Women often complain about the glass ceiling. Friends of mine tell me their bosses only promote from within the old-boy network. Studies show that women in the U.S. still get just 77 cents for every dollar men are paid, even with increasing gender parity in higher education.
And how many of the people running the biggest 500 companies are women? In 2009 only 15 were, among them Carol Bartz at Yahoo!, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Ursula Burns at Xerox. They are exceptions in the male-dominated ranks of C-level executives.
I will be honest. In my career, I have tended to promote more men than women. I have even generally given men higher salaries. Why? Am I sexist? Do men do a better job? The answer is a resounding no to both.
Actually, it is mostly women's fault. They simply don't ask for raises or promotions as often as men do.
My organization conducted interviews with hundreds of American, European and Chinese women, and most said they felt that if they worked hard and showed they were valuable to the company, they would get promoted. They also said they feared they could be fired if they appeared too pushy, especially in a downturn.
But the reality is that promotions rarely happen just because you're there and you're good. You need to tell people how good you are. This is especially true at more junior levels, where it can be harder to get noticed and there is more competition for plum positions.
Male or female, you have to not only earn that promotion but also make your bosses know they need to give it to you. Bosses tend to promote not just valuable people but people who push to move up the ladder. After all, good leaders know that they do best if they're flanked by good lieutenants. They want to give opportunities to people who want to grow with the organization and not flee to the competition.
Undeniably there are toxic corporate cultures where women are treated terribly. Stay away from those places. Corporate culture is hard to change. The rot starts at the top.
Our research also suggests, perhaps surprisingly to some, that most men have nothing against working for a female boss. Only a minority of men told us they would object. In fact, many said they'd prefer a female boss, because of the greater likelihood she'd understand the need for work-life balance.
If a major obstacle to getting promoted is yourself, what should you do about it? Here are two tips for women--or anyone starting a career, for that matter.
First, you can't get what you don't ask for, so ask for a promotion and a raise, even in a downturn. Most bosses won't fire you for saying you'd like to move ahead. Have you ever heard of anyone being let go for asking for a promotion, except during a political battle for the top spot? Very often bosses don't even think about who should be advanced and who shouldn't. They're busy juggling too many things. You have to sell them on the idea of promoting you.
How? Don't go into the room threatening, saying give me a promotion or I'll leave. That's an old sleazy salesman's trick. Instead, take a long-term approach. Arrange a meeting to discuss what you can do over the next three to six months to earn a promotion and a raise. Prepare three to five talking points that highlight what you've already done. Try to pick talking points that show how you've generated revenue and demonstrated leadership.
After explaining to your boss what you've accomplished (he or she may be surprised), ask what you need to do now. After the boss tells you, make sure you live up to those new expectations. If after a few months you don't get that raise, it may be time to look elsewhere.
Second, women should not use overt sexuality to get ahead. Occasional mild flirting may have its place, but to be taken seriously, focus on business. Look professional and attractive but not sexy. The same goes for men. Guys who dress too flashily likewise aren't taken seriously--except in the entertainment world.
Looks do matter in the business world, as Laura Sinberg recently wrote for Forbes. But you want to be remembered for your business ability, not for how you look in a short skirt. The latter hardly gets you taken seriously as a business executive.
Promotions are tough to ask for, especially when you're concerned about fitting in. But any woman who wants to rise high in the business world should consider being more aggressive in seeking out promotions and increased responsibility. Approach your boss with a plan, make your case and make sure that no one forgets you are a strong business mind. Before long there will be far more than just 15 women at the top.
He writes for Forbes on leadership, marketing and China
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