Nurturing female leaders

Julie Bishop: a woman who has no problem articulating her achievements.

This article first appeared in Government News in the February/March 2014 edition.

By Dr Marianne Broadbent

In the last column I raised the issue of some of the factors influencing the disparity between the prevalence of women and men in executive roles. I explored the first two of three factors I regularly encounter in that column.

The first is the way in which women often view opportunities negatively, assuming if they don’t meet all criteria now they should not apply. The second is the different perceptions of similar behaviour between women and men. This applies to how many women view other women as well as how men interpret women’s behaviours quite differently from the same behaviour in men. The third, the subject of this column, is the different ways in which women and men tend to articulate and ‘own’ their achievements.

Women: Claim and articulate your achievements
Over the past seven years of interviewing dozens of men and women as candidates for positions or as part of development engagement, I have consistently observed that men are generally far better than women at articulating their achievements, and in fact, sharing a coherent story about their careers.

There are no doubt some deep seated reasons for this, but it does play a part in how a significant percentage of women present themselves. As part of development and talent management work with an organisation last year, we agreed to run a special program for mid-level female managers.

These women were carefully selected as strong performers, and all had worked for at least three years in the organisation. Many were working largely male-dominated business units and had already demonstrated a good degree of resilience.

Towards the end of the first workshop each participant was asked to share a major achievement they had had over the past three years. Part of our agenda was to ensure that they were able to articulate their achievements – at least in what was a ‘safe environment’. Most of them found this simple task a challenge.

The immediate response of one woman was that this would be ‘skiting’ and not something she would do. She was quite stunned when we explained that that was a problem she was creating for herself. About one quarter of the women responded by indicating that they had not achieved much over the past three years.

In one case, the participant explained that ‘I have had no achievements’. It is important to keep in mind that this is an organisation with a very family friendly approach to their workforce, some strong female role models, and one that provides a great amount of flexibility of every kind – for both women and men. The heartening part of this exercise was that other women in the group started explaining to the self-proclaimed ‘non-achievers’ what their achievements in fact were.

As a group, the women were able to explain each other’s contribution to the organisation ‑ but not their own. We explored this behaviour as part of subsequent sessions and in the one-on-one assessment and development sessions.

It became very clear that at least half of the women really struggled to articulate and frame their significant contributions to the organisation and its products and services. They did not see the delivery of a program, reshaping a product, developing a new policy, the development of others, or even surviving a difficult situation as an ‘achievement’.

Other people had ‘achievements’ while they just experienced things. A complicating factor here is that there is strong evidence that more women than men develop strategies, policies and programs in a collaborative manner, rather than a ‘declarative’ one. It is done more by working with and through a group, rather than declaring the end goal and how the group will get there, and then trying to ‘bring people along’.

Over the next six to eight weeks at different sessions we built in more opportunities for participants to surface and describe their achievements. In the final session they did job interview or promotion role plays in groups of three – one interviewee and two interviewers – with each person have at least one turn at each.

On the whole the participants were good at interviewing others, but about half needed more practice at ‘claiming’ their achievements, and expressing them in a way that was relevant to the role, and to the interviewers. Their commitment was to continue to work with each other on this.

Every candidate pool with which we are involved is as diverse as we can make it, and certainly there are always female candidates. But getting to the interview stage with a client is only part of the challenge.

Know who you are as a leader
Part of the solution was recently outlined in an article in Harvard Business Review (September 2013) titled ‘Women Rising: the Unseen Barriers’. Sometimes it is about coming to see oneself as an achiever and a leader.

The authors noted: ‘People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose’. This is of course easier said than done, but naming the challenge is at least part of addressing it.

In working with a recently promoted senior executive woman in another male dominated industry, it was great to see that she had truly taken on the ‘mantle’ of leadership. She had been given much broader responsibilities in the business and across the international group. She quickly came to realise that she needed a replacement for herself in her functional role and that she would have to ‘let go’ a significant part of her well-developed professional expertise.

One of her responsibilities was a very high profile and risky part of the business, and was not an area she was particularly familiar with. When offered the (well deserved and overdue) promotion, she was self-aware enough to stifle the first thing that came into her head: ‘but I am not an expert in that field’ – and for that she was very proud of herself.

She sought out an industry mentor to work with to speed up her learning curve, and set about meeting the leaders of this 300-strong part of the organisation. What has she done differently from some of her peers? Over time, she had learnt to describe her achievements in ways that had meaning to her male colleagues – describing them in strong ‘business contribution’ language.

Yes, she occasionally suffered from others thinking her ‘arrogant’, but she was comfortable being respected rather than necessarily liked by all. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, she was willing to ‘Lean In’. At the same time, she did not feel the need to be ‘one of the boys’ though she was always the sole woman at senior executive meetings and most off-sites.

Getting back to those ‘deep seated reasons’ for failure to claim achievements, I suspect that from a young age, she was given encouragement and told that that she could do whatever she wanted to do. Some people have not been so fortunate and have to learn how to articulate and claim their achievements. It is worth the effort!

Dr Marianne Broadbent is Senior Partner, with the Leadership Consultancy, EWK International.,

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