Diane Lee - Why Being a Woman is Ruining Your Career

6 Reasons Why Being a Woman is Ruining Your Career

I started a PhD in 2008. A year later I quit, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about women, work, and career advancement. It’s about what I see happening again and again in workplaces. Where women overwork in the hope they will have career success. Where women are often chewed up and spat out by the places for which they work. Where women of a certain age can’t get work. Where women have to hide their age on paper to even get a look-in for work. This post is about that, which, coincidentally, was also kind of what my PhD was about.

Let me give you some context. Recently, in a Facebook group I’m in, more than 300 women — aged mostly over forty, but some in their thirties — responded to a post about one woman having a tough time finding work since COVID19 and that HR just kept was telling her she had “too much experience” and was “over qualified”. All of those women, myself included, responded that they had been having a tough time for years. COVID19 hasn’t changed anything; rather, it has amplified the issues.

My first thoughts were: I can’t believe this old chestnut is still around. It’s been my working life since I turned 40 (nearly 20 years ago), and it’s reared it’s ugly head again during the pandemic. We all know that “you have too much experience” and “you’re overqualified” is thinly veiled code for “we’ll have to pay you more” and “we know you won’t put up with our corporate bullshit”. It’s much easier to hire people who can be manipulated and paid less.

Of course, most discrimination is covert now because hirers KNOW it’s illegal to discriminate. They’ll say things like “another candidate was more suitable” or “unfortunately you’re not the right cultural fit” or ghost you because it’s easier. That goes for all the “isms” (sexism, racism, ageism) that don’t maintain the status quo of the dominant culture of the workplace. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

1. Just because you think you deserve a career doesn’t mean you’ll advance

Over the years, I have heard about, or had discussions with women talking about work. And how much of it they do. And how stressed they are because there is so much of it, and how there are not enough hours in the day to do it. And how difficult it is to find work — a good, decent paying job with prospects. Over the years, I see many women work ridiculous hours: in the office well before me in the morning, still there when I leave at night. Women working past 6PM on a Friday night. Women who take work home. Women who make work their life, and who sadly miss out on actually having a life. Women who are consistently screwed over by their places of work. Women who miss out on the jobs they aspire to and work so hard for that are often handed to less qualified men. Women who wonder how they came to be robbed of opportunities they should have been a shoe-ins for.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]And we believe in the concept and practise of merit — that the best person for the job will win out in the end. But merit is a myth. Merit is defined by whoever defines it[/perfectpullquote]

Why have we as women bought into this notion of career? This is a complex answer, but I think it’s because we believe in the ideology of meritocracy. And we believe in the concept and practise of merit — that the best person for the job will win out in the end. But merit is a myth. Merit is defined by whoever defines it. Correction: merit is defined by whoever has the power to define it. And who (mostly) has the power in workplaces? Men. More often than not, merit is also underpinned by corporate carrot dangling — a form of aspirational quid pro quo that never eventuates. If you do this piece of work and you will have this opportunity later down the track. That sort of thing. Of course, it rarely eventuates.

There was a time that I bought into the bullshit notion of “career”. I even had leadership aspirations, until I saw (generally) the calibre of the people who were up there, and thought: no thanks — I don’t want to be anywhere near you people. Lacking in integrity at best, psychopaths and narcissists at worst. Generally speaking. The sad thing is: I think I would have been a good leader. I’m people-oriented, with a strategic focus that’s committed to outcomes. But I was always too mouthy and forthright and interested in work-life balance to be schmoozing it up with the big boys. And they are mostly boys — rarely girls — in the upper echelons. It’s all very elitist.

In my 40 years of working though, many of them in big organisations, I’ve learned a few things about corporate life, the career part of which is mostly an illusion. Smoke and mirrors, even. The point of this post is to share my insights with you.

2. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you’ll advance

We’ve all heard the rhetoric. Girls are as smart (if not smarter than boys worldwide, looking at the academic statistics). Girls can do anything they want to do if they set their minds to it. There are enough examples to make you think this is true: Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, Janet Yellen, Angela Merkel, Therese Rein, Christine Lagarde, Ita Buttrose, Quentin Bryce, Marissa Mayer, Jacinda Adern and even the Iron Lady herself. You go to university, probably study for a double degree (generally economics or international business and law) and end up with a massive student debt. You start in an organisation (possibly after researching who you’d like to work for), probably as a graduate, maybe as an agency temp, most likely on contract, and you celebrate the fact that you are have your foot in the door. You’ve arrived!


