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What If There Are No Women Leaders?

What If There Are No Women Leaders?

For decades, women have been in the mainstream of the American workforce, yet few rise to the most senior ranks in corporations. Just as the wage gap between men and women is narrowing -- according to the Coalition of Labor Union Women, a woman now earns 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man -- many women wonder why their mobility in the organization isn't keeping pace with their male counterparts.

What can a woman do when she has no women above her in her organization to aspire to be like, and her field has only a few women at the most senior levels? This common but largely unrecognized reality can be a significant barrier to women's advancement.

Your Board of Directors

"Getting ahead is all about relationships -- knowing the right people in and out of the organization," says Jaye Roseborough, management consultant and director of career services at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Roseborough advises women to establish and cultivate their own "board of directors," who will make it their mission to monitor and guide a woman's career advancement. By putting such a mechanism in place, an ambitious woman will be forced to develop and defend a strategic plan for her career as well as step-by-step goals for actualizing that plan.

Roseborough counsels any woman who cannot look up in order to move up to recruit women, as well as men, who will be brutally honest with her about her talents and shortcomings. These advisors should include trusted and respected individuals from both inside and outside her field. They should be professionals who possess sound judgment about corporate culture and have a record of success in their own careers

"Success stories rarely just happen," warns Roseborough. "They require individuals to be planful and deliberate." She adds that women often fail to appreciate the power of the natural networking men can count on as they play golf or travel together. By putting your own board in place and convening at least twice annually, you seriously promote your own success, seizing opportunities and noting obstacles early to correct your course.

How Can Your Board Help?

The board's meeting agenda should include:

  • Evaluating your career plan and making needed revisions.
  • Setting measurable goals centered around core areas of organizational priority and growth.
  • Identifying projects to boost visibility, such as volunteering for committees or task forces that address emerging issues in the company.
  • Confronting barriers, addressing mistakes and calculating risks to promote advancement.

In general, a woman's board of directors can help her identify ways to effectively communicate her career goals to male managers and leaders. Women often make the mistake of assuming hard work and accomplishments will signal their interest in advancement. Rather, Roseborough advises women to proactively make their ambitions known, while also confronting assumptions older, more senior males might hold about their ability and availability to advance specifically because they are women.

Some corporations, especially those without women at the top, still hold unexamined assumptions about women's willingness and ability to hold senior posts. Chief among these is women's lack of willingness to relocate or bear a heavy travel schedule. Women who volunteer for these projects, often a prerequisite to promotion, demonstrate their interest in advancement.

Finally, a board can also help a woman see when it's time to move on in order to move up. They can recognize the difference between being in a career lull and a dead end as well as offer objective perspectives to help women identify the necessary next steps and new strategies to achieve their goals.

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