“Sure, I can self-promote but that just doesn’t feel authentic.” I heard this from a female leader during one of my speaking engagements. This and other mindsets often hold women leaders back.
As we work to drive gender balance in workplaces we must work with organizations to remove barriers for women’s advancement. We must equally work within ourselves as women leaders to become aware of and remove the glass ceilings in our own heads – habits and mindsets that lead to self-sabotage, and make it exhausting for so many of us to move our careers forward.
How Women Rise, a book co-authored by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, is a great resource to discover the 12 habits that hold women back and how to overcome them. Marshall Goldsmith is a bestselling author, preeminent executive coach, and No. 1 leadership thinker. Sally Helgesen is a leading authority in women’s leadership and author of multiple books on the topic. I recently sat down with Helgesen to talk about their new book.
Henna Inam: What have you learned about how men and women define success differently?
Sally Helgesen: A study I ran a few years ago with Harris Interactive about differences in how men and women define satisfaction at work showed many similarities but a few clear differences. The most important is that men tend to take chief satisfaction in financial reward and position, whereas women also want to enjoy the quality of their days — not every day, but in general.
Quality in this case means they need to maintain some control over their schedule, have time able to build strong relationships with colleagues, clients and customers, and feel as if their work is making a difference in the world. Don’t get me wrong: salary and position matter to women—if they feel underpaid or under-recognized they will not be happy. But salary and position alone are less likely to make a job seem “worth it” to women who have other choices. I believe this is one reason certain organizations still struggle to retain talented women: they ignore quality of life issues, expecting that if they simply pay people enough, those people will sacrifice any ability to take satisfaction in their experience of work.
Inam: What are the beliefs that hold women back?
Helgesen: I would say two primary things. First, that ambition is a bad thing, and that you can’t be a wonderful and caring person if you are also ambitious. This is true even at senior levels. I recently interviewed a senior female equity partner in one of the top ten law firms in the US and she opened by informing me that she was not ambitious!
Secondly, women still often believe that if they don’t do a great job on everything, they have seriously fallen short. This sets them up for self-recrimination—Why did I do that? Will I never learn? We have a wonderful chapter on Rumination full of ideas for letting this kind of self-defeating internal dialogue go.
Inam: What are the most prevalent habits that prevent women from advancing?
Helgesen: Expecting others to spontaneously notice and value their contributions. Overvaluing expertise. Building relationships but not leveraging them. Putting their job before their career. Trying to please everyone in every circumstance. Falling into the perfection trap. We have 12 behaviors, but these are really common.
Inam: So many of us know what we should do (e.g. self-promote) yet don’t do it. How do successful women overcome the gap between knowing what’s the right thing to do and actually doing it?
Helgesen: They find a way to do it that they are comfortable with. That is, they avoid the opposing poles of routinely diverting or disclaiming credit or simply mimicking the behavior of someone who sucks up all the air. They are gracious and generous but make clear their contribution. For example, “Thank you so much for noticing that we placed first in client satisfaction on that job. Our team worked very hard on it, and I had terrific support. But I’m glad that I reached out to our senior client in the initial phase of the project so we could better understand how to meet her needs.”
Inam: So often change is temporary until we return to old habits. What can you share about making these new habits stick?
Helgesen: Enlisting help, enlisting support. To me, this is the most important point we make in How Women Rise. Bring other people on board in your attempt to change. Ask them to hold you accountable. Check in with them to see how you are doing. It’s also really important to work on one habit, or even one part of a habit, at a time. If you’re engaging others, you want them to have a very clear idea of what to look for as they find ways to help and give you feedback and support.
Inam: As you rightly suggest in the book, many of these habits are based on unconscious biases that exist in our workplace cultures, and our expectations of the role of women in society in general. As women do the work of breaking the habits that hold them back, is there work their bosses (and organizations in general) can do to support them by challenging the cultural expectations?
Helgesen: Definitely! We strongly urge men to read the book. Knowing what habits the women who work with and for them can fall prey to will help them be better advocates, allies and mentors for women. Men signing on as allies is key to changing organizational cultures and making them comfortable places for women and for diverse people as well.
Inam: What do you hope male mentors and sponsors will learn from this book?
Helgesen: A much better understanding of some of the factors that hold women back and concrete steps they can take to help them. This book is very practical and full of tips, not just in terms of making changes in your own behavior but also helping other people to make positive behavioral change. Again, this is the most powerful way I know of to change a culture.
So if you happen to be a woman leader or have one on your team, this book is for you! It is full of great insight, on-point advice, and I found myself chuckling more than once as I recognized myself in many of the stories that the book shares. I hope this helps you or a teammate you care about in their journey to rise toward their potential.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.