These are complicated times for ambitious women. On the one hand, there are record numbers of women at the top of industry. On the other hand, women represent only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, despite holding 50.8% of managerial positions. And women still remain grossly underpaid. Of course, I realize that this is time when women want to focus on the positive. We want to emphasize the strides, not the stumbles. But patriarchy and sexism don’t disappear when we close our eyes. I say, it’s better to know exactly what you’re up against. To that end, I’ve pulled together the top 10 unwritten rules for working women. Don’t let them sabotage your ambitions.
1. Men get the benefit of doubt. Men generally get hired on their promise and women on their demonstrated experience. Men are usually taken at their word, while women get challenged more, required to deliver data and substantiation for their views. Chicken or egg: Do men get the benefit of the doubt because they are better qualified, or are they better qualified because they get the benefit of the doubt?
2. Looks matter. When is the last time you saw a CEO in shorts or a short-sleeved shirt? Bare those arms and legs at your own risk: flesh conjures up images of the beach and the boudoir, not the boardroom.
3. As a woman, you won’t get sufficient feedback. Professional development depends upon rigorous, comprehensive, ongoing feedback on your performance. How else will you grow and improve? According to the research, your male boss may not feel comfortable delivering that information to you, so you’ll need to be direct in asking for it from him and from other colleagues and team members.
4. A working mother’s commitment is assumed to be ambivalent. At worst, mothers are seen as potential flight risks from the organization, and therefore not worthy of any further investment. At best, mothers are denied plum travel and assignments, under the guise of benevolent protectionism, because “they won’t want to leave home so much.” Don’t let anyone else speak or decide for you.
5. Actually, it is personal. In mid-career, at the point where everyone brings comparable talent to the table, it’s who you know, not what you know, that gets you promoted. As HR pros will tell you, you don’t push yourself to the top, you get pulled there. Men knew what they were doing when they invented the old boys’ club. From the get-go, women need to be just as savvy, cultivating loose ties, close ties, mentors, allies, and champions.
6. Men are bred for self-confidence. From Little League to fraternities to the golf course, men’s lives emphasize competition. By the time they get to the workplace, they are seasoned competitors, with all of the self-confidence that comes from having successfully weathered both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Consider the consequences: one internal corporate study showed that women will apply for an open job only if they meet 100% of the criteria listed, while men will apply if they meet just 60%. In order to assume that same level of self-possession (and entitlement), you have to design your own path to self-confidence.
7. Women are rendered invisible until they demonstrate otherwise. If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to offer your ideas, approach a mentor, ask for the assignments, build a network, convey your aspirations, and communicate your achievements. I’ve heard Sharon Allen, chairman of Deloitte LLP, tell this cautionary tale from her early career, when she was passed over for a promotion that she had earned. Allen went to her boss and asked why she had been passed over, since she had done x, y, and z to earn it. “Oh,” he replied, “I didn’t realize that you’d done x, y, and z.” It’s one thing to lose the game because you were outperformed, but it’s another thing altogether to lose because you were never in play.