“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Perhaps this quote from Charles Dickens’ book A Tale of Two Cities best sums up the current efforts aimed at helping women break through the glass ceiling to gain access to the c-suite. With all the media attention being drawn to the issue of what it takes to get women onto the executive team, one could presume “it was the best of times.” Yet as we all know, the numbers just aren’t there and women are significantly under represented in all levels of upper management hence: “it was the worst of times.”
We are all very familiar with many of the obstacles preventing women from breaking the glass ceiling, so there is no need to enumerate them here once again. There is, however, a reason that is rarely, if ever, discussed that inhibits women’s ascent up the corporate ladder, whether we care to admit to its truth or not. The fact is many women ask for permission to succeed in business and men do not. In fact, men (to borrow a phrase from Nike) “just do it!” If you are a professional woman, you are either nodding your head agreeing with what you just read or you are furious at me because you think I am totally out of touch with the realities of the corporate climb. Therefore, let me explain what I mean by suggesting that many women ask for permission to succeed in business.
Let me illustrate how this shows up in the work place. When an opportunity presents itself for someone to take on a new business initiative or challenge, women often ask for permission to pursue it. Men, on the other hand, will automatically seize the opportunity. While women are busy asking “pretty please” or “may I,” men are vigorously plowing ahead working on projects and other tasks that will give them both visibility and access to the decision-makers critical for one’s upward mobility. This happens on every rung of the corporate ladder.
Men don’t ask for permission to speak up in meetings if they think they have a good idea or valuable contribution to make to the team. Men are proactive and find a way to make their voices heard. Meanwhile, many women will sit back and either don’t contribute to a discussion and/or tentatively make a suggestion lacking conviction or confidence. This in itself is problematic and does nothing to shatter the glass ceiling. Now let’s take this case scenario one step further. A male colleague may later claim a female colleague’s idea as his own and get away with it because the woman who initially proposed the idea failed to own it (with a zillion reasons as to why women let this happen — a topic for another blog); he then shoots right up the corporate ladder with it.
Of course this is infuriating and unfair but women let this happen all the time and we have no one to blame for it but ourselves.
We can, and in fact we must create our own opportunities in business (and life) by taking the initiative instead of passively sitting by and letting others dictate the course of our work and career trajectory. We must stop asking for permission to be successful. Opportunities in business present themselves in the form of challenges that need to be solved. One needs to assertively and voluntarily take these opportunities and run with them. If you instead wait to ask for permission to pursue these opportunities, chances are pretty good they will be long gone.
If women continue to ask for permission to succeed in business, there is a good chance it won’t happen for us. This quality is not something that can be rectified by corporate or political policy, no amount of diversity and inclusion will change it and although work-life balance and women’s initiatives might keep women in the work force — it won’t raise us above the glass ceiling and into the c-suite.
Men, hands down, are not afraid to ask for anything — more money, more power, more control, it is as if their mantra is: “more is good!” Although there are many skills men can learn from women, the ability to promote yourself and your career is something women need to learn from men. Women need to learn to seize the day — Carpe Diem!
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