What’s the thing that’s had the biggest impact on your career so far?
It’s a question I was asked on Friday. With International Women’s Day fast approaching I had the privilege of sharing a platform with two amazing speakers as we shared our insights into how we can all empower women’s progress at work.
Unsurprisingly my focus was on how too many working women currently hold themselves back, settle or leave the corporate world. When they become mothers the struggle to find work-life balance can become overwhelming. One of the spinning plates needs to be dropped and it’s highly likely it’s going to be the career one. Research evidence is increasingly showing women holding back from promotion; compromising by accepting any job that offers reduced hours, regardless of whether it plays to their talents or not; or being seduced into thinking that mumpreneur is a better career choice.
I talked about how employers remain ambivalent in their attitude to working mothers. While many have flexible working policies which ostensibly support better balance there’s very little follow through. In the UK uptake of flexible working has stalled for the past ten years as corporate cultures continue to force a choice between career progression or balance. Research has shown that grateful mothers granted the concession of flexible hours are now undertaking a ‘triple shift’ of work followed by childcare and rounded off with more work once the children are in bed. The mothers end up exhausted; yet only half of employers care enough to have a formal work-life balance policy.
I also talked about how previous generations of women had been at the forefront of pushing for workplace change. I shared a model that demonstrated how change started at grassroots level when large numbers of women entered workplaces in the last quarter of the 20th Century. They found themselves butting up against cultural expectations and working practices that failed to acknowledge their dual responsibilities as parents and workers. So they pressed for childcare support and the beginnings of flexible working arrangements to help with the juggle. Formal HR policies (and legislation) came later.
Those early workplace pioneers had few choices but to stay and change the system. As I write this on International Women’s Day I want to acknowledge and applaud their efforts which contributed so much to the progress women have made at work so far. They showed a determination we need to reclaim.
Facilitated by technology today’s working women seem to have many more options. In reality they have no more choices; although employers often ignore that reality.
It’s hardly a choice when a woman leaves her job because she’s been told all managerial roles must be worked full time and the resulting mental pressures are having a negative impact on her well being. It’s hardly a choice when a woman is forced to accept a more junior role as the prerequisite for working less than full time hours.
To open up real choice – I told my audience – we must take matters into our own hands and redesign our jobs. So that we can be both productive and live more balanced lives. It’s one way we can all be #EachforEqual and make things better for the generations that follow.
Returning to the question with which I began this blog: my response was that my career changed when I embraced my power. Given the way powerful women are pilloried on social media; and the fact that I rarely consider myself a powerful woman it felt uncomfortable to say. But the reality is we are all powerful beings; and we can all contribute to leaving the planet a better place than we found it. So this week, as we continue our rebalance journey I encourage you to embrace your power and see where it takes you.
Imposter syndrome is a phrase that’s often bandied about in the media; the suggestion being that it’s a key roadblock to women’s career success. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and one’s ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare and affects both men and women equally. To grow into Balanced Leaders it’s important we understand what Imposter syndrome really is: not least because research has shown it can contribute to work-family conflict.
Imposter syndrome – or more accurately impostor phenomenon – was first identified by two American Psychologists back in 1978. It’s defined by six clear characteristics: feelings of intellectual phoniness; a belief that one’s success is attributed to luck or hard work and not ability; a lack of confidence in one’s ability to repeat past achievements; a fear of being evaluated by others and failure; the inability to derive pleasure from past achievements and a fear that one’s incompetence will be discovered by others.
It’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome. Doing our best to appear competent in a professional role and also be a good parent can lead to feelings that we’re not achieving either – that we’ll be found out as a fraud. Often that’s a consequence of having little clarity in what’s expected of us in both our workplace and home roles. We take on the expectations of others and try to live up to them. Perhaps it’s time to re-consider and write our own role scripts.
Our feelings of being an imposter can be exacerbated by the complexities inherent in the modern workplace; and which increasingly call on us to navigate circumstances we’ve never before encountered. As women we know we’re likely to be judged harshly should we make a mistake; so it’s important that we connect with our inner power and grow ourselves into the leaders we want to become.
Research has shown that our feelings of being an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion which in turn can result in work to family conflict. This happens when we feel that playing our family role is made more difficult by the demands of our work role. Psychologists explain this by talking about the Conservation of Resources. Each of us has finite physical and psychological resources and we do our best to guard these. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources in order to do a good job, leaving us depleted during our family time.
The good news is research has also shown that when we feel supported by our employer we are less likely to suffer the damaging effects of feeling like an imposter. So we can help ourselves by:
- Asking our manager to clearly define the outcomes expected of us;
- Asking for the resources we need to be effective in our work;
- Identifying what gets in the way of us achieving our workplace objectives and doing our best to eliminate those obstacles.
At the heart of the imposter phenomenon lies a deep-seated and flawed self-image constructed over many years. Changing that self-image is likely to require psychological support from someone qualified to help. But feeling like an imposter some of the time is almost inevitable as we navigate life’s challenges and changes. In all likelihood you’re not suffering from a syndrome; you’re simply experiencing the normal doubts and uncertainties that go with undertaking something new. The good news is you’re more than capable of resolving those doubts and uncertainties; and taking the necessary action that will get you to where you want to be.
Faced with archaic corporate cultures that demand we choose between a senior role and a balanced life it’s easy to feel dis-empowered. Many of us are juggling life to the max and balk at taking on the additional challenge of operating as a Balanced Leader. In our frustration it’s easy to give in to our limiting beliefs and lose sight of how much power we really have to change things. So let me remind you of the truth.
We have the power to set our own boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are essential for our own well-being and a precursor to good working relationships with others. I’ve written about boundaries before and make no apologies for doing so again – because this is where we begin to build our foundation for a balanced life. It’s not simply about ‘finding me time’ or ‘learning to say no’. It’s about understanding our preferences for managing the work/non-work interface and where our current priorities lie. And about negotiating to get our needs met in respectful, adult ways.
We have the power to negotiate an acceptable flexible working arrangement
and we do this by first recognising our value to our employer. For far too long flexible working has been seen as a favour granted by the organisation; and one for which we should be grateful. But let’s be clear about this. If the alternative to working flexibly is that you’ll have no option but to leave then your employer will suffer financially. Recruiting your replacement requires time and money. You have the power to identify the unique value you bring to your work and to develop a flexible working schedule that benefits both you and the people with whom you interact.
We have the power to redefine what ‘Professional’ looks like
and overcome our fears that asking for flexibility will be read as putting our families first so we appear ‘unprofessional’. (That’s called stereotype threat by the way.) Within a flexible and more balanced arrangement it’s still possible to be professional. Think about Accountants, Lawyers, Bankers and Doctors for example. These are all professions that have redefined themselves over the past fifty years. For the most part they’ve become more approachable and more human; and chatting about families with them doesn’t reduce their professional standing in our eyes.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing our workplace structures as disempowering when we seek power outside ourselves. But when we dive deep into our inner qualities we discover we already have the power we need to rebalance our lives. And as we become more comfortable with accessing that power we also become the authentic leaders the world is looking for.
We find the power to literally re-write our story: from one of undervalued skills and frustrated careers to one of pioneers with the courage to become Balanced Leaders.
And we become role models that empower successive generations.