Are you a Cinderella in the workplace?

Written by
Lady Kitty Chisholm

06 Sep 2016

06 Sep 2016 • by Lady Kitty Chisholm

Have you felt you have been overlooked for promotion, or that your contribution at work is insufficiently appreciated?

Do you feel uncomfortable ‘blowing your own trumpet’?

Then you too might be a Cinderella.

You are a bright and capable woman: you work hard. Your projects come in on  time and to budget. But over the past few years, you have been overlooked for promotion and overtaken by (sometimes younger) male colleagues. Having reached the top end of middlemanagement, you are stuck – and cannot understand why. You’ve heard of the ‘sticky floor’ as well as the ‘glass ceiling’, but neither seems to fit your situation.

Sometimes, you fantasise about a ‘handsome prince’ of a senior manager, who, having recognised your value to the organisation, seeks you out and places the glass slipper of promotion on your foot. You feel puzzled – and sometimes quite angry – that your worth is not recognised and rewarded, but in the end you decide to knuckle down and get on with your job rather than pushing the issue.

Behind the scenes

Let’s look beyond the fairy tale, and refer to research findings (for example, Zenger Folkman – see diagram, page 63) to understand why so many able, talented and ambitious women get stuck in middle-management.

‘Cinderellas’ are women who want to progress (go to the ball) but haven’t been promoted or recognised, or are useful in support roles so their bosses won’t allow them to progress. These women around the world tell us that ‘blowing their own trumpet’ – talking positively about their achievements and acknowledging their ambitions openly to themselves and others – seems contrary to their values.

On the other hand, women who have succeeded in reaching the top jobs, tell a different story. They report that, at some point during their careers, they have been championed. Someone – a respected senior – senior – has identified their potential, helped them to see it, and given them opportunities to take on ‘stretch roles’ that have built their confidence over time.
Having someone (without a personal agenda) believe in their talent not only gave these women ‘permission’ to believe in themselves and to talk about it, but most importantly, to prove their abilities to themselves and others by taking on bigger and bigger roles. Significantly, they realised that hard work and great performance are not, by themselves, enough to signal high potential: they have to show they have talent, appetite and sufficient capacity for the next job and the one after that.

Gender Differences

‘Cinderellas’ respond to signals they receive from their social environments. Women tend to be more sensitive than their male peers to how they are perceived by others, and subconsciously understand that women and men, behaving in similar ways, are judged differently – by both women and men.

Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, expressed this well in her book Lean In: “When a woman excels at her job, both male and female co-workers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is ‘not as wellliked by her peers’. She is probably ‘too aggressive’, ‘not a team player’, ‘a bit political’, ‘can’t be trusted’, or ‘difficult’.”

‘Cinderellas’ avoid provoking such judgements in others. Most importantly, they judge themselves according to these different criteria and therefore feel uncomfortable. These judgements are based on the different cultural expectations we have around how men and women should, or should not, behave. They are not indicators of oppressive or wicked mentalities, but the result of biases, primarily the stereotype bias – short-cuts the brain takes to maximise efficiency.

‘Cinderellas’ lack confidence in their environment. They may know, intellectually, that they perform well, but they do not trust their environments to be fair, so downplay their achievements. They know they’re missing out, but not how to address this situation.  

What organisations can do to help

Changing the culture, processes, and above all, the habitual behaviours of individuals in organisations, is a fundamental underlying enabler for these women. For example, raising awareness around unconscious bias, and creating not just one-off, but regular, opportunities to practise fighting it, can make a significant difference to organisational culture.

Training line managers how to deal with ‘Cinderella syndrome’, and tying that in with measuring how women progress under their management, is useful in enabling policies to be applied equitably. It is also essential to make all recruitment and promotion criteria and processes transparent and widely available; ‘championing’ should be promoted at all levels in an organisation. Champions ensure that an able woman has a breadth of experience in stretch projects comparable to that of an able man, by putting her forward for stretch roles and challenging projects. This means that when shortlists for the most senior roles are compiled, women’s CVs are comparable to men’s.

Set diversity targets and explain why and how they matter so that they become ‘part of the way we do things around here’ and create regular networking opportunities that cross business unit and departmental boundaries, plus levels of hierarchy, to ensure that talented people are spotted and developed. 

Finally, invest in leadership training with more focus on confidence building, behaviour and attitude change, rather than just on knowledge, to help prepare women for senior roles.

Ultimately, champions are not fairy godparents nor Prince Charmings and organisations cannot wave a magic wand to ensure equity. Women must take ownership of their careers, and acknowledge achievements and ambitions. They must look for growth opportunities and take on stretch roles.