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How women can navigate the workplace successfully

Aug 21 2017 13:30
Dr René Nel is expert in human resources and indus

Dr René Nel is expert in human resources and industrial psychology with more than two decades of experience in her field. (Picture: Supplied)

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In the workplace of today, women don’t just have to contend with glass ceilings, they are also facing glass walls. 

Men and women can see each other clearly through this divide, but they do not speak the same language or have the same expectations.

As a result, women and their careers are suffering. It can be argued that there are more women than ever in the workforce, but this is not evident when looking at our boardrooms.

Addressing this important issue, USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and finweek’s regular We Read For You (WRFY) presentation recently held in Cape Town highlighted this challenge women are facing.

The book The Glass Wall, by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob, was presented by Dr René Nel, expert in human resources and industrial psychology with more than two decades of experience in her field.

The book provides women with the tools they need to master any situation in the workplace, as well as clear, smart and easy-to-apply strategies for success.

From unlocking ambition and developing resilience to nurturing creativity and getting noticed, these are the skills that everyone needs to learn to help break down that wall and create better workplaces for all.


In their book, Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob identify seven areas that women should consider and act upon:

Ambition: Men are ambitious; women are ambivalent
Women should ask for what they want or need and not wait for something like a promotion, to come their way. They should simply put themselves forward in the workplace, as men do.

Creativity: Men strut their stuff; women tend to play it down in order to conform
Be part of the team. Do some homework, borrow brilliance from another category or field and speak about what interests men. Don’t fear failure and don’t wait for a turn to speak up in a conversation.

Cutting through: Men like to be noticed; women like to get on with the work
Women should brand themselves and dress the way they want to be perceived. In a meeting, make sure you position yourself in a way that ensures you will be heard. Make yourself more visible and own the space in the workplace.

Trouble: Dealing with your concerns
Women are troubled by perceived failures, while men just move on. Be aware of burnout, speak out about it and get help. Find a balance between work and home. Ensure you make space for “me time”. 

Resilience: Men take things in their stride that throw women off course
Plan before making a request. If you don’t ask for a promotion you will not get it. And if you don’t get it, move on and don’t beat yourself up about it.

Accept that not all your ideas will be implemented and don’t take it personally. Know when to stop putting up with things. Draw a line and stick to it. Always.

Anger: Men exploit their inner bastard; Women hide their inner bitch
Learn to stay calm in situations of conflict. If you are a very sensitive person, get help and learn some techniques to deal with explosive situations.

Play the long game by taking a longer view about where you want to be in an organisation and strategise around that. Let small things go and focus on long-term gains. Pick your battles.

Karma: Women are not in the network of chaps; how to pay favours forward and how helping others help you.
Always be “switched on” no matter what and always be on a mission. Always be your best self and don’t try to be someone you are not. People are always looking and are forming a perception about you.

Some strategies for women to have a fighting chance in the workplace and for management to ensure a genuinely level playing field are:

When you are on the way up in an organisation
- Look at how the men around you behave. Don’t let yourself be left behind because they self-promote more aggressively than you do.

- Speak up. There are many things to fear in life. Failure in a meeting isn’t one of them. Expect to fail sometimes, intend to fail sometimes. If you don’t, you won’t learn.

- Play the numbers game. If you hear a “no” the first time you ask for something, don’t see that as the end. Keep asking.

When you are at the top of the organisation
- Take the time to spot talent. If you can’t see the talent in the quieter, more modest people (and often that means women), then slow down, try harder, look deeper.

- Encourage everyone in the team to speak up, to consider themselves the creative ones. Don’t allow an elite team to dominate.

- Negotiate. Make sure that you treat your talent as adults. If you have to say no, have a counter-offer.

finweek is USB-ED’s media partner in its We Read For You series. The next event will be held on 25 August 2017 in Bellville. Prof. André Roux of USB will discuss Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future by Paul Mason. To register please click here. Attendance is free.

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