The advice I give in this article is not meant to replace or ignore the largescale institutional and cultural changes that need to be made for more women to advance in the business world. As I have written elsewhere, policy changes that would ensure equal pay for women, provide paid family leave, and allow parents to work and take of their children at the same time are all essential to women’s advancement in the workforce. Culturally, we need to eradicate the unfair standards and expectations we hold women to but not men.
But those of us already in the workforce need practical strategies to navigate business environments that are often unfavorable to women and hold them back from moving to the top. Until the large-scale work of reforming institutions and cultures is done, here are 4 things women can do to break down barriers and get ahead in their careers:
1. Negotiate your salary
All else equal, on average employers pay women less than men. Over the course of a woman’s life, unequal pay costs her around $400,000. Until our laws are able to remedy this gross inequality, women need to negotiate their pay with their employers.
I remember being very intimidated the first time I negotiated my salary. But I had done my research and knew what I was being offered was lower than market standards and under-valued my worth as an employee. I wrote out “bullet points” for what I was going to say during the negotiating process and even practiced them beforehand.
Striking a balance between appearing confident and grateful is the key to a successful negotiation, and also points to why negotiating is so hard for women in the first place. Many women are taught—and expected by others—to be people pleasers who don’t rock the boat and accept what they are given. Asking for more money defies these expectations, which is why it’s difficult to do.
Begin the discussion by telling your employer how pleased and excited you are about the opportunity to work for the company. Then show them that you did your research about market pay and other tidbits that you can find on Google or by asking others in the industry. Finally, ask for a number that is slightly higher than what you really want—while some employers will give you what you ask for, others will continue the negotiating process and offer you less than what you ask for. Raising the number you ask for helps offset that possibility.
2. Ask for a raise
Unless you work for an organisation or company that regularly provides raises to its employees, you are probably going to have to ask for a raise. Too many women (and some men) believe that if they work hard, their good performance will get recognised with more money. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
A recent study found that a majority of men have asked for a raise while less than half of women have. If you’ve been producing excellent work and believe you deserve a raise, go ahead and ask for it — research shows that you will probably get it.
I’ve done this a lot throughout my career, and as with salary negotiations, it helps to prepare ahead of time and record your accomplishments and reasons for asking for a raise. The time you’ve spent in a certain position or role often matters less than what you have done for the company during that period, so play up your achievements as well as the additional responsibilities you want to take on in the future.
3. Take credit for your work
One great thing about having more women in the workplace is that they tend to be collaborators and team players. Unfortunately, this work style can work against you when men are more likely to be competitive and take credit for the work that you’ve done. Studies have shown that on team or group projects, women tend to give more credit to their male colleagues and take less for themselves. This hurts women if their overall contribution to their company or organisation is not recognised.
I see this dynamic play out with my male colleagues all the time. In staff meetings, I always say “we” when I’m talking about a project I’m working on with other people, even if I’m the lead on it: “We are working on the presentation,” “We believe we should move in this direction,” etc. In contrast, many of the men I’ve worked with will talk in the first-person about projects: “I am working on the presentation,” “I believe we should move in this direction,” and this is true even when they are not the project leads. So while women downplay their contributions, men play theirs up.
Women should not assume that their boss knows who “really” does the work—he or she doesn’t. Talking casually but directly with your boss or supervisor about your recent role or contribution to a project helps make your case. I will often say something to my boss that emphasises my leadership on a project and compliments my colleagues—because they deserve credit too. Something like “I really loved taking the lead on this project and introducing this new framework in our reports, and I think Jill and John really grew a lot from this engagement as well,” tends to work well.
4. Connect with other women
I’ve seen women get very competitive and sometimes try to undermine each other in the race to the top. Don’t do that—women need to support each other and lift each other up in the workplace. While some level of competition is healthy, putting others down to get ahead yourself is not a viable strategy, and I’ve often seen this backfire on both women and men.
What does work is forming professional relationships with other women—with those above and below you. Seek out a more senior woman at your company or in your industry as a source of support and advice in your career. It’s also important to give back and mentor younger or less experienced women to help them navigate the business world as women. This is how you build a network which will come in handy throughout your career—for leads on new business, job prospects, or just for having the support and encouragement from people who get it.