Step up or be stepped over: women’s career mistakes
Picture yourself in this situation. You’re a young female business graduate striding up to the board room for an interview with Westpac. You see a picture of CEO Gail Kelly and you think “I can do that.” Think again sister.
If the latest statistics predict your path, there’s a strong possibility that in 15 years time you’ll be stuck in middle management or if you’re returning back part time from baby, you’ll be sentenced to “special projects.”
The statistics are bleak. Look at these statistics from the EOWA:
- In 2008 women only represented 10.7% of executive managers in AXS200 companies, down from 12% in 2006
- In 2008 45.5% of ASX200 companies had no women executive managers, up from 39.5% in 2006
- In 2009 Australian women’s full time average weekly earnings were 17.4% less than men’s
- If current earning patterns continue, the average 25 year old male will earn $2.4 million in the next 40 years, while the average female will earn $1.5 million
So what’s the explanation? To start you can quickly and rightly tick these boxes. Women take the majority time out for parenting. Reliable childcare is expensive and difficult to find. Many workplaces still only pay lip-service to family friendliness. Men dominating senior positions see people like themselves as standard bearers for success. Like recruits like and inequality becomes entrenched.
However, what’s often overlooked is where the inequality starts. The latest survey of graduate starting salaries by GradStats found female graduates earned a median starting salary of $47,000 compared to males who earned $50,000. Women were behind men in 15 of the 23 industries surveyed, and ahead in only two.
So what’s really going on here? If women are six steps behind at the starting line, where you would assume opportunities are equal, could it be that men are better at selling their skills in interview than women? Do Australian women lack a lot of confidence? After spending the last six years coaching both men and women to improve their interview skills, it pains me to say yes.
Men seem to own their achievements better than women. Here’s an example:
I asked a male client, an office administrator, what he did. He looked me in the eye and told me he created a paperless office taking three days off the time it took to respond to customers. He introduced software which sent customer reminders out on time and halved the number of complaint calls coming into the office. He sounded as if he had single-handedly successfully reorganised the US health care system. I was excited because he was excited. When his employers didn’t reward him, he resigned. He didn’t need to be needed.
In contrast I interviewed many female office support staff about how they saw their roles. One woman reflected the views of most when she said: “I’m the invisible glue that holds the office together.” Great analogy, but I wasn’t sure what she did. Being the glue was wonderful. Being invisible was not going to take her places.
I’ve answered hundreds of emails from women who want help to return to the workforce. They’ll say things like: “I have no skills, I’ve just helped my husband in his business”.
Dig deeper and I’ll find they’ve done a whole lot more than that. That “help” might be the book-keeping, the bookings, the complaints, the correspondence, the marketing, the office set up, dealing with the lawyer and the accountant, setting up the website, all the paperwork and hiring and firing the apprentice. In short, they’ve run the business.
I’ve also answered many questions from women who want help explain the parenting gap on their resumes. Emma Walsh, director of Mums@Work, a consultancy advising on family friendly workplaces, says women will typically handle this question by not explaining the gap, trivialising or over-explaining the experience of parenting – all things that get in the way of negotiating what they want, what they can offer and what they’ll need if they want to combine parenting with career.
Ironically, when men have taken time to be the primary care giver, Walsh has seen them more confidently explain the rationale behind the decision. They’ll say for example: “My partner had her own business, or a higher earning role. So we came to a joint decision that I would stay home.”
When something goes wrong on the job, I’ve seen many women take things as their personal responsibility rather than looking more objectively. Their confidence suffers as a result. Many think they could have done something differently or better. If I as an outsider can see, for example, that the boss has been a bastard, I’ve often needed to say: “So you didn’t really trust your manager’s opinion on much, except when he criticised you.”
If someone’s confidence is down they tend to focus on what didn’t happen rather than what did. So if I question the same person about talking about their achievements, they’ll provide a big back-story about the negative, rather than talk about what’s been within their control.
In salary negotiations I’ve seen many women personalise their worth. They’ll see money as reflecting their own skills not looking so much at what the market is offering. Men seem to be able to look more objectively about what they can get. There’s a cost associated with this. When an organisation negotiates salary, they’ll always ask themselves what they need to pay, not what is this person really worth?
Go back to the graduate starting salaries. Guess who’s been missing out in this equation?
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