A woman’s guide to getting ahead

While women still face barriers to the boardroom, there are some things they can do to help their career progress. A leadership expert gives five tips for those who want to move up the ladder.

With just three per cent of CEOs at Australia’s top 500 listed companies being female, no-one can deny that women are seriously under represented at a senior management level.

According to Associate Professor Polly Parker, a leadership expert at UQ Business School, little progress has been made in the past decade. In addition to facing barriers to the boardroom, women managers are often stereotyped by colleagues at work and portrayed as ‘bossy’ in the press.

“We have had lots of equal opportunity policies, but things haven’t really changed,” says Dr Parker, who runs a leadership course specifically for senior women. “People have learned to say what is politically correct but haven’t followed through.”

She believes that achieving real change will require commitment from both sexes, and she applauds the recently launched Queensland Male Champions for Change as the type of initiative that is required.

“While there is a lot that women can do themselves, we need to recognise that it is not all our responsibility,” she says. “Men need to play their part.

“It’s critical that women are given opportunities early in their career to realise a broad range of challenging assignments at work. This is about getting the talent pipeline working.

“We also need to achieve a critical mass of women in the workplace, so we have managers who are representative of the entire female population and we can move away from stereotypes. And we need less of the language that discriminates about women’s behavior in the popular press and knocks women’s confidence.”

Dr Parker offers five key tips for women who want to move up the ladders – all of them based on research and are applicable to leaders of both sexes but interpreted here in the context of women’s careers:

1. Be authentic
Understand your values, and your vision for the future – what really matters to you and what are your priorities in life?

Dr Parker says: “Authenticity is important in both male and female leaders, but the challenge for women will be being authentic in a way that is acceptable in the male-dominated world of work. It can be difficult for them to be themselves in an environment where male values are seen as strengths.”

2. Create a sense of belonging
Mixing with others at work and building relationships will help you feel as though you belong. “Women are often good at building networks with other women but sometimes they choose people who are not well placed to help them with their careers” says Dr Parker. “Broaden your network by attending events and getting to know a range of people.”

3. Control your own destiny
Take control of your career – know where you want to go and take steps to get there. Dr Parker advises: “The actions you need to take will be different at different stages of your career, however you do need take the initiative and look after your own career – you can’t expect someone else to do it for you.”

4. Develop the whole person
Talk of ‘work-life balance’ doesn’t convey the broader range of activities which help to stimulate your personal development and create a sense of wholeness – such as social life, sport or cultural activities. The challenge for women with a family is to find time for anything else besides work and childcare.

Dr Parker says: “Women who are busy often cut out the things they enjoy in order to save time, however the things they stop doing are often the things that energise them. Ask yourself, what are the 10 things you most like doing? That’s where your energy often comes from.”

5. Have an objective view of yourself
Understand your patterns of behaviour and how they help or hinder your career development. “Self-clarity is important,” says Dr Parker. “Women need to understand the context in which they are working and how accurate is their view of themselves.

“Getting feedback from different people will help you see things in perspective. You may think you are doing the right thing when you could be shooting yourself in the foot.”

According to Dr Parker, things are changing but changing slowly. “Women need to  build confidence in their abilities and be ambitious about what they can achieve, however there is only so much they can do themselves. Everyone needs to work towards achieving real and lasting change.”

Associate Professor Polly Parker runs Leadership for Executive Women courses as part of UQ Business School’s Executive Education offering. For further information, click here.

Last updated:
27 February 2019