Glass Ceiling Or Glass Cage? Breaking Through The Biggest Barrier Holding Women Back
By Margie Warrel
The last decade has witnessed a growing awareness of the value women bring to the workplace, the impact they make on organizational bottom line, and the contribution to the economy at large. It’s driven policy makers and industry leaders to support women’s engagement in the workforce, and ascension into positions of greater influence. On it’s own though, it’s not enough.
While there’s no doubt that unconscious bias, and even outright misogyny, still exist in workplaces today, the bigger barrier holding women back from growing their influence is not a ‘glass ceiling’ but a glass cage of our own making (albeit not consciously). This cage is held together by the misgivings we have about our ability to succeed and handle the demands of leadership without sacrificing our other aspirations outside the workplace.
(You can watch my interview discussing this on Australia’s Sunrise morning show on this link.)
I recently travelled to Shanghai where I’d been invited to speak at a women’s leadership symposium host by Oracle. While there I got to meet many women from around the globe. Smart women. Hard-working women. Women aspiring to do more, be more, give more and lead more. Women who also sometimes doubt whether they can.
As a woman who has wrestled with my own share of self-doubt, I know that scaling the hurdles in our own heads isn’t easy nor a one-off affair. It takes continual courage to question the assumptions that underpin our actions, aspirations and conversations; to think bigger about what’s possible, and to lay our vulnerability on the line for a future that honours our deepest desire to make a meaningful mark in the world. And while there is no magic 7 step formula for doing that, below are seven acts of courage for women to lead themselves and others more purposefully to do just that.
#1. Unleash your ambition
Lao Tsu wrote, “People are capable of more than they think.” When it comes to women, double it. We have to think bigger before we can be bigger. Too often though we set our sights too low, aiming only for what we assess we’ve got a solid chance at achieving, rather than what truly excites us (which tend to be the same things that also scare us.) Experience has shown me that we don’t aspire toward ambitions we have no talent to achieve. Likewise, the goals that inspire us are usually one’s we’re innately predisposed to accomplish. While unleashing a new level of ambition can be daunting, it can also set us on a whole new trajectory that, over time, reveals new possibilities and hidden strengths and opportunities that we would never otherwise see.
# 2. Know your value
Others won’t fully value your skill, expertise, time and potential, unless you do. How much is nature versus nurture is open to debate, but we women have a tendency to under-estimate and second-guess ourselves more than the men we share our lives with. Just think: how often have you met a woman whose confidence outweighed her competence? Likely never. Yet you’ve likely met numerous men who fit that bill. This is not a dig at men by the way. It’s a challenge to women – stop selling yourself short!
In Knowing Your Value, CNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski shared how she continually failed to secure a higher salary because she undersold herself and didn’t know her own value. Only when she became really clear about how much she bought to the table was she able to approach her boss, ready to resign if he wasn’t willing to pay her what she knew she was worth. She was awarded her pay rise.
#3 Don’t lead from the crowd
When all you do is conform, all you have to offer is conformity. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘You can’t lead from the crowd.’ The reality is that for you to accomplish what inspires you, you have to be willing to take whatever path is right for you, even if that sometimes leads you on to a path less travelled. When I speak at women’s leadership events, I often ask attendees to bring to mind a leader they admire. Usually at least two-thirds of the room will share they pictured a man, reflecting the simple fact that there have simply been fewer women leaders to look up to than men. But here’s the deal: you have to see yourself as a leader before anyone else will, and you have to be willing to build your own unique brand of leadership, even if at times that has you standing apart from the crowd. Trying to fit in and follow others can negate the difference your difference makes. You must be willing to forge your own path, even if you can’t see any woman who’s taken the same one ahead of you.
#4. Be willing to rock the boat
Women are great at nurturing relationships but are often loathe to say anything that might jeopardize them. However, when you withhold your opinion and tip-toe around sensitive issues, you limit your value. Don’t let your fear of rocking the boat; keep you from challenging the consensus thinking. Many boats are in desperate need of rocking. Like Yahoo’s. CEO Marissa Mayer has done some major boat rocking since taking the helm at Yahoo! and while her changes have not all been popular, there’s no doubt that they are helping turn the formerly wavering Yahoo! ship around.
Another woman whose courage to make tough, and often unpopular, changes is Lori Garver, Deputy Director of NASA. When I interviewed Lori while researching Stop Playing Safe, she shared with me, “People have grown to understand that they know exactly where they stand with me.” She didn’t say they always like where she stands on issues, but they aren’t left wondering or second-guessing. Her candor has served her well. As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, playing it safe in your conversations deprives you and everyone else of the full value you bring. You build influence, grow trust and add value one conversation at a time.
#5. Advocate for yourself (Yes, “Good girls” do ask!)
