Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Women at work - dropping like flies on the way up the ladder.

"When a man is aggressive he is ambitious but when a woman is aggressive she is a b****. How do you expect a woman to be successful?" I heard this quite a few times, from women, over my last ten years at work. It was disappointing to know that women comprised only 3% of the executive layer. There were different programs and initiatives to see what could be done to bring more women into the workforce and grow the ones already there. I attended several interesting ones - about how not to be a prey and stand your ground, how to be confident about the nurturer you are. I heard female executives talk about their life stories and then found out that their husbands had quit work when they had a child. It was scary, it seemed like woman stagnated or fell off the ladder as they went up at work, or had spouses willing to quit work.

Women are hard workers, good managers, they are very good at understanding people but there are very few at the higher levels. Glass ceilings, having babies and time commitment were all words I heard attributing to this. In a frustrated discussion I once heard - “You can't have it all. You can't expect to manage work and life and children and expect happiness and success at each one of them". Then I read something about India that made me question the time commitment issue.

There are more women in the IT workforce in India than in the US (28% compared to US 26%). A big contributing factor is help at home. Middle class Indian women have domestic help and grandparents usually chip in when babies enter the picture. In US households chores make it harder for women (and some men too) to put in all the effort they need at work and I have seen way too many women drop out or go part time to balance it all.

Help at home seems to indicate that more women show up at work but not necessarily that more women are successful at work. There seem to be many other factors that impact woman rising to the higher levels at work. Reflecting back I can see these as a few -

- insecurity. We tend to question ourselves more. Seeking more approval and affirmation than needed. Maybe years of evolution has made us less risk takers because the women that are confident and secure really do well.
- the need to please. Women are more likely to sacrifice their own needs to ensure those around them are happy. Whether this means taking more on at home or being less aggressive at work. The ones that stand their ground and put "me" in the "we" equation have a much better shot at doing well at work.
- trying to reach consensus. Most men get to a point and get done with it. Let’s say that equals 100% efficiency. I have noticed that women spend at least 25% of the time making sure everyone is comfortable and has reached some consensus during a meeting. It is almost as if you need the world to be at peace for work to get done. That simply makes us 75% efficient. Long term this is good for a team and does create a more cohesive team but with reorgs and constant shuffles in projects and team structure this 25% efficiency goes down the drain.
- socially it is more acceptable for a woman not to be ambitious or even quit her job. If eyebrows were raised every time a woman quit her job or did not get a promo I can tell you "the need to please" aspect would kick in and get her to do something about it.
- glass ceiling, men's club, inner circle. I went to talk to a VC once and was told that I'd do great opening an online boutique. I am sure I would but I am sure I'd do great starting a online voip marketplace but I guess I looked the boutique type. I had a guy friend admit he was rather intimidated when he walked into a women's conference and was the only guy in a hall with a hundred women. I attended meetings with over fifty people and was the only female there week after week. It is not easy being different and it gets harder as you climb up the ladder and you are among fewer and fewer similar people.

As workplaces realize and recognize women for the cohesive, less burnt out teams that they can build maybe more women will sift to the top and the glass ceiling will crack a little. Socially getting women to be more confident, little more self-centered and being a doer rather than a pleaser might help expand their 3% standing in the executive layer without them resorting to emulating men or being a b****. It will come from workplace programs and by examples but most of all by a change in social upbringing and drilling into our daughters that they will be mothers someday but that does not mean that they have to compromise on anything or second guess themselves. And teaching our sons that women are capable of being way more than just their moms.


  1. A rather interesting post....but I don't quite agree that THE thing to do for women is to stop trying to please, reach consensus, and the other points you listed,...in short, give up on the feminine aspect and become more "male". Sure that might be able to achieve some more women in the workforce, but do we really want that at the cost of the feminine?

    We should rather be asking why feminine traits are considered so totally antagonistic to the workplace ethics...and is such consideration really justified?

  2. I don't think we need to give it up but these are factors that prevent us from competing in a male dominated env. The only thing I'd change is lack of confidence and self doubt. Women are great at building strong foundations in teams but in teams where reorgs are common place their value goes unrewarded.

  3. And it's the environment which needs to be changed more than anything- and not just for the benefit of women, but for industry itself. A certain talk relating to the point intrigues me, thought might interest you too. :)

  4. Sometimes I wonder about the woman in the workforce. Lately I have been thinking about how i have an option of leaving work ( not for children but because I dont want to work)
    and staying home but my husband doesnt necessarily have that ( he does but it would be a harder decision). We should be telling our daughters to stand for themselves but should we also be telling our sons that it is alright to let your wife support you financially.

  5. we also be telling our sons that it is alright to let your wife support you financially.

    How about telling our daughters that it is ok for them to support their husbands.