By Kim Rickard, Association of Professional Engineers Scientists and Managers Australia
Prominent US researcher Dr. Carol Gallagher advocates an approach to women and leadership which says that: "Instead of trying to break the glass ceiling, women need to find their own personal windows to climb through it."
The politics of individualism aside, are there any personal strategies women can employ in the workplace to surmount the effects of the glass ceiling?
Where does the glass ceiling kick in?
The glass ceiling is often assumed to be relevant to women at senior management and executive levels. Studies have shown however that a range of factors operate to affect career progression at much earlier stages in women's working lives. In terms of career development, the first thing professional women need to be aware of is that the glass ceiling is something that they need to be conscious of at every stage of their working lives.
Women are often steered into people, HR, administrative or generalist research-type functions - functions which are somehow seen as secondary or soft. Often in reality it is only in retrospect that you are able to identify at which points you were channelled. However, where possible, especially in the early stages of a career, it’s important to be proactive about the areas which you choose to pursue, conscious of the areas into which are overtly or covertly being steered, and aware of how your choices are being informed.
What is the reality of promotion in your workplace?
While EEO and workplace diversity strategies aim to broaden the pool from which managerial talent is drawn, take the time to note what the reality is in your organisation. Are managers drawn from the Sales and Production areas for example as is often the case - areas which directly affect the bottom line.
As a practical strategy, you should aim to get an overview of where senior managers are recruited from, and then let this knowledge inform your choices.
For technology-based professionals, a not uncommon career scenario is advancement towards a role as a specialist with expertise in a particular field, and while this can operate to assist your career progression to a certain point, it may also limit potential for recruitment into the Senior Management and Executive level.
What strategies can you put in place to progress beyond the Senior Specialist role?
Training and professional development
The solution in terms of career development could be to maintain a broad skills base alongside your technical expertise, and where possible, have managerial and leadership skills development co-exist with the advancement of technical skills. If you are planning on specialising in a particular area, consider becoming your organisation's reference authority in a secondary area of expertise - technical or otherwise.
In practical terms, don't limit your options by specialising at the expense of your personal skills base.
Graduate Careers Council of Australia surveys have consistently shown that the differential between male and female earnings decreases as participation in post-graduate education advances. That is, at the Masters level there may still be a significant difference between the median salaries of males compared with females, but considerably less so at the doctorate level. Whether or not you choose to pursue post-graduate education will depend on whether or not it will be relevant in the context of your organisation or in your professional area of expertise, but it is a practical strategy worth considering.
Women are often seen as having an "inclusive" style of leadership rather than having the leadership skills of a manager who is able to make and implement tough corporate decisions, so a useful strategy would be to pursue accredited qualifications in leadership skills, so your management skills are formally recognised by an independent external body.
Whether succession planning in your organisation is formal or informal, it is important to maintain a profile. Be articulate in how your section or role contributes to the goals and bottom line of the organisation, and promote the value of your role and section to decision-makers. Where possible, participate in decision-making meetings so you are aware of what's happening in the organisation and, just as importantly, they are aware of you. Undertaking collaborative projects with other colleagues or departments may also be a way of raising your profile with managers beyond your own section.
The Superwoman Syndrome
When considering a more senior position, many women may be wary about a possible increase in time and out-of-hours commitment. But don't assume that a more senior role will necessarily mean you can't find a balance. If you're considering a promotion, find out what the time and travel commitments are, and whether flexible arrangements, re-prioritising and appropriate delegation could mean that you could successfully manage the change.
In practical terms, don't deny yourself promotion solely on the basis that it may upset the finely tuned balance you've achieved in what are already invariably very busy lives.
The practical strategies again ...
§ be conscious of career development at all stages of your working life
§ be aware of how your choices are being informed
§ don't be steered into a soft or easy option
§ if you're concerned about a change in time commitments which may accompany a more senior role, find out what the demands are and whether flexibility means you may be able to meet these changed demands
§ become aware of from which departments or areas senior managers are recruited
§ maintain a broad skills base
§ pursue professional development in the area of leadership skills
§ make yourself visible as a potential successor in your organisation's formal or informal succession planning
§ consider pursuing post-graduate education