What you’ve arrived in is a world that’s governed, ruled, managed, led — whatever you’d like to call it — by men. And regardless of the fact that discrimination against women on the basis of gender is illegal, irrespective of HR policies that encourage women into leadership, the world you want to enter and the glass ceiling you want to shatter is controlled by men. They don’t want to share any of their power with you, unless it’s a few token dregs to keep you in line (a.k.a. corporate carrot dangling or the bait and switch). This, of course, goes against ALL the research that shows those organisations who have women in leadership positions do better financially and culturally. Women are good for business. It’s just that business doesn’t recognise this very inconvenient truth, because business is run by, you guessed it, men.

I went to university in my twenties — after working for ten years and getting nowhere — thinking I’d have access to all these job opportunities. I have three degrees, including a Master’s degree. I thought that with a tertiary education, I’d build (and have) a rewarding career. Sure, it happens for some. And it happens for enough people that we think it could happen for us. It happens often enough to keep us acquiring student debt and banging on doors. But it’s all a big, fat lie. An illusion meant to keep us in our place.

3. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’ll advance

I have seen many women work really long hours, taking any and all “development opportunities” (code for stuff that others — mostly men — can’t, won’t or don’t want to do) in the mistaken belief that it will get them somewhere. I’ve seen older women fall into the same trap. Hell, I’ve even done it. And invariably these “development opportunities” are unpaid.

But before you pooh pooh me, riddle me this. If there are so many women, working long hours on “development opportunities”, why aren’t there more women in positions of power in organisations, not fewer? And this question is even more relevant when you consider that women are outnumbering and outpacing men in tertiary education, and doing better. Why isn’t all this education and hard work rewarded in our organisations? And women still don’t earn the same as men.

Look, I’m not saying that rewards and recognition don’t happen: they’re just not as common as management would have us believe. And you have to be aware of this anomaly because taking “development opportunities” benefits the status quo. And I’m also not saying that you stop working hard. But be smart about what you choose to do. Choose work that builds your c.v., that challenges you and teaches you something, even if it’s something about yourself. Work with people who inspire you and mentor you and show you — with integrity and aplomb — what it means to be a leader. A good leader, because good leaders are rare and shine (bad leaders are a dime a dozen, and proliferate in workplaces). Don’t do work where you want to say no, but are coerced or manipulated into saying yes, or work that pushes someone else’s agenda, or work that is clearly someone else’s sloppy seconds. Practice saying no, even if it’s an I’m not comfortable with that or an I need to think about that… can I get back to you in a day or so…? Or a This doesn’t work for me at the moment.

4. Just because you are good at what you do doesn’t mean you’ll advance

In my 40 years of working, I have seen intelligent, competent women who are underlings to men who are living, breathing examples of the Peter Principle. Or the Dunning Kruger effect. I have never been able to understand why organisations insist on promoting less than competent men up the corporate ladder, while leaving competent women to languish in roles that are beneath them. And women languish in lesser roles beneath these incompetent males, often furious or frustrated or fuming that incompetence has been rewarded. Yet again.

And it’s not because these women don’t try to get ahead. Remember the concept of merit? If merit was the underpinning recruitment principle, cream would be rising to the top, not shit. Instead, like paedophile priests in the Catholic Church, incompetence is moved onwards and upwards in many organisations. Women get fed up and leave for another (hopefully more conducive) workplace, or fed up and reduce their hours (and consequently, opportunities), or fed up and start their own business, or fed up and go back to university to gain another qualification, or fed up and turn to contract or freelance work.

5. Just because you act in the best interests of the organisation doesn’t mean you’ll advance

When you act in the best interests of the organisation, you are often forced to highlight behaviour that is less than ethical or desirable in certain individuals. These certain individuals generally have a major sense of entitlement because of their position in the organisation, usually because they are white and male. This sense of entitlement means they act in their best interests not the organisation’s. You, with your best efforts to act with integrity and honesty and authenticity and empathy, will get in the way of these certain individuals, who will make sure they eliminate you from their universe. Or the organisation. Whichever is easiest. Or quickest.

