids, forgetting to pack the lunch or on the odd occasion picking my son up from school, getting divorced and being a single mum with a career.

There are always times when I believe I could have done things better but doing what I do makes me happy and makes me a better mother, partner, daughter, friend which I believe is more important. It also makes it easier to get through those days that are complete disasters and everything goes wrong.
Whether you are male or female the question is how driven are you to obtain the success you want? As Stephen Covey wrote, start with the end in mind and plan how to get there. Know what the milestones are that you need to achieve and ask for the roles that you want.

 Women do need to get better at “talking themselves up”. You cannot assume or hope that someone is going to notice you or your success. You also need to be prepared to take risks, open up that business or apply for roles that you may not be 100% equipped for.
I have my milestones on my shower wall and I regularly adjust and prioritise this in line with what is currently important or achievable.

I see women who choose to be stay at home mums or work part time as incredibly successful because I know how hard it is.
Being comfortable in your own skin and succeed professionally and personally is an issue I believe that is not just for women. There is most certainly a global case for woman on boards and leadership roles and the time has now come for businesses to act rather than debate the issue.

I am often asked by male managers how to best manage their female team members. Yes, it is different and yes, from time to time you will need a box of tissues. A number of men assume that most women they work with will be like their wives or partners and this is not the case. Women in business also expect to be treated the same as their male counterparts in terms of business achievements and expectations.  
Men build relationships with their male counterparts through golf, drinks at the bar, night out with the boys and sport. Place a female amongst this and most men do find it hard to build a relationship that goes deeper than business.

I believe this issue is one that both genders need to assess and find a way to build stronger relationships based on common ground. I struggle with this issue and often am challenged with the “how”.  As a woman your communication will be under constant scrutiny.    
However I am firm believer that when you’re aware of what your challenges are then you need to find a way to overcome them! Also accept that we won’t always get it right. Learn from the mistakes you make and grow as a leader, manager or business owner.

The issue of gender equality will never be resolved and the discussion does need to focus on how to help women succeed in business.
The book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” by John Gray, is a must read amongst a number of other books. Many books are designed to help women understand that they do need to speak up in the work place, take credit for a job well done, ask for what they want including promotions and pay rises. This will involve taking risks by stepping up to opportunities that may be beyond their experience. All of this goes towards showing the masculine traits of confidence and assertiveness in the workplace.

But be very aware of the double bind. These exact same traits can be seen as aggressive, hard line,   hard-nosed and pushy.
Women need to be smart at knowing when to use male and female traits. Knowing when to be tough, self-promoting, competitive, confident, commanding and direct versus soft, collaborative, persuasive, unassuming and indirect.

A common trait shared by successful women in the corporate world is that they are chameleons: they fit into their environment by assessing the situation and adapting their actions accordingly. This is certainly not as easy as it sounds.
Even at the top level there is gender bias and commentary. You only have to look at the unreasonable amount of attention paid to Julia Gillard on her choice of hair colour, glasses, clothes and partner versus policy and governing of the country.

It was the same in the US when Hilary Clinton was campaigning. She was seen as hard and tough with low cut necklines.
When we think leader we think “male” across countries and cultures.  Women are expected to soften their leadership style to gain a following or run the risk of isolating themselves. Men on the other hand are not expected to temper their leadership style to be seen as agreeable.  Women are expected to be more compassionate.

Men will self-promote effectively and with no consequence. However, women doing the same who are also confident and assertive are seen as less likeable or only doing so for their own advantage.
As a result women in leadership worry about how others perceive them. They constantly review behaviour to ensure they are not being seen in an unsavoury light.

Men and women will always have different management styles, we are wired differently, what is important is the outcome.
The challenge to getting women into senior positions is dependent on how we structure workplaces. We lose women from the workforce because often they don’t want to be on the corporate treadmill, work the long hours and play the politics.

Bringing it back to my own industry, women are at an advantage as they can be successful selling agents, property managers and ultimately own their own profitable businesses. Across the country we are seeing more and more women open up their own agencies, franchise groups putting a focus on recruiting female agents and developing workplaces that are diverse and inclusive.
I run the risk of this blog being seen as Sadhana pushing the female “barrow”. This won’t be the first time either. I am very aware that I walk a fine line in this issue.  What I have stated in this blog cannot be denied.  I have worked with men who embrace what women bring to the table and men who see me as a hard- nosed pushy female. I have learnt to accept that I am never going to please everyone on this issue.

Will we ever have equality in the workplace?  Probably not. That shouldn’t stop us from working towards better outcomes for future generations; laying the ground work for our daughters and granddaughters. Look at where we have come from, where we are today so the future does indeed look bright.
I was recently nominated for the Telstra Business Women’s award. The submission asks you to discuss the successes you have had across your entire career and personal life. I have been named as a finalist in these awards in the private corporate sector.  Whatever the result post this will be a bonus. However I want to encourage other women to enter such awards, we often downplay our successes and achievements instead of celebrating and sharing. We won’t always get it right and we can’t always have it all.  But anything is possible and achievable; it is just a matter of how.