Kumeshnee West: 5 ways women can smash the glass ceiling

It is a frustrating fact that despite many initiatives, government policies and corporate regulations, women remain seriously underrepresented at senior levels of management across the world.

With Maria Ramos having stepped down as ABSA Group CEO at the end of February 2019, there are no female CEOs at any of South Africa’s Top 40 companies.

At a recent Prominent Women’s Speakers Series at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) held in collaboration with the 30% Club Southern Africa ahead of International Women's Day, two seasoned businesswomen highlighted what they believe could help women gain better access to boardroom and senior management roles.  

1. Create your own opportunities

Don’t wait for opportunities to come knocking or for colleagues to invite you to golf days or after work drinks. Professor Beatrix Dart, founder of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business as well as Strategy Professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, says women need to be aware of what is going on at work.

She says women need to find ways to get to know their colleagues, board members and senior managers better informally – as this is often where an agenda point for a coming board meeting will be discussed – and sometimes a course of action will be decided on long before the actual board meeting. 

In this way, women can avoid being sidelined in a meeting. "Women have to learn to navigate the particular environment that they are in to avoid being caught off guard," she says, emphasising, "You need to be part of the network."

2. Upskill

Having the pre-requisite skills and qualifications is vital, says Joy-Marie Lawrence, Chartered Director South Africa (CD SA). The former chair of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) believes, "You don’t have to be an engineer to sit on the board of an engineering company, but you have to have some skills or be a specialist in a particular area, whether it is finance or legal, etc."

She says it is helpful when women are given the platform to demonstrate their expertise to prove a point. Having the right qualifications will help to give you confidence and belief in yourself. If you don’t feel secure about your financial acumen or accounting savvy - do a course, educate yourself. Knowledge is power.

3. Don’t undermine yourself unwittingly

Many women don’t even realise that they are buying into the traditional stereotypes of, for example, being emotional, not good at logical thinking or bad at numbers, says Professor Dart.

"There is plenty of research that shows that women reinforce these stereotypes wittingly or unwittingly, saying for instance, that women are not as logical as men, when a logic test will show there is no difference between the genders."

Stereotypes play a big role in the way women are perceived and treated in the workplace and women need to be aware of how they conduct themselves as well as the messages they send to colleagues at the workplace to ensure that they are not perpetuating stereotypes that could disadvantage them professionally. 

4. Don’t give up

Even though there are plenty of women – about 50% – in middle management positions worldwide, not many make it to the top. One of the reasons is that women have a greater fear of taking risks.

A report by Hewlett Packard showed while men apply for a position if they meet about 60% of the criteria, women would only apply if they met 100% of them. "Sometimes women need to be reminded that they can be ambitious," says Professor Dart. "Ambition is not a male privilege."

"Finding a mentor or a coach is invaluable for a professional career woman," advises Lawrence, who herself was mentored and mentors others. Not only does it assist individuals in terms of their uncertainty regarding senior management responsibilities but it can help prepare them better for what lies ahead at senior management levels.

Being part of a network of women or peers has also been shown to be beneficial not only for support but in providing assistance in various areas of a professional career woman’s life as well.

5. Learn to negotiate

Many women are uncomfortable negotiating for themselves, to ask for promotion or better salaries. Professor Dart says women generally don’t like to appear self-promotional or assertive.

"One technique is to imagine yourself negotiating on behalf of your child. Then you would ask for the best, right? Nothing is too good for your child, not so? But for yourself, you should also demand so much more. Women need to change their mind set and their way of thinking about negotiating for themselves."

We know that gender diversity is good for companies – there is a growing body of research showing how more women in senior management benefits almost every aspect of an business.

While organisational policies and initiatives will continue to pave the way for women and gender equality in the workplace, for some women it may be a case of giving themselves permission to think bigger professionally.

As Deshnee Naidoo, CEO of Zinc International and CMT at Vedanta Resources has said, "Think as big as you possibly can, don’t constrain your view to the roles women have occupied in the past, think all the way to the top. If I could give one bit of advice, it would be: Don’t constrain your thinking."

Kumeshnee West is the Director of Executive Education at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).

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