Because, at the end of the day, squeaky wheels are bearers of inconvenient, unpalatable truths. Truths that uncover realities that the recruitment practices of the organisation may not be tickety-boo, that the performance management system is worse than useless, that the gazillions spent on leadership training is wasted, that the business planning process is flawed, that functional teams are a figment of someone’s imagination, that the values of the organisation are laughable. No one — especially those in power — likes to hear these truths. Much better if those sorts of truths didn’t exit. Much better to eliminate the ethical, honest, authentic and empathetic person who is telling these truths. If the person who is telling these inconvenient truths is no longer working in the organisation, then these truths cease to exist.

This particular point is not related to gender, it’s related to ethical business decisions and dealings, and I have witnessed cases where, equally, both men and women could use a recalibration of their moral compass. But given the skewed gender balance in leadership positions in organisations, it is more likely that these certain individuals with their well-developed sense of entitlement are male. And white. Women are often forced to make a choice between ethics and silence, because they see what happens to others who do speak up. And it ain’t pretty. Heads on spikes sends a powerful message.

6. Just because you are promised something doesn’t mean you’ll advance

If I had $1 for every woman screwed over by “promises of something more” in the workplace, I’d be a gazillionaire by now. But we continually fall for it. We believe that our leaders will keep their word and honour the commitments they make to us. That what is promised to us will come to pass. Instead, someone else is given that role, given that promotion, given that project and we are given a shrug and a Sorry. I did everything I could to make this happen, but it was out of my hands. I call it out for the bullshit it is. There was never any intention of you being given that role, given that promotion, given that project because if there was, it would have happened! It would have been given!

“Promises of something more” in the workplace mirrors the dating world. You hook-up with someone, you have a great time, they take your number and promise you more, but it never happens. But they seemed so keen and interested and genuine, you say. I thought this was going somewhere. Cue devastation. In retrospect, of course they did. They seemed so keen and interested and genuine because they wanted something. You are broken-hearted because you trusted that someone and they did not deliver on their promise. The same thing happens in the workplace ad infinitum.

The only way you can win at the “promises of something more” game at work is to get every single promise that is ever made to you in writing. If a role is promised to you, get it in writing. If a promotion is promised to you, get it in writing. If that project is promised to you, get it in writing. Even if it’s you who has to do the actual writing: Just confirming the details of the conversation we had this morning. I can expect to take up [insert role/promotion/project here] on [insert date here] as agreed. And I will be paid [insert amount here] and have access to [insert resource requirements here]. Is that correct? I’m really looking forward to this challenge. Thank you for the opportunity. Trust no one with your career except yourself. Ultimately the only person who has your best interests at heart is you.

Getting everything in writing — even it’s an email or a text or a scrawl on a napkin with signature — is the only way your “promises of something more” will actually become the “reality of something more”. If it’s not genuine, then the person who promised you something more will look like the complete and utter dick that they are. Which is much, much less than what they actually deserve.

What can be done?

That’s the million dollar question, because policy sure isn’t working. Neither are quotas. Neither are the occasional media spotlights on the issue. Governments and chambers of commerce and economists talk about the impact of women leaving the workforce in droves to work freelance or start their own businesses. They talk about diversity. They talk about inclusive recruitment practices. No one really cares except the women who leave their jobs furious and frustrated and fuming, and those women who can’t get another job and are equally furious and frustrated and fuming.

It sounds cliché, but it really does start at the top. You can have the best equal opportunity policy in the world in your workplace, but men have to want to share the stage. Quite simply: men don’t want women in positions of power, particularly if they are older. Older women remind men of their mothers, and no one wants to work with their mom. Men don’t want to share power and this is mirrored in the culture of the organisation. Men don’t want to share the wealth and the status and resources and this is reflected in hiring policies and practices. If they did want to play nicely in the sandpit, there’d be a lot more women of all ages in leadership positions in organisations.

So forget about Lean In, how about Move The Fuck Over or Get The Fuck Out Of The Way?

It’s the only way things will change, other than a revolution.

** If you’d like to read my PhD proposal, you can download it here.

Image by Jens Peter Olesen from Pixabay 

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