What keeps women 'at the table'?

Suzie Heap, Account Manager
30 May 2018
Image of three female Amey employees collaborating at work.
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In Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s now famous 2010 TedTalk, “Why we have too few women leaders”, she gave honest, personal observations on what ambitious women should be doing to reach the top levels of their organizations.

Sandberg was expected to remain corporate and present well-researched data on the topic…but it was her anecdotes from past and present life experience that struck a chord with women – and men – globally.  

Sandberg emphasized three key things that ambitious women seeking upper management and leadership roles need to do, but all-too-often don’t. In her words: sit at the table; make your partner a real partner; don’t leave before you leave.

Without blaming women, she encouraged the mainly female audience to look inwardly and identify behaviours that might be holding them back, as one part of the solution to this complex issue.

Participating in the Women@Amey Leadership Development Program has prompted me to think more about Sandberg’s advice, and whether I am following it. Doing so would increase my chances of defying the statistics and climbing that elusive corporate ladder, right?

So, in the spirit of the original TedTalk – minus the live audience and video screening – this is my honest (non-scientific) self-assessment against Sandberg’s success criteria:

“Sit at the table” (aka, put yourself forward – be present, visible and audible)

When I joined Amey in 2009, as an English Literature Graduate who had just spent a year working in Switzerland as a nanny, I knew my profile was a little unorthodox for an Engineering firm. I made every effort to demonstrate my capabilities, to justify my position on the graduate programme, and to learn what the company really did. I possibly over-compensated at times, and remember a few awkward moments when I really wish I’d said less in meetings! Although I had no subject matter expertise, I could ask the “silly” questions (which are often the same questions others are wondering about but don’t want to ask!), and make every project a learning experience.

My first role at Amey gave me opportunity to find a niche and take ownership of a clear deliverable, whilst working with more experienced colleagues who were extremely supportive. I found that being open, enthusiastic and interested led others to spend time explaining what they did and why it mattered, helping me plug significant knowledge gaps. I’ve used that technique in every project since, and find that building rapport with individuals in this way makes it easier to speak up in meetings, because you know your audience and have already had chance to refine your thinking about the topic.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t always easy. I hate presenting to large groups where I don’t know the audience or don’t feel a strong connection to the content, for example. Having the confidence to “sit at the table” takes continuous effort and preparation, as well as a level of comfort with discomfort. Over the years, the stakes have become higher and expectations of my contribution have increased. I’ve had plenty of setbacks, as have most of us; but it’s the learning from those experiences that makes an individual’s contribution meaningful. If we let self-doubt stop us from speaking up, we’re devaluing ourselves and denying decision makers with valuable perspectives (perspectives that are part of why we were hired in the first place).  

If you find yourself holding back, maybe ask yourself “can I add some value to this discussion? What’s the worst that can happen if I try, and what is the potential downside if I don’t?”. In my experience, Amey’s managers would much rather have you actively participating, trying your absolute best and making the occasional mistake than being a passenger.

“Make your partner a real partner” (aka, share unpaid domestic tasks evenly – your paid job is as important as theirs)

The word “partner” makes this part of Sandberg’s advice seem like it’s for the real grown-ups! Although I am now in my 30s (and by most metrics a grown-up), I don’t have the commitments outside work that many women have at my age. These commitments don’t decrease as we get older – caring for children and ageing relatives are just two things that generally pull on women’s time more than men’s. This, Sandberg points out, means that the compromises women must make between commitments at work and home become far greater.

Throughout my 20s, I never really thought about how my choice of partner would help or hinder my career. That said, I grew up with an example of this advice in action. My Mum ran her own business and my Dad took early retirement to look after my brother and I when we were still in primary school. Perhaps that gave me an unconscious expectation that gender doesn’t predetermine the value of a person’s career, and that traditional roles aren’t right for everyone.

Statistically speaking, most of my female friends and I are now in the “danger zone”. According to Opportunity Now’s 28 – 40 Report, “up until the age of 29, the split of men and women in the top 10% of earners is reasonably equal, however in the age bracket 30-44 this drops significantly to 28% women versus 72% men and then plateaus (ONS).” The support you receive from your partner has a huge impact on whether you can buck the trend (as does the employer’s stance on flexible working).

Put simply, life is tiring! And if you never get a break from obligations to others, the chance of burning out or not having the energy to throw yourself into a demanding career is very real. If career is important to you, it is something to be celebrated – and supported – through your relationships. I am grateful that my boyfriend (or should I say partner?! I am living in Texas, after all…) likes to cook, irons his own shirts, and knows that a paid cleaner will do a much better job than me…!

Don’t leave before you leave (aka, future thoughts of having a family should not affect your enthusiasm for work now)

At Facebook, Sandberg observed women passing up on opportunities for advancement long before they were even ready to have children, due to worry about competing priorities in the future; this made them less likely to find challenging, rewarding roles that would keep them motivated to progress to the top levels after becoming Mums. She advised women not to worry about becoming Mums too soon.

It’s hard to watch this part of Sandberg’s talk in isolation from subsequent developments at Facebook. In 2014, Sandberg was central to the launch of an employee benefit programme (quickly adopted by tech firms across Silicon Valley) in which women can elect to have their eggs frozen at the company’s expense. Maybe now the advice would be, “don’t leave before you leave… and use this controversial procedure to stay as long as possible”.

Anyone who has read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is likely to have mixed feelings about the blurring of lines between employer and employee decision making on a topic like childbirth, however feminist or career-focused they may be. Whilst I agree that every employee should give their all, for every minute of every working day (of course!), the existence of policies like this surely confirms the worry that many women feel about entering motherhood; that from the company’s perspective, it’s at best an inconvenience and at worst, the end of a woman’s potential to reach the top. Clearly, not the message that most employers would want to send!

I was recently chatting with friends who both work in Finance in the US, and are about to have their first child. Three months before the baby is due, and six months before his planned paternity leave, the Dad-to-be is already anxious about the impact of taking two weeks out. Ironically, his Mother is recommending that he work from home, so that he doesn’t lose connection with the office during this time. It was great to hear him say, “now I know what this pressure feels like – all Dads need to take paternity leave”, but real change will require longer-term solutions alongside that.

As documented in Opportunity Now’s 28 – 40 Report, “the average age for a woman to give birth to her first child is 28 and employment rates for women start to level off from this age onwards”. With less representation in the workplace from that point, and combined with other factors discussed here, it’s no wonder there are fewer women in senior leadership roles.

With all the information available on this topic, we know what prevents women from being “at the table”, particularly from their late 20s. Thinking about your own situation against Sandberg’s three headings could identify things that you can modify, that perhaps you weren’t aware of – but it could just as easily not! You may be doing all the right things already, or have commitments outside work that can’t be delegated or outsourced.

To create a genuine step-change will require heightened awareness of employers, families, partners and society in general, of the myriad of factors that contribute to the gender gap. There needs to be a willingness on all our parts to have a gender-neutral conversation that includes the needs of all stakeholders, so that we can find novel solutions that diverge from the status quo – solutions that will ultimately give all of us more choices.

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