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So what if women don’t fit the “ideal worker” model?

It’s a big leap forward that ‘being a mother does not significantly change young women’s career ambitions’.  But Catherine Fox is right to point out that ‘many women will have different lives to the classic “ideal worker” model (“With almost equal pay comes a reality check”, Australian Financial Review, 7th April 2009 p.50).The question is: what does this mean for working women?  It may mean that careers are interrupted by periods of parental leave, and payrises awarded during these periods almost certainly won’t flow to the absent carers.  So they’ll return to work on their same remuneration (and probably less in real terms), while their peers have pegged ahead on the salary bands.

It may mean that they are not available at short notice to work late into the night on that urgent proposal, so their more “flexible” colleagues get the kudos and the bonuses for closing the deals.  And therefore consideration for the promotions, under the current paradigm.

And it almost always means that women are seen as riskier appointments to senior roles.  So they have to be able to tick all the boxes before they’ll even make it onto the panel for consideration.  (Many organisations lament a lack of female candidates; but is it any wonder fewer women even apply for many senior roles?)

Shifting these visible and invisible barriers to career progression is no mean feat and it doesn’t help that there are so few female role models at the top.  Every week senior women in business tell me they feel obviously different to the “ideal workers” around them and they worry what this will mean for their career success.  Will they be sidelined?  Do they need to change employers to find opportunities to progress?  Many executives would be shocked to hear the conversations their female talent are having every day with each other, yet rarely with them.

What many women want is access to others who’ve been able to navigate these obstacles, to successfully off-ramp and on-ramp, and to shift gear and take advantage of career opportunities that fit with a multi-dimensional notion of success.  And who are willing to be mentors and share their stories in the business community to shift perceptions of the “norm”. Sue Morphet springs to mind as someone who’s taken a non-linear career path.  But in most of the 98% of our top companies that are led by men, the CEO’s trajectory to the top follows a more text book approach.

Role models matter, and if organisations can’t provide their up and comers with internal role models perhaps they should seek help from businesses committed to breaking down the statistics and the stereotypes.  And before you write off this idea as a discretionary spend in the current environment, consider that female representation in our leadership ranks has actually gone backwards since 2006.  So what is the cost of doing nothing, in terms of unrealized potential, recruitment and development costs and lost organisational knowledge?  If we are to address the advancement of women in leadership in a meaningful way then it’s time to look at new and different strategies that women themselves are calling for.


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