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3 things that come handy in our backpacks when we (women) prepare for leadership

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By Mayuri Wijayasundara

· 6 min read

Women’s day came and went on the 8th of March with promises of change and cracking that ambiguous glass ceiling and yet we keep wondering what visible and impactful changes will occur in our workplaces for the rest of the year.

Pondering this question, I thought it would be a good idea to share my own thoughts on a topic that we often talk about – female leadership.

There is so much attention on why women at the top of the ladder at lead corporates, politics or other organisations are so few and far between.  In the year 2020-21 less than 20% of CEOs in Australia were women though the workforce comprises a 50-50 split between men and women (Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard | WGEA, n.d.). This is when research shows that between the ages of 25 to 34, 46% of women have obtained bachelor’s degrees while only 36% of men have done the same(Parker, 2021).

Clearly there is glaring disparity between the workforce composition and the same for high-level positions. Does this mean that women leave the workforce early, or do they simply get stagnated in lower and mid-levels while their male counterparts rise faster and more consistently?

As a woman who has both been in a corporate and an academic career, and then started my own professional practice, I have worked with a diverse group of people both male and female. Over the years I have been lucky enough to learn some standout lessons that has helped me and inspired me to reach further than I thought, and I want to share some with you.

The road to becoming a leader is long… it’s best to prepare a backpack.

Here are three key elements I would add to your backpack when you get prepared to be a female leader

1. Purposeful, direction and strategy may matter more than the speed

The old saying “leaders are born not made,” has waxed and waned over the years but I cannot deny that having a strategy to guide yourself along the advancement ladder gives a competitive edge.

When I was a fresh graduate from university, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by a few corporate leaders, who shared their lessons in advancement and helped me map out a mental blueprint for my development. Through our conversations, I saw the possibilities in front of me, and one grain of wisdom was the way they thought about success and advancement.

To my surprise, they did not look at success or advancement in a career ladder taking a sequential, linear approach. They approached it like a game with an intense level of result orientation and purposeful action towards reaching a goal.

A lot of us (women) may argue that a career is not a competition and contributing to the community and enjoying what we are doing matters a lot more to us than the constant and intense pursuit of a goal. One thing we need to be aware of though is that our biological making does not help us much there. Men as hunter gatherers were biologically made for releasing adrenaline and pursuing targets strategically, whereas women typically nurtured offspring and collectively enjoyed community and protected the base as carer/collectors. There is a beauty in both ways and cultivating and sharing a few treats among the sexes will help us reach our full potential.

When we struggle to balance life and work as carers and givers and then add advancement to this precariously balanced portfolio, we need to be aware that we are in a working environment with strategic, result-oriented counterparts who purposefully work towards advancement. We may not be able to “do it all now” or “have it all” with other demands of life but having a clear map and directions of how do get there mapped in our heads, constantly motivating ourselves and reviewing avenues and alternatives consistently to explore them would definitely help.

2. To get the trophy, you first need to join the competition...

A reason that often comes up when explaining why it takes women longer to advance in the workplace is because many do not believe they are ready. It is common to say that “Women put their hand up for advancement when then are 100% (or more) ready, where men do that when they are 50%.”

Some research suggests that extreme prudence, combined with humility and integrity, which leads us to downplay own position and to communicate conservatively does not work well for our advancement and hence rising to leadership (Gourguechon, n.d.).

Whether the barrier is fear of rejection or failure or expectation of perfectionism, what I now tell myself is that “the first pre-requisite to qualify is to enter the playground” – so submitting to leadership believing that you are enough, and as many, you could figure out the rest along the way is so important.

3. You only get what you ask for

Negotiation – is not something I was comfortable with in early parts of my career. As a loyal employee, I hated when I had to ask for something explicitly after visibly accomplishing something for the organisation, and even more when I had to justify that.

On the contrary, I was truly amazed by how my husband managed a workplace negotiation when he received a competitive job offer. It was straightforward conversation to talk about his value in the market and the cost for the organisation if they lost him and asking their position about increasing his offer. Research also suggests that men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise—and when women do ask, we typically request 30% less than men do (Women Are Still Not Asking for Pay Rises. Here’s Why, 2018).

If we take the emotion out of the conversation, it finally ends up with the fact that, we have a situation, where our manager or the organisation is not our opponent, but the counterpart. On one hand we seek advancement, knowing that we are worthy of it. On the other, the organisation likes to have us engaged and motivated. The situation is what we both want resolved amicably and gainfully.

Being explicit about what we want and reaching the table of negotiation often (directly or indirectly) and with the correct mindset is definitely an attribute that I would recommend that we put into our backpacks. Leaving the table with more information but nothing else is never a worse outcome than not arriving there at all!

Support along the way matters too.

While more workplaces need to believe in and be ready to welcome female leaders, a lot of us working women have a role to play in saturating the top layers with more of us. While the backpack may need more and more things the higher you go up, the support, rest and accommodation received along the way with an open heart definitely will encourage more and more to take the journey to leadership!

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr Mayuri Wijayasundara leads the professional practice Anvarta and is also a researcher, active as an honorary fellow at Deakin University. She is an expert in strategy and transformation, specialising in the transition towards a circular economy. Mayuri has nearly 20 years’ experience in circular economy engaged in different capacities.

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