Difficulty networking, taking initiative and exerting influence over others might be the reason many young women have trouble moving up in the corporate world. According to Amy Dorn Kopelan, executive director of COACH ME, a not-for-profit career-development coaching program for women, although women starting out their business careers are typically as talented and technically proficient as their male counterparts, they often lack the subtle skills necessary to put them on track for promotion.
These subtle skills include setting priorities, knowing how to network and the value of networking, knowing how to get in and out of difficult conversations, knowing how to ask for what they want and need, knowing how to integrate work and life, knowing how to focus and knowing how to listen. Kopelan said she compiled this list of lacking skills after spending a year conducting interviews with directors of training and heads of human resources at dozens of Fortune 500 companies about their experiences and needs with respect to first-, second- and third-year female supervisors and managers.
“What I heard over and over is that while women are generally extremely competent and hard working, they aren’t as savvy as men in such intangibles as establishing office alliances, managing their reputation, and mastering the politics of business,” she said. “You might have every core competency in the world, but these are the unwritten rules that can make a difference in whether or not you are getting up in the corporate world.”
The areas the majority of those interviewed said women managers in particular need to improve include:
- Building successful relationships: Despite all the advances women have made, they still miss out on the easy camaraderie enjoyed by many men. Ninety-three percent of those interviewed suggested women need coaching in networking and how to establish a group of trusted peers and superiors to turn to for frank feedback.
- Exerting influence and converting others to their ideas: Likewise, 93 percent of respondents indicated that women need help to understand how style and behavior, as well as self-confidence, impact the way their ideas are perceived. Although all employees need to know this, because of persistent stereotypes, women often need to work harder to be taken seriously, Kopelan said.
- Taking initiative: Social conditioning continues to make it difficult for many women to take responsibility and proactively demonstrate accountability. Seventy-nine percent of those interviewed cited a need for women to seek new challenges, meet objectives and trumpet their accomplishments.
- Managing difficult conversations: Another 79 percent said women need to learn how to give and get feedback, resolve conflicts and convey constructive criticism. There is a sense they struggle more than men with expressing dissatisfaction.
- Promoting their own careers: Women in general are not as quick as men to grab opportunity. Seventy-one percent said this was an issue.
- Establishing work-life balance: Fifty-seven percent brought up the importance of teaching women to set priorities and find the right balance between work and life demands. Women often have trouble setting boundaries and take on extraordinary burdens that leave them taxed on all fronts.
Kopelan said the reasons many women might lack these skills comes down to nature and nurture. “I think that there are two issues. The first is absolute biology. From the time you’re in the crib, it’s happening,” Kopelan said. “Women know how to form coalitions. They know how to share concepts. Boys come in with a dominion concept. ‘Here’s what I do. Here’s what I say. Now do what I say.’ Ultimately, you have to celebrate those differences but also know how to compensate.
“The second piece is the environment,” Kopelan continued. “It almost validates who little boys and girls are. There’s a certain way to play, and it becomes very accessible and acceptable.”
Kopelan said when the different behavior and interaction styles of men and women meet in a corporate setting, they don’t always mesh well. “Each is used to doing it a certain way,” she said. “Because more males run companies, their styles are often more acceptable. With the number of women in the workplace rising, women are learning how to still be women and use their skills. You don’t have to be a guy to succeed. You learn what gets you the desired effect and not assume there’s only one way of doing it.”
Kopelan said she used these results of her research to develop a curriculum for COACH ME, which is based in New York and provides professional development coaching for women who have talent and potential, but cannot afford career coaching on their own, she said. For more information on COACH ME, visit www.coachmeinc.org.
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