Women, work and advancement: what’s wrong with this picture?

Women, career advancement and success

Why aren't women advancing in workplaces? Find out in this essay by Diane Lee.
What’s wrong with this picture?

In 2008, I started a PhD. A year later I quit, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about women and work, and what I see happening again and again in workplaces where these young*, educated women work. Where young, educated women overwork in the hope they will have career success. Where young, educated women overwork in the hope they will have career success, but are often chewed up and spat out by the places for which they work. This post is about that, which, coincidentally, was also kind of what my PhD** was about.

Let me give you some context. In the last few months 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. I had one young mother who was working part-time (three days a week) tell me how she takes work home because she feels “pressure” to do so. And another young soon-to-be mother tell a whole bunch of people at her farewell that she had literally taken only two weeks off in the last 10 years. She said she loved work, was a workaholic and would miss it terribly while she was on maternity leave. And another mum-to-be told me how guilty she felt about going off on maternity leave, because she had only been in her permanent role for a year.

I see many of these women work ridiculous hours: in the office well before me in the morning, still there when I leave at night. Young, educated women working past 6pm on a Friday night. Young, educated women who take work home. Young, educated women who make work their life, and who sadly miss out on actually having a life. Young, educated women who make work their life, and who are consistently screwed over by their places of work. They miss out on the jobs they aspire to and work so hard for—often handed to others— and wonder how they came to be robbed of opportunities they should have been a shoe-ins for.

Why are young, educated women buying into this? This is a complex answer, but I think it’s because they believe the ideology of meritocracy. And they 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? 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.

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 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.

In my 35 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.

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, and even the Iron Lady herself. You go to university, probably study for a double degree (generally economics or business and law) and end up with a massive HECS 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). 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.

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

I have seen many young, educated women work some really long hours, taking any and all “development opportunities” (code for stuff that others— mostly men—won’t or don’t want to do) in the mistaken belief that it will get them somewhere. I’ve seen older, educated 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 young, educated 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 as an aside, in Australia, 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 into saying yes, or work that pushes someone else’s agenda, or work that is clearly someone else’s slops. 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…?

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

In my 35 years of working, I have seen many intelligent, competent women who are underlings to men who are living, breathing examples of the Peter Principle. 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 resigned 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 turds. 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.

Actually, on second thought, I do understand why competent women languish furious and frustrated and resigned in lesser roles. 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. Men don’t want to share power. Men don’t want to share the wealth and the status and resources. If they did, there’d be a lot more women in leadership positions in organisations. Forget about Lean In, how about Move The Fuck Over or Get The Fuck Out Of The Way?

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. 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.

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 is 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. Young, educated 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.

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 for the bullshit it is. There was never any intention of 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. You are devastated. 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 they are. Which is much, much less than what they actually deserve.

* By young, I mean women in their mid twenties to late thirties, usually tertiary educated, looking to climb the corporate ladder.

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

Did this post resonate with you?

Collection 4: Working It Out of the Love & Other Brave Acts (Essays on Courage for Fearless and Fabulous Living) series is all about work, workplaces and organisational culture.If you liked this post, then you’ll love my collection of essays about work.

Part memoir, part analysis of workplace culture, I consider the world of work and the definition of career success. And anyone who has found themselves disillusioned about the progress of their career—and that’s a lot of us!—will relate to this book.

Grab your copy of Collection 4: Working is Out  from the Amazon Kindle Store for .99c.

(If you want even more value for money, you can now get all 6 books from the Love & Other Brave Acts series for $4.99. Just saying.)


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