6 Ways Women Can Really Get Ahead in the Workplace

Women need to take advantage of their own particular strengths in the workplace.


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Forget what you’ve heard about “being one of the boys,” “having it all,” and “going for the jugular.” Here is how real women get ahead in the workplace. These six actions will help women to achieve and take advantage of the particular strengths they bring to the workplace.

To Get Ahead Women Need to Get In Line

According to Catalyst’s 2018 study, women currently hold 25 (5.0 percent) of CEO positions at the S&P Fortune 500 companies. To find out how many women are at other levels of S&P 500 companies, take a look at the Catalyst, "Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies" (June 1, 2018) pyramid.

Catalyst finds that among top earners, women are at 11 percent. Women hold 21.2 percent of Board seats, 26.5 percent of executive or senior level management positions, and 36.9 percent of the first level to mid-level management positions.

Is there a correlation? Absolutely.

In the United States, women were nearly half (46.9 percent) of the labor force but held only slightly over a third (39.8 percent) of management roles in 2017. White women held almost a third of all management positions at 32.5 percent, followed by Latinas at 4.1 percent, Black women at 3.8 percent, and Asian women at just 2.4 percent.

Women made up the highest share of managers in the human resources occupations (70.8 percent) and in social and community services (70.2 percent).

The percentage of US businesses who employed at least one woman in senior management jumped from 69 percent in 2017 to 81 percent in 2018, but the percentage of senior roles held by women decreased from 23 percent to 21 percent. Half of women executives and sixty-eight percent of CEOs say that lack of significant line experience “holds women back” (Catalyst, "Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership," 2003).

Knowing that line experience is critical, get prepared. Study financial management, become an expert in a functional area such as strategic planning, manufacturing, marketing or sales, serve on a nonprofit or advisory board and, the minute the opportunity arises, take a position with profit and loss responsibility.

Learning about the financials doesn't happen overnight. When Margaret Morford, 50, of Brentwood, Tennessee, was Vice President of Human Resources for a large distribution company, she recalls, “I took the same finance for non-financial managers course three times until I got it."

"I used that financial knowledge to demonstrate Human Resources’ impact to the bottom line. Once I started speaking in numbers, the senior managers in my peer group began to view Human Resources as a business partner rather than as an administrative drain on revenues."

To Get Ahead at Work, Remember Who You Are

The most common reason women in this study gave for why they stay with their current employer "was that their job fits well with other areas of their life. The second most popular reason given was that they enjoy the work that they do, followed by believing that their job gives them the opportunity to make a difference.

"Statistically, women were more likely to stay with their employer for these reasons over what might be considered more concrete, traditional reasons such as pay, benefits, or because of their manager.

"These results reinforce findings from the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Workplace Retention study, which found that among over 1,000 Americans surveyed, job fit and enjoyable work are the two biggest reasons employees stay with their organizations."

When women leaders were asked, they told stories like the one, Pam Judd, age 53, shared.

Shortly after she began working for Levi’s, Pam was advised by her boss and peers that if she wanted to get ahead, she shouldn’t be so nice. The essential Pam is a very nice person–caring, empathetic, a person who remembers every event in her friends’ and family’s lives with a card, gift or phone call.

Pam ignored that early advice and made the decision to be herself, stay true to her gut instincts and stayed the course. Now, 33 years later, she is a sales director, one of the top female leaders in her company, and she is also still nice.

In a study, it was found that:

"Women want to work for organizations that help them find their calling.

"Women want leadership opportunities—but they also want the resources and support required to make these opportunities successful."

To Get Ahead at Work Communicate Superbly

Almost fifty percent of women executives cite “developing a style with which male managers are comfortable” as critical to success (Catalyst, "Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership" 2003).

Dr. Pat Heim, the author of "Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams," writes, “women often use hedges, disclaimers, ​and tag questions in their speech to involve the other person and maintain the all-important relationship in female culture. When men hear this, they incorrectly assume a woman either does not know what she is talking about, or that she is insecure about her ideas.”

Lisa Steiner, age 46, Vice President, Brown-Forman Corporation, Louisville, Kentucky, says, “In my experience, women who regularly ask for advice and are tentative are viewed as needy—not the best perception if your goal is to reach the top.” Steiner adds, “It has taken me years to refine my decision-making skills but now I have learned not to second guess myself.”

To Get Ahead at Work Flaunt Your Skills Not Your Sexuality

Maria Xenidou, age 35, Senior Associate, National Starch & Chemical Company, Bridgewater, New Jersey, follows the advice of a mentor who told her never to answer a senior person’s query, “How are you?” with “Fine.”

Instead, she says, “I give a one sentence update on what I am working on or a recent challenge I mastered. By doing so, I keep upper management up-to-date about my career and what might have been a quick hello in the hall often turns into a longer conversation.”

And, highly successful women know not to flirt, swear, or be the last one at the bar. A 2005 study by Tulane University found that women who send flirtatious email, wear short skirts, cross their legs provocatively, or massage a man's shoulders at work win fewer pay raises and promotions.

To Get Ahead at Work You Can’t Have It All If You Do It All

  1. The biggest hurdle that women have to leap is managing kids and a career. While men also have busy professional and personal lives, women shoulder the majority of household and childcare responsibilities and pay the career consequences. According to Catalyst, "Workplace Flexibility Isn’t Just a Woman’s Issue" 2003, women are more likely than men to:
  • Employ outside services for domestic help.
  • Share personal responsibilities with a partner.
  • Use childcare services.
  • Rely on supportive relatives other than their partner.
  • Curtail personal interests.

Successful women plan their careers and don’t attempt to do it all. Steiner is married with four children at home. She started her family after completing her education and making a mark in her organization. Says Steiner, “I don’t attempt to do it all. I delegate a lot of the household chores to make our lives work.”

To Get Ahead at Work Honor The Female Advantage

In "Fast Company," “Women and Men, Work and Power," February 1998, Sharon Patrick, President and COO, "Martha Stewart Living," is quoted as saying, “We can't ignore a million years of history—at the office or in the living room. Men hunt, women gather.” A funny but true attribute of the modern hunter is “going for the jugular and then inviting you out for a beer afterwards.”

According to Nicki Joy and Susan Kane-Benson, authors of "Selling is a Woman’s Game," women tend to encourage harmony and agreement, consult with experts, employees and peers before making a decision, and make personal connections with others at work.

As more organizations move away from authoritarian organizational values and a rigid hierarchy to a more open, informal, democratic model, “being raised as a man is no longer an advantage” says John Naisbitt, author of "Megatrends." Most HR practitioners and managers agree.