Smashing the glass ceiling: a guide for ambitious women

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The company I work for has just finished its performance reviews. This time is dedicated to discuss one's performance at work and flag up successes and team contributions. Yet the majority of women I speak to don't see this review as a positive opportunity, nor do they have any clear career plan.

How will your manager know what you've achieved during the year, what great contributions you've made and what ambitions you have if you don't speak up? While men can usually express their ambitions openly, women generally feel extremely awkward about doing the same. It's as if they are almost embarrassed to be in the spotlight. This needs to change if women are to achieve their full potential in the workplace.

I came across a really interesting book recently entitled Inside Knowledge, which focuses on professional services firms. It highlighted the fact that 50 percent of companies' employees are women, yet just 20 percent are equity partners. You'll find a similar management structure in most companies. Why? Because women just aren't vocal enough about sharing projects and how their accomplishments have affected the bottom line. But the stark reality is that busy managers will overlook women for promotion if they don't openly display their successes.

As Alice Temperley, the book's author explains, it is all about "impression management." This isn’t about manipulation or crowing, it is about letting people know what you are doing. If you aren't visible, managers are unlikely to promote you.

A career plan is critical

We have all heard that age-old question in reviews and interviews: "Where would you like to be in ten years' time?" Men always have an answer for this. Even if they are aiming for a position they aren't always capable of achieving, they aren't shy at putting their target out there.

In my experience, women lack confidence to do this. Part of this is due to their perception in the workplace, and part of it is due to fear of failing. They just don't believe they can do the big jobs. In sales and pre-sales where I work, for example, there just aren't enough role models in senior management. There are also a lack of mentors women can turn to for help and guidance.

The power of technology, however, can change this. As women, we can use technology to extend our professional network. With Skype and other collaborative tools, we can have mentors across countries and time zones. We can also extend our networks through social networking, for example.

Jump on opportunities

To improve career progression, it is imperative that women communicate their ambitions. Women should be quick to volunteer for any available opportunities and talk to management and others in their wider network. They shouldn't be afraid to take on projects outside their comfort zone. For example, I recently took up a Nordic assignment on top of my current role. Despite being a challenging task, I know it will build my confidence further and show my peers where I want to be.

Helping other women up the ladder

Helping others reach their full potential is an integral part of leadership that is often forgotten. In the U.S., more and more women are "paying it forward" by helping to develop the next generation of female leaders. Women are recognizing the fact that once someone took a chance on them – and now it is their turn to help others develop their careers. As well as paying it forward by example, women can provide help and support to other women through mentoring programs.

Above all make sure you are seen

Many professionals see two archetypes in the workplace – the peacock and the mouse. While the mouse quietly works away in their corner, the peacock struts its stuff. But don't forget there is a middle ground that women often ignore, notes Alice Temperley. One where women need to be proactive and actually let people know about their achievements, where they own their successes instead of apologize for them.

I am interested to hear how other organizations are developing and supporting female employees to meet their true potential. I look forward to hearing from you.

Glenda Brady
Glenda Brady

Glenda Brady is VP Sales and Marketing for Europe at Orange Business Services and has been with Orange Business Services since 1998. A keen and active coach both internally within Orange Business Services and externally, Glenda also supports various programs that encourage women in STEM and has set up a forum in the European organization for women in sales and pre-sales.

She is an avid rugby supporter (and one-time player) and, when not working or supporting her home team, she likes to run marathons.