05 July 2007

Different realities

I often wonder if men and women experience careers in the same way. Do women executives go through the same exhilaration and/or despair as their male counterparts do? Or, do they experience and view their careers in a completely different way? To find out answers to these questions, I asked several women executive friends of mine about their work and their careers in the corporate world.

Though the sample size is small, my findings are quite interesting.

Women seem to have the same career aspirations as men do. However, somewhere along the line, while getting married and setting up a family, most of my women executive friends have had to drop out of their corporate careers. What they said was, had the marriage and family option not come their way, they would be as competitive as their male colleagues in building a career and moving up the corporate ladder.

For those who remained in the race, or for those who opted out during motherhood and rejoined later, sometimes in a consulting role rather than a full-time job, career aspirations were not reduced. What was reduced, however, was their ambition for taking up greater responsibilities and higher pressures at work which normally commensurate with higher designations.

In short, none of my women friends actually wanted to work harder (and smarter) to become CEOs of their companies, unlike their husbands or my other male corporate executive friends. The women simply said that their determination to chase a career to the top didn’t matter anymore once the children were born. That, their realities changed after marriage and motherhood. That, they had decided to make trade-offs and adopt different career strategies to balance work-life responsibilities.

When I quizzed my women executive friends on what strategies they had adopted in advancing their careers, they stated the same things as I and my male corporate executives often do: exceeding performance targets, demonstrating expertise, taking up high-visibility assignments, displaying excellence in communication and in people management.

As barriers to advancement, they stated lack of line experience, work/management styles which were different from organisational norms, differences (in thinking) with their bosses, and lack of understanding of organisational politics. Once again, these characteristics of corporate careers were similar to what their male colleagues experienced. However, this is where the similarities ended.

Women corporate executives experienced a host of challenges their male counterparts did not. Most of these were gender-based characteristics, and topping it all was an inhospitable corporate culture – a culture that generally favoured men. Next was gender stereotyping – women not being suitable for certain jobs, women not being as committed to work as men, women requiring handling with kid gloves, women being moody and emotional, women crying, etc. Next on the list was lower pay for women. Then, women not being included in (informal) male networks which left the women clueless about organisational decisions/behaviour in many situations.

It ended with women corporate executives lacking appropriate role models.

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