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Break Through The Obstacles In Your Way

We are AVA, a macro-learning environment for ambitious professional women. We provide weekly on-line content and timely in-person workshops to build critical workplace competencies. Send this to friends and and share on social media @advancewithava.

Women do have to work twice as hard as men. There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men. There is no room in the world for mediocre women. -Madeleine Albright

Women need to do a good job, navigate an uncertain route to the top and be prepared to take on sometimes impossible tasks. They must be poised to fight off the seen as well as unseen challenges to their career journey and be far from mediocre. Scholarly research shows that women need to bring not only their A-game, but have a specialized set of tools to find their way out of the labyrinths to break the ceiling and scale the cliffs.

The Labyrinth

Often the route to this C-suite success is circuitous and even secretive. Thus, the latest term “the labyrinth”, from the elaborate maze of Greek origin. Increasingly, we see examples of women who are achieving their desired goal at the top. The pace is glacial however as of 2019 Fortune 500 companies have only 33 women CEOs, less than 7%.

Glass Ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” was coined in the 1980’s. It refers to the phenomenon of women hitting a transparent barrier when striving for the senior-most leadership positions. Having been successful in pursuing promotions and higher visibility roles at lower levels, these women hit this blockade when almost to the top. Despite being see-through these ceilings are nonetheless often impenetrable.

Glass Cliff

Twenty years later the term “glass cliff” was born by Haslam & Ryan describing the unpredictable progress of women into leadership positions. Specifically it is the delegation of less desirable tasks to women and/or the promotion of women to leadership roles with a high risk of negative consequences. In contrast to the glass ceiling, the cliff’s edge implies the inability to see the danger ahead. There is a real risk of failing, but it is not readily apparent. As the image from Fundera below shows, women are given a great opportunity with big risk when they take on a glass cliff role.

Are Women Being Set Up?

Research published by Christy Glass and Alison Cook examined a Fortune 500 dataset of 52 women CEOs. 44% percent were appointed to their role when the firm was struggling or in crisis, compared with 22% of the men. Mary Barra was promoted to the CEO role at GM when they were faced with evidence of product defects, a recall of millions of cars, and a congressional hearing on the defects. Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo starting in 2009 and pushed out in 2011, said in an interview "listen, it is absolutely true that women have a better chance to get a directorship, or a senior position if there’s trouble. It’s not that all of a sudden the boards wake up and say, ‘Oh, there should be a female here.’ They do that sometimes, because it’s easier to hide behind, ‘Well, of course. Of course that failed, because it was a female. What could we have been thinking?’” There’s also a “savior effect” that sometimes happens after a woman is brought on and pushed out as a CEO where she is replaced by a man. Bartz was replaced by Scott Thompson.

I have noticed, time and again, that when it’s bad, you call women to the rescue. Or as a former central bank governor said to me… ‘The men go to war, and the women pick up the pieces.’”— Christine Lagarde

Woman Are Better Equipped To Lead In A Crisis

A 2019 study from Lehigh University and Queen’s University Belfast found that women were better able to restore trust among employees, largely due to interpersonal skills.

We showed that when a crisis hits an organization, people trust leaders who behave in relational ways, and especially so when the leaders are women. -Corinne Post

Anne Mulcahy, who served as CEO of Xerox from 2001 to 2009, was promoted at a time when the company was on the edge of bankruptcy and successfully engineered its turnaround. Cook said that the gender-stereotypical qualities she possessed are part of what helped elevate her at Xerox, and what helped her succeed.

Navigating The Path Up The Mountain

Often we heard that so few women are CEOs because the path to get there is so difficult. And whether you want get to the top or thrive at the level you are at, the path is more difficult for women than it is for men.

Here are some tips for navigating your journey toward your advancement goals:

  • Generously and routinely promote yourself across stakeholder groups. Recent studies confirm there is a large gender gap in self-promotion. Women systematically rate themselves lower than men do (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Do not rely on your boss as the only arbiter of your success.

  • Excel at what is promotable with laser focus. Have agreed upon, unambiguous, measurable performance indicators with your manager. Review your progress at regular intervals. Avoid taking on extra, unrelated “office housework” like the plague. Politely but professionally let others know you are focused on your work goals.

  • Demonstrate your expertise. You can gain power by being seen as the expert. Know

and understand the goals and the metrics of the organization. Develop a reputation as someone who others come to expertise. Often this leads to desirable work projects and opportunities.

  • Speak up in meetings with a well-planned question or point to add to the conversation. A thorough reading of the agenda and even perhaps a quick discussion with a valued colleague can get you prepared to get noticed, in the right way.

  • Develop power skills and behaviors. Research shows that your career success is dependent on understanding your own sources of power and assessing your workplace power dynamic. The old adage, “knowledge is power” is apt here. You can own your strategy for success, embracing your unique power and using it to make your life a better place.

Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling and Conquering The Glass Cliff

Whether you want to get to the top or not, exhibiting the behaviors and qualities that are considered strong leadership will help you gain an advantage to get what you want at work. And if you do make it to the top and know you are taking a risky role.

Here are seven real tips based on Fundera's assessment of navigating the glass cliff:

Women often have to work twice as hard to get to the same opportunities as men. And there are many obstacles, seen and unseen, in their path. The higher they go, the higher the risk and the more difficult the opportunities. But given their natural aptitude for leadership and with the tips above, they can beat the odds and set the path they choose to take.


What topics do you want to discuss? Let us know in the comments below. #advancewithava

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