Women represent forty-seven percent of the current workforce. With the largest percentage of employed women, 40.6 percent, working in management, professional, and related occupations. However, there aren’t many women being promoted to — or even trying to achieve — C-level executive positions. A mere 14.2 percent of S&P 500 CEO positions are held by women and there aren’t many more on the executive track to fill the pipeline.
In 2010, Sheryl Sanders, COO of Facebook, published her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. While some feminist theorists criticized the book as “faux feminism” which seeks only to address problems within the existing male-dominated system, Sanders’ book gives advice for women in business and opens an important conversation about how women can thrive in business.
Admittedly, many women drop out of the full-time workforce periodically by their own choice to care for children. Therefore, much of the training and grooming for C-level positions is directed at men — who may appear more dedicated to their careers or because women see the positions as too time consuming when considering their family.
C-level executives like Sanders, also a mother, believe women can — and should — aim for leadership positions. Here are seven tips for women in business:
Aim high, aim across. Whether you intend to work for a few years before scaling back on your job to have children, or you are in the workforce for the long haul, don’t settle. Set goals, take on new and challenging projects, and even accept that promotion that requires a cross-country move.
Advance your career by gaining a broad collection of experience. In order to gain a wide range of skills, consider what Sanders calls a “jungle gym” approach: make lateral career moves to positions where you can gain different skills and experiences. Sanders even suggests accepting positions that might be a step down in order to gain the experience for a leadership role down the road which will require broad experience and skills.
Manage your image as a leader.
It’s a common saying to dress for the job you want. Even more important is to communicate for the job you want. The workplace is very much a social outlet as it is a place of business, but don’t let gossiping or frivolous small talk chip away at your professional image. Likewise, venting your personal problems has a negative impact on your professional reputation.
Be friendly and social, but remember it’s important to guard your image even before you step into a managerial role. The image you portray through your communication becomes even more important as you assume leadership. Sandy Rubenstein, CEO of DXagency, an ad-engagement agency, explains, “The perception needs to be that you’re the boss, that you’re the one in charge...You can have a relationship with [others], but there are barriers to how far those conversations should and could go.”
Believe in yourself. It may sound simplistic, but confidence is key advice for women in business. Because business leadership at executive levels tends to be dominated by men, it may seem easy to second-guess yourself, but don’t. Once you’ve done your homework, square your shoulders and hold your head high. Believe in your education, believe in your experience, and believe in your work ethic.
Ingrid Vanderveldt, the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Dell and founder of Empowering a Billion Women by 2020 (EBW2020) explains, “I spend 90% of my time traveling around the world talking with women and women entrepreneurs and exploring the challenges to women starting, growing or scaling a business. What I’ve found is that the number one reason is the lack of confidence.” Luckily, there is a solution to that lack of confidence. According to Vanderveldt, “The antidote to a lack of confidence is simply action.”
Be prepared. While believing in yourself is key advice for women in business, be sure to back up that confidence with statistics, studies, data, and know-how. Being prepared may take extra research but it will always pay off to be well informed. Strive to learn all you can about your company’s processes and products. Pick the brains of as many people as possible for insights to learn the technical aspects of your industry.
“When you go to a meeting or give a presentation and someone asks a question, you don’t want to have to turn to the guy from IT. You want to say with confidence, ‘I understand this industry. I can represent what needs to be done,’” says Rubenstein.
Participate. Sheryl Sanders says she’s observed women in some meetings who prefer to sit against the wall rather than at the table in a conference room. “Sitting at the table” is some of the key advice for women in business Sanders gives along with “leaning in.” Don’t be on the sidelines. Your physical presence is paramount in communicating your dedication and expertise in the company.
What’s more: to improve your image as a corporate leader, it’s essential to speak in every meeting. Make a valid point. Offer a suggestion. If you don’t have anything to say, ask a probing question. Participating in leadership meetings both through your presence at the table and your contributions during meetings increases your credibility as a leader.
Speak up for yourself: No one else will.
Males often feel more comfortable speaking in public settings while females often communicate more in one-on-one settings. For this reason, it is an essential tip for women in business to train themselves to speak up in the boardroom. Doing so may feel uncomfortable at first, but is essential in projecting the image of a leader in a culture often dominated by men. If you’re interrupted in meetings, learn to make statements such as “I was speaking. I am going to finish my point” without an apology.
In the boardroom, women need to speak up for themselves and their ideas. Maggie Wilderotter, then-CEO of Frontier Communications, explained that at times in her career she would make a suggestion or point out insights in boardroom meetings only to have male leaders make the same point several minutes later. Wilderotter says of those experiences, "When that happened, I’d stop the conversation and say, ’Do you realize I said that 10 minutes ago?’ Women have to take responsibility for the dynamic around them; you can’t just say ’Woe is me.’”
Don’t leave until you leave. Even if you plan to put your career on hold for a family, vow to make an impact until the day you leave. When women stop volunteering for new or challenging tasks in anticipation of having children, their careers become less interesting and they become less willing to stay explains Sheryl Sanders in her in her landmark Ted Talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.”
Sanders, mother of 2, advises women thinking about children to “keep your foot on the gas” until you are ready to leave. She encourages women to continue volunteering for new projects and responsibilities in order to ensure an interesting career and help bring more women further down the pipeline of corporate leadership.
Admittedly, families and children play into the equation of women in C-level leadership. A full 70 percent of women in the workforce have children under 18, leaving many women ambivalent or uncertain about a desire to strive for upper leadership positions. (Some even before a spouse or children are in the picture, says Sanders.) Whatever the situation, women owe it to themselves to strive to have the most fulfilling career possible.
By taking on new and challenging assignments, women in business can expand their experience and leadership — even if they plan to enter and exit the workforce when their family is young. Additional key tips for women are to manage your image and communication style by maintaining professional boundaries in the office. Develop the skills and knowledge to project a professional leadership image: Be prepared with the facts, participate in meetings, and do not allow yourself to be interrupted. Lastly, the most important advice for women in business who may be considering cutting back responsibilities or hours is to give their career their best effort until they decide to make a change. Doing so will ensure an enriching career for as long as they choose.