Is It Me or Do Guys Have a Monopoly on the Top Jobs?

Women often can feel trapped at their jobs in terms of recognition and advancement.
Women often can feel trapped at their jobs in terms of recognition and advancement. (Adobe stock image)

Dear Coach: I've been told often that people really like my work, and that if I'm patient, I'll get to a position of real leadership in my company. But again and again, the men just seem to zip on by me on the track. Just last week, a man with whom I'd been co-leading a task force was asked to take over the product development project that came out of our deliberations, while I was given an enthusiastic thank you and sent back to my department without a raise or promotion.

Some of my friends tell me it's just my imagination that men have more opportunities in this company, while others tell me to march into HR and threaten some kind of legal action if my career doesn't take off soon. Obviously, I wouldn't do that, but I have to tell you that I'm tired of waiting for something with my name on it to open up. What advice do you have for me?

-- Carole

Dear Carole: First off, forget the "being patient" and "waiting for something with your name on it" thing. This is not your birthday party we're talking about. From the little you've told me, we're talking about some organizational gender bias, of course, but also about some unconsciously squandered opportunities on your part.

It's not your imagination that highly competitive and strategic men are passing you in the queue. Women earn 53% of college degrees in the United States, and yet hold only about 10% of the top positions across various businesses and professions. That means that the men in your field are nine times more likely to get to the top than you are. And why is that?

Well, some of it surely has to do with the conditioning those men endured as boys -- daily training in how to take risks, grin and bear pain, pretend they weren't scared and do anything else required to win. It also has to do with the fact that, no matter what the rhetoric about wanting to field a diverse leadership team proclaims, most leaders are men and most men are more comfortable promoting other men when it comes time to give someone a shove up the ladder.

But those facts are not the whole answer. Your language implies a blend of patience, passivity and obedience that is probably getting in your way as well. To get that hoist up the ladder for yourself, you're going to have to mount a more strategic campaign of "putting yourself out there."

In tests of confidence, risk-taking and competitiveness (the building blocks of corporate success), men outscore women almost every time. But here's the good news: They usually don't win by more than about a 5% difference in degree. So you don't need to have a personality overhaul here. You just need to increase your storehouse of these qualities by 10% (call it the 10% solution), and you'll be out in front of many of your male colleagues.

I bet, for instance, that while you were working nights and weekends to do the research and write an A+ task-force report, your male colleague was putting his energy into figuring out how to get visibility for the project, as well as more than 50% of the credit for himself.

Consciously or unconsciously, that's the way males have been socialized in this culture. Psychological research tells us that men, on average, overestimate their achievements, while women, on average, underestimate theirs. Is it any wonder, then, that the guys seem to get the prizes more often than we do?

Let this last situation with the task force and the lost promotion be a lesson to last the rest of your career: If you're not consciously strategizing about how to use your hard work to actively position yourself to be appreciated and noticed, then you aren't doing your job correctly. The person in charge of getting you promoted is you!

So how are you going to be sure you really learn this lesson? One good strategy would be to find an executive coach, to help you take apart the situations you're in and make a plan for finding the self-promotional opportunities in what you're doing at work. Another approach is to consult good books. These two you might find helpful:

  • "Going to the Top: A Road Map for Success from Leading Women Executives" by Carol Gallagher, a specialist in leadership development and senior principal at American Management Systems.
  • "What's Holding You Back? 8 Critical Choices for Women's Success" by Dr. Linda Austin, a psychiatrist who interviewed more than 200 highly successful women in a variety of fields.

So, Carole, what you've been through is, unfortunately, par for the course. But the rest of the game can be different for you if you take responsibility for managing your own career.

Good luck,

Career coach

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