When I was looking for job fresh out of law school, a lawyer, who would later become my employer, expressed his preference for male employees. He believed that female employees often have other priorities higher than their jobs and are more likely to be absent from work.
While family obligations–like having to leave work midday to pick up a sick child from preschool, or taking the day off for doctor appointments–affect the number of hours women work, there are certain other reasons, factors within women’s control, why women don’t make as much progress in their careers as men do. Here are four of them from my personal experience.
1. Women Lack Confidence So They Don’t Reach for Opportunities
Some months ago, a former classmate from university, a male, told me he was considering running for a political office in Nigeria in 2019. I was impressed and I asked, “For House of Assembly?” (Lawmaker at the State Level.) He replied, “No, House of Representatives.” (Lawmaker at the federal level) I believe him.
In her book Lean In Sheryl Sanberg, Facebook COO, told a story of how when she was in Harvard, she, a female friend, and her brother were all taking one class together. Before the exam, Sheryl and her friend read all the books required for the course which was between seven and ten books. Sheryl’s brother, on the other hand, read only one book and few days to the exam, walked into Sheryl’s room to be tutored.
When they finished writing the exam and were discussing how the exam went, Sheryl and her friend pointed out that there were areas they didn’t quite cover well in the exam. When they asked Sheryl’s brother how well he wrote, he told them that he would get the best grade in class. When the results were released, all three had A’s. In retrospect, Sheryl concluded, it wasn’t that her brother was overconfident, it was that she and her female friend were insecure.
People advance in their careers by challenging themselves to take on additional responsibilities beyond what their current role requires. However, research shows that most women don’t apply for new opportunities unless they have 100% of the qualifications required for the job. On the other hand, men apply for new jobs when they have only 60% of the qualifications required.
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg also told a story of how when she was pregnant at a former job and had to take maternity leave, her male subordinates offered to ‘help’ by taking over some of her job responsibilities. By doing so, they positioned themselves for promotion should the position become available. No woman did.
Most women in the workplace already put their noses to the grindstone. Women only need to be more aggressive in accepting new challenges as that is the only way to learn and grow. Confidence is vital for leadership. So a woman who is good at her job but lacks confidence will be passed over for promotion while a more confident but less knowledgeable male colleague will be promoted.
2. Women Plan Their Careers Around Their Families–Sometimes Sooner than Necessary
About eight years ago, a young female friend had two jobs to choose from. One was directly related to what she studied in the university but the organization didn’t have branches in other cities, the other was with a bank that had branches across the country. She chose the bank job because, she reasoned, among other things, that if she got married in the future, she could transfer from the city she lived at the time to join her future husband wherever he might be living. Several years later, she got married, got a transfer and relocated to another city to join her husband.
While in my friend’s case, things seem to have worked out well, sometimes, women turn down opportunities when there is no imminent reason to do so. Many young women plan their careers around the expectation that they will get married and have children in future. So while their male colleagues decide, while in university, on which city to settle in and build a career once they graduate, women make little effort to start a career upon graduation but settle for any job they can find in the city where their parents live rationalizing that their future husbands will ultimately decide where they will settle. They reason, “why move to a new city and build a career only to be uprooted upon marriage.” This reasoning robs women between five to ten years of their lives that would have been used to get their feet wet in the workforce.
3. Women Rarely Ask for a Raise
One study shows that only about 7% of women negotiate their salaries whereas 57% of men do. Some female employees actually ask for a cut in their pay to accommodate other employees. Women don’t believe they deserve to earn more because they believe they aren’t worth more. But men think they are ‘awesome’ so they ask for promotions and raises–and they get them.
Recently, a female friend told me about how her husband who works in advertising prepared an ‘intimidating’ resume (she said it’s like a booklet) for her to help her in her job search. After her first interview, she felt she wasn’t quite as good as the resume portrays and told her husband to tone down the resume. Now, this friend graduated at the top of her class in university and is one of the most confident and most-likely-to-succeed women I know. Yet her confidence pales in comparison to her husband’s who she told me can nail down any job he wants because he will win any interviewer over with his confidence. If a woman as smart as my friend doesn’t believe in her abilities, how can she ask for a raise?
Because women focus more on result rather than pay, even when they are in a good position to ask for a raise, they don’t. Sheryl Sandberg said that when she was negotiating for her job at Facebook, it was her brother-in-law and her husband who encouraged her to ask Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, for more benefits including stocks at Facebook. She did and Mark granted all she requested. But for her husband and brother-in-law, sheryl would have settled for Mark’s initial offer which she thought was good enough.
4. Women try to do it all
Most women try to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. But leadership positions, with their many responsibilities, sometimes require sacrificing details for efficiency. Men succeed in the workforce more because they see the big picture. Women will succeed more if they learn to do the same.
Similarly, if a woman plans to remain in the work force while raising kids, something may have to give. For example, if you are a working mum, you are more likely to put your child in a blue (instead of green) t-shirt on St. Patrick’s day (ask Sheryl Sandberg)–Happy St Patrick’s day by the way–but does it matter? You have other important things to worry about.
Another female executive once told a story of how when her career was too demanding, she had her children go to bed at night in their school uniforms so she didn’t have to waste time getting them ready in the mornings. While this may be extreme, I can see how she had to do this to save her career. So if women can learn to let go of things that don’t matter, they can more effectively balance their careers and their work.
Women are uniquely gifted because they care about touching lives as well as they do about their careers. Several of my female friends fund non-profits they founded from their meager earnings. Women can accomplish more and make more impact if they make effort to occupy leadership positions. I hope this post inspires you to believe in yourself and assert yourself more. If you do, you are more likely to have an amazing career.
P.S. I was inspired to write this post after reading Sheryl Sanberg’s Lean in and watching her TEDtalk speech. Avail yourself of the two resources if you can. I found them very helpful. I have made almost all the mistakes identified in this post. But since reading Sheryl’s book, I try to accept more responsibilities and not turn them down on account of inexperience as I used to.
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