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Is the Glass Ceiling a Mind-Set Issue?

By Maya Hu-Chan

Contrary to what you may have heard, the fabled glass ceiling that holds women back from top jobs is still alive and well.

A 2013 Harvard Law Review report noted that, although there has been progress in both the public and private sectors across the world towards balancing the gender gap in the boardroom, progress remains uneven.

Progress is most impressive in Western Europe where the highest year-on-year increase in female board directors was recorded in 2013. However the US and Canada reported only marginal growth and the issue has not yet made significant progress in India or Japan.

In China, legislative efforts to increase representation of women on boards of public and private companies has begun to bear fruit with over 50 cities adopting local rules regarding the selection of women to senior positions.

This is all encouraging. However quotas, targets and legislation alone aren’t enough to shatter the glass ceiling. After working with leaders worldwide for over 20 years, even if all the barriers keeping women from bursting through the glass ceiling were to magically disappear, the final obstacle to be overcome might be the mind-set of the women themselves.

Let me explain.

There is no doubt that women contribute differently in the workplace at different stages in their lives. Naturally, many women need to take a break from work, even if only a brief one, to have children. Equally, for many – particularly for professional women working in the West – child bearing years often limit how many hours women can work, as they deal with the high cost of childcare or just a choice to spend more time with their children, especially when they are young.

However as children grow up and head off to make a life of their own, women often find that they can spend increasing amounts of time on their careers – much as they did before they had children – and contribute just as well as any of their male colleagues.

So if it isn’t necessarily about biology, why is it that women still lag so far behind in the boardroom?

Could it be that women hold themselves back or lack the confidence to live up to their own potential?

Not too long ago, I spoke at a global leadership event for women. It was part of a six-month program for up-and-coming female executives and, like many conferences centered on women, the agenda included topics on ambition, self-marketing and work-life balance.

If women still need to be reminded that being ambitious is okay and balancing your career and home life is possible then perhaps it explains why women are often not getting a seat in the boardroom?

Can you imagine any man having to be educated that ambition is a good thing?

The trouble is, ambition hasn’t traditionally been seen as a positive attribute for women. Society has long since seen the accomplishments of women like Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher who inspired a generation of women to reach for the very top, yet it seems we still have a long way to go until all women assume the kind of confidence and ambition that most men see as a birth right.

This confidence gap can be seen in the way some female business graduates approach their first job. A recent study at Carnegie Mallon University in the U.S. tracked graduates of similar academic performance to see how they fared in the world of work. After one year most of the females had accepted their first job offer – while the males had played several employers off against each other, were more confident in their own worth and, as a result, were earning around $7,000 more than their female classmates.

Sallie Krawcheck, Business Leader of 85 Broads, has also noted this disparity between men and women on the issue of asking for a pay raise: “I often relate how…some good number of my male direct reports would come into my office toward the end of every year, telling me how much they felt they deserved in a bonus payment. I never had a woman initiate a similar conversation.”

And yet there is ample evidence to show that a quiet confidence in your own value pays dividends.

I have a coaching client who is Asian and in her early 40s. She works for a global retail giant and has been handpicked by her company for leadership development. ‘Ah’, you say, ‘part of a focus on female development?’ Yes, but her performance speaks for itself – she is the #1 performer in the business globally, irrespective of gender.

So, is my client shattering the glass ceiling because of a conscious effort by her employer to increase their percentage of senior females – or simply because she’s great at her job?

Of course, things are not always this simple. There are plenty of examples demonstrating that the world of business can still be a fundamentally patriarchal place. Sometimes these are as overt as the still-common practice of specifying a required age range, marital status or gender in vacancy adverts in Asia, other times more subtle behaviour such as the perpetuation of business golf days and other affinity groups which enable males to talk business in exclusive group environments.

However despite these outdated practices, it is encouraging to see that in the majority of cases, it is the individual approach by a female professional which determines her level of success.

I have another coaching client who is the CTO in a US-based global life sciences company. She was promoted from the position of lab director to be VP of Research & Development – putting her in charge of three, male fellow lab directors. This could have resulted in conflict but her confidence in her own ability, coupled with high levels of emotional intelligence, allowed her to build the trust and support of her former colleagues. Her performance is outstanding and she’s set for further promotions.

She is the mother of two teenagers and, crucially, has a strong support network in the shape of her partner (who also works) and family which allows her to balance global travel and business commitments with time with her family. She also takes good care of herself and her relationship – seeing all of the parts of her life as having equal value.

Her self-belief plays a major part in her professional success.

Twenty years’ experience as a global leadership coach has taught me that those women who have well-placed confidence in their own potential and value tend to achieve their goals – and in many cases surpass them by some distance. My suggestions for ambitious, female would-be leaders, are to:

  1. Be authentic. Know who you are and what you’re capable of. If you’re a family-oriented person as well as a talented professional, be proud of it, it’s part of what makes you great at what you do
  2. Do your best work – so that your employer judges you on performance, not gender
  3. Bring people along with you – at work and at home so that you build support around you. It’s important to find a life partner that supports you, not suppresses you.
  4. Live with your choices. Don’t beat yourself up! Ignore society’s opinions and focus on being who you are at your best.
  5. Don’t settle. Value yourself and what you have to offer and fight to achieve it – whether it’s a coveted role, being heard or landing a pay raise.

And remember: the glass ceiling is only there if you choose to see it.

Maya Hu-Chan was rated one of the World’s Top 8 Global Solutions Thinkers by Thinkers50, and one of the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus in 2013.

Maya is an international management consultant, executive coach and author. Harvard Business School has chosen her book “Global Leadership: The Next Generation” to be one of their Working Knowledge recommended books. She is also a contributing author to 10 leadership and management books.

Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego, California. She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world.

To contact Maya Hu-Chan, please email her: moc.l1498583982iamg@1498583982nahcu1498583982hayam1498583982, or visit her website: www.mayahuchan.com

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