Many people wrongly equate blowing their trumpet with conceit. It’s not. In today’s workplace, it’s crucial. While doing a great job is vital, and being a quiet achiever is admirable, if you think that working your tail off and collecting realms of gold stars alone will get you ahead, you may well end up being left behind, burnt out and bitter. If decision makers don’t know who you are, or know you but have no idea what you’re capable of, then you may well miss out on opportunities that get laid at the feet of those who aren’t shy in promoting their value in the right way and time. So lay false humility aside. Advocating for yourself isn’t about proving superiority or stroking a needy ego; it’s about letting the people who can help you add more value, do just that. After all, the more who know what you want, the more who can help you get it.
As Ita Buttrose, an icon in Australian business who asked to be made Women’s Editor of one of Australia’s leading newspapers when she was just 23, shared with me: “You’ve got to ask for what you want. People can’t know what you want just by looking at you!” Indeed people aren’t mind readers and expecting your boss (or anyone else! ) to know what you want will prove both futile and frustrating.
Likewise don’t be afraid to be bolder in negotiation. Women often settle for less than men do, which can have a cumulative effect over the course of a career into seven digit numbers. In an article in Harvard Business Review Nice Girls Don’t Ask, the authors cited a study that found of MBAs who had recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon where the males started on salaries almost $4,000 higher than their female counterparts largely because only 7% of the females had attempted to negotiate compared to 57% of the men. Of course just because you ask for something – whether a higher salary, bigger role or more support – is no guarantee you will get it. But not asking usually guarantees you won’t.
#6. Refuse to tolerate the intolerable
“Women must not let themselves be intimidated.” These words of advice by Debbie Kissire, Vice Chair/Managing Partner of Ernst & Young echo a sentiment shared with me by many women who’ve worked their way to the top, often in male dominated industries. It’s also why I believe many women tolerate behavior and circumstances that many men never would.
Many times women have complained to me that they feel undervalued, overlooked, or undermined (and not just by men.) Most of the time when I’ve enquired what they’ve done to address the situation they say they have done nothing. But here’s the deal: if you want to be taken seriously, respected widely and valued fully, you have to be willing to stand up for yourself, teach people how you expect to be treated and refuse to cower to those who seek to intimidate you.
A general rule of life is that you ‘Get what you tolerate.’ Likewise if you tolerate someone making snide remarks or passing you over for opportunities, you can likely expect more of the same. While you may not have done anything to warrant such behavior, by not making a very clear stand for what you will, and will not tolerate, you become complicit in your own misery.
#7. Embrace risk as crucial to your success
Maria Eitel, CEO of Nike Foundation shared with me that, “Coming from a position of fear, of not succeeding, losing your job or not being admired handicaps the potential of your career. I’ve never let fear of losing my job keep me from doing something I knew was the right thing to do.” Taking actions that put you at risk of failure, criticism, rejection, and even of losing your job, can be scary and emotionally uncomfortable. Yet, you cannot take on bigger challenges, build your skillset (your confidence with it), or expand your leadership influence unless you’re willing to take such risks. And while losing your job may seem pretty drastic, the courage you demonstrate by putting yourself in that position can earn you untold respect. It’s the sort of courage people want in their leaders.
You cannot achieve what we’re capable of doing by playing it safe in your comfort zone. The common thread that binds all the women CEO’s and leaders I’ve met over the years is their willingness to embrace risk, lay their reputation on the line, and take decisive action amidst doubt and ambiguity. While they’ve been highly competent in their own right, it’s their courage that’s enabled them to accomplish all that they have. To quote Leslie Sarasin, CEO of Food Marketing Institute, “We shouldn’t give our self-doubts power to make us settle for less from ourselves or from others that we really want. While there’s a fine line between stupidity and bravery, you have to be willing to walk that line at times if you want to seize new opportunities and lead a rewarding career.”
At her 2008 concession speech for the Democratic nomination, Hilary Clinton declared that the highest and hardest of glass ceilings had 18 million cracks in it, “the light is shining through and the path will be easier next time.” Five years on, that light is only shining brighter, and the world is hungrier than ever for more women to step toward it, and to break through the glass cage that limits their influence in the world; women ready to step up to the leadership plate and dare to do more, be more and give more. Only when we stop cowering to our fear of not being ‘enough’ and start owning the power that resides within each of us to affect change, can the millions of women less fortunate than us – living with little hope of the education or opportunity – ever exercise theirs. So you see, it’s not just our responsibility as women to become more courageous in how we live and lead; it’s our obligation.
Margie Warrell is a bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe (Wiley) and Find Your Courage (McGraw-Hill), and the Founder of Global Courage, a women’s leadership organization. A mother of four children, Margie is passionate about supporting women globally to live and lead with greater courage.