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Women, leadership and career success

On International Women’s Day 2019, what defines a successful career and how can women navigate it?

It’s easy to forget that until 1966, Australian women who were employed in government public service roles – such as nursing and teaching – were required to give up their jobs once they married.

Today, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019 – with its theme “balance for better” – it’s difficult to comprehend a time when jobs for women, let alone careers, were restricted.

However despite the equity milestones of recent decades, progress is still slow and IWD marks a call to action to build a gender-balanced world.

But are there any sure-fix solutions for women who want to escalate into executive careers? 

Defining career success

Deakin Business School academic Dr Andrea North-Samardzic is Course Director of the Master of Leadership program who also plays an active role in industry-based executive education. She says there is no ‘one best way’ or formula for women wanting to move into executive roles – rather it’s a range of different approaches and attitudes tailored to the organisation or industry.

‘It’s important to contextualise – for example women will find it easier to ascend the corporate hierarchy in organisation that is female-dominated than one in a male-dominated field – that’s just a fact,’ she explains.

Not surprisingly, research has found that one of the commonalities that make women successful in their career is the value placed on it.

‘Their careers are actually a central focus of their life – it’s not just what they do, but who they are,’ she says.

‘They’re often in a line of work that they’re really passionate about and that makes the harder work easier because you’re doing something you enjoy.  To be successful in your career you have to work hard whether you’re male or female.’

Dr North-Samardzic says it’s also important to remember that success isn’t just about ascending the corporate ladder.

‘You don’t have to be a leader to be successful,’ she explains.

‘Leadership is a process of influence and it may not be in the senior hierarchy. I think women need to realise that they have this personal power within them that they can make change. And yes, it may help you drive change from senior level but it doesn’t stop you.’

Broaden networks, build confidence 

While there may not be a set-and-forget formula for an executive career, Dr North-Samardzic says there are some basic considerations.

‘One of them is networking and it’s really important for women to have just as many male mentors as female – because if men are holding senior positions and you want to access those positions then you need men in your networks. While there are wonderful networking groups dedicated to women, and women definitely need that social support, they shouldn’t be their only networks.’

She adds it’s also known that when women seek promotion they tend to apply only when they feel they have satisfied all, or almost all, of the key selection criteria.

‘Whereas men will think “I’ve satisfied most of the criteria so I should go for it”.  Women need to have the confidence of their male colleagues.’

Adding an MBA for education and career acceleration provides significant benefits around confidence, competitiveness and networking skills she says.

 ‘With an MBA you not only learn to more to make yourself more competitive wherever possible, you also form the important networks that you really need to rise to the top.’

Traps along the way

Are there traps for women along the pathway to a successful career? Definitely says Dr North-Samardzic.

‘For example, we often don’t even realise that women may be cast in gender, or stereotypical roles. This doesn’t mean you stop doing something you love, just be mindful of how other people can interpret it.  For example, if you’re one of few women in a meeting and you’re always taking the minutes you’ll be seen as more of a secretary than a leader,’ she advises.

Another challenge is the tricky issue of career breaks.

‘It’s important to understand that career breaks take you out of the game – so you need to be prepared how you’re going to manage that. And that’s really tough because one of the realities is that women end up taking on more of the family-care responsibilities.’

While career breaks are part of life, and life isn’t all about work, Dr North-Samardzic says it’s important to have robust discussions with the organisation’s past and current employees.

‘There are lots of traps that women have to navigate and most of them can’t be avoided. But research your company, look at the policies are but also beyond policies – look at the practices and ask questions. If an organisation says it has flexible work that’s great. But what are the numbers around that? How many people are utilising this option? Look at things like maternity and paternity leave – how many male colleagues are taking these options? It’s one thing to have these policies on the books but if it’s not being put into practice then it’s just window dressing.’

A female-style of leadership?

Dr North-Samardzic says that while there’s often dialogue around a ‘female-style of leadership’ it’s a misleading term.

‘Do all women have the same leadership style? Well, no. It’s different and appropriate for every industry and type of organisation. Everyone behaves in a way the organisation rewards.’

What is important, she adds, is to understand there are a lot stereotypes around what defines a successful woman.

‘What you actually find is that successful women have just as much in common with successful men as they do with each other. I think the time we spend trying to create a formula, or fit into a particular box, we should be celebrating the diverse career paths and different definitions of success.’

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