Women in Leadership: Making Room at the Top

Businesspeople and leaders from all walks of life face a steep climb to the top, but for women the road is often filled with obstacles (both real and imagined) that simply do not exist for men.

The media narrative continues to spout that true equality has already been realised in our workplaces, yet the facts don’t quite align with their spiel. American women for example still only make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man earns in the same job, and the statistic is even worse for women of colour. Hispanic women for example earn just 56 cents for every dollar a white male makes. Women make up a disproportionately small amount of our political and business leaders, and while the numbers show growth the underlying differences remain.

This has led many women who seek leadership roles to wonder what they can do differently to make room for themselves at the top when the odds seem stacked against them. Here is some practical advice about how to deal with some of the issues women face in leadership, and how you can help turn the statistics around.

Recognise your abilities

Women do not struggle in leadership roles because they lack the necessary skills, but because society has inculcated into us a sense of unease at exercising our abilities. Don’t buy into the system. Recognise your own abilities as a leader and don’t be afraid to direct.

Engage with the male environment

Many women (especially in business) work in male-dominated environments that perpetuate an office culture that sometimes feels alienating. Even if it might not be your scene, don’t ignore group social and work events just because you may be one of the few women attending. Even if your presence is awkward at first, demonstrating to the men of your office that you are part of the team just like everyone else helps intra-office relations and helps breakdown some of the initial hesitations in male-female office dynamics.

Break your own glass ceiling

Women business leaders are actually more likely than men to be the head of their own business, as opposed to working their way up an employment chain. Women entrep

reneurs who run their own businesses do not face the same challenges as women in other business sectors because they are already at the top: instead, their problem is breaking the glass ceiling they set for themselves.

One example is women leaders’ attitudes to expansion. Women business leaders are statistically less likely to expand their businesses and hire staff even if they are well placed to do so. Although the reasons behind this are unknown, examine your own choices and see if there are any reasons why you might not be expanding when you could.

Use your authority

It is a recognised double standard that a strong-willed man is a leader but a strong-willed woman is at best a ‘ball-buster’ and at worse … well, something way worse. The negative connotations (or sometimes downright profanities) used in association with women in authority often leads women to hesitate for fear of being labelled. However one must rise against the stereotype and simply do what needs to be done – whether you’ll be called names or not. If an employee needs disciplining, don’t hold back just because you fear for your reputation. When leading a project, take charge firmly but in a way that doesn’t alienate others. If you don’t have a problem with your leadership skills, usually others won’t either. Expect the respect you deserve.

Above all, do your best. It is such a simple maxim, but nobody can criticise your work if you constantly work hard and to the best of your ability. Show yourself to be a great worker and leader not ‘just for a woman’ but as a person. Rising to the top may have certain inbuilt difficulties as a woman, but as long as you work hard and refuse to let the system play you, then there is no reason why leadership roles should be out of your reach.

About the author: Kate Simmons is a freelance journalist and full-time consultant currently working for a company offering leadership development courses. She is mainly interested in topics related to education and business.

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