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women at work: career strategies for a gender balanced world

I first came across the idea of ‘female wage labour’ when studying in the 80’s; it challenged me for the first time to recognise the economic value associated with the unpaid work women do as home makers and carers. A lot has changed since then, and I have helped many women with their careers as the workplace has evolved, but overall progress on gender equality at work is still slow.

Over the last ten years McKinsey & Co have tracked the progress of women’s participation in the workplace via their ‘Women Matter’ insights.

Currently women account for 40% of the global workforce, and hold only 25% of management positions, and the pipeline of female talent decreases through to senior levels. Women are still predominantly responsible for 75% of unpaid care work. So, what many women now experience is what is often called a ‘double burden’ of work and domestic duties, and there are downsides and upsides to working part-time. Many women also face #pensionpoverty.

Women want rewarding careers that are remunerated fairly; there are also compelling economic benefits of tapping into the skills of women to plug talent shortages, and evidence of a link between women in leadership and financial performance. A diverse workforce supports innovation and reflects customer profiles.

So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day what can be done to accelerate the career prospects for women?

Clearly Governments play a part in supporting the right policies and infrastructure; an example in the UK is The Davies review which set targets for numbers of female board members, and more recently the requirement of reporting on the Gender Pay Gap. Many feel the tide is turning and employers and professional institutions are stepping up to make diversity a reality. At a structural level this requires a systems approach to bring in the cultural changes needed. Its not just about ‘empowering’ women to seize opportunities.

Organisational Career Strategies:

  • Commitment – Senior leaders making the business case; demonstrating their commitment to diversity via public statements, recognising different types of career paths, setting targets, and driving the change
  • Work based policies – New approaches to delivering the work, flexible working, career breaks, work life balance, and parental leave
  • Building accountability and transparency – Holding leaders to account for career progression, recruitment and retention targets and decisions; supporting ‘meritocracy’
  • Development programmes for women – Mentoring and sponsorship, training and coaching

None of the above are new, what underpins success is the intention and commitment to build inclusive and transformational ‘mindset’ changes, that recognise diversity of all sorts, and challenge the unconscious bias factors that affect both men and women. Many organisations are introducing training to surface these biases and are encouraging men to play their part in the active support they can provide women via HeforShe.

So what can women do for themselves when it comes to their own careers?

There is clearly no one size fits all approach; women will want different things, at different times. Not everyone wants to, nor has the skills to reach senior roles in organisations, and the rise of entrepreneurship and self-employment shows that women are creating work opportunities for themselves. Increasing longevity and the 100 Year Life are also challenging notions of traditional career stages (based on male careers) and suggest emerging phases of opportunities for women over 50 in particular.

The work around unconscious bias is interesting as it affects how women define themselves and set limits to what they can achieve. There is much written about the personality differences between men and women, and this is a well-trodden ground for debate which I’m not going to explore! But here are a few pointers for women in terms of career development:

Women’s Career Strategies:

  • Career Brand – Don’t expect your good work to speak for itself- you’ll need to find ways to build your professional reputation and ‘brand’ to a wider audience
  • Capability – Be confident about your capabilities and capacity to take on a new role; you don’t have to match 100% of all the requirements
  • Network – Build your professional network of supporters; mentors, champions and peers. There is also some evidence that ‘women’ only networks are beneficial.
  • Career Conversations – Seek out the conversations you need to get development, and articulate what you want and offer
  • Insight – If your ambitions are to become a CEO or senior leader, this is what it might take
  • Career Break – If you take a career break, try and keep in touch with your professional network

So, my final message is to encourage women to acknowledge their strengths and capabilities, to find ways to express their interests at work and not be frightened to ask for what they want. It can involve taking time out to do some career reflection and then some ‘bold steps’ to make it happen.

Careers don’t have to be navigated alone. Be Bold in your Career is our flagship online career course, enabling you to take control of your career development. It is available now for employers, professional bodies and individuals

For help on creating career strategies, online career development courses, tools and resources, please contact us, and connect with us @careerinnovator or LinkedIn.


Jonathan, You make one key statement in your blog — “none of this is new.” Let’s go back to Al Einstein’s purported observation, “Insanity is to continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome.” There’s nothing wrong with the strategies that you highlight, but there is, I think, something critical missing. That something is a recognition that organizations derive value from cognitive diversity — not from identity diversity per se. Now, before I get crucified, I want to discuss both of those aspects of diversity:
– Identity diversity — how we identify ourselves. I’m a 7o year old white male engineer.
– Cognitive diversity — I perceive the world in thus and such a way. I solve problems with my unique set of heuristics. I make predictions using a certain approach. No one else in the world thinks exactly the way that I do. There are lots of people who think similarly but far more who think very differently.

Now, it turns out that you can’t measure cognitive diversity. It doesn’t come in pounds or furlongs or amperes. It does, however, correlate strongly with identity diversity. HOWEVER, if you simply collect a group of people who are identity diverse, there is no guarantee that they will behave in a cognitively manner. In fact, many leadership styles and techniques will crush cognitive diversity.

Achieving benefit from a cognitively diverse group requires serious effort on the part of organizational leaders. I’ve said many times that expecting a group to spontaneously create the benefits of cognitive diversity is like assembling the ingredients for a cake and expecting them to spontaneously “cake-ize.”

Serendipitously, the Santa Fe Institute just held (22 – 23 March) a two-day session with business executives to discuss how to benefit from cognitive diversity. You can read the SFI post here ( The session was led by Scott Page who has conducted extensive research on cognitive diversity and authored the book, The Difference ( capturing much of that research.

I’m not an expert on cognitive diversity, just a disciple. Scott is someone worth talking to.

Written by Guy Higgins, March 25, 2018

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