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book excerpt

I’d Rather Be In Charge by Charlotte Beers

Excerpted from I'd Rather Be In Charge: A Legendary Business Leader's Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power, and Joy at Work by Charlotte Beers. Published by Vanguard Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. © 2012

From Revolution to Evolution

Here's what I think: in our world today it's not that "men are so over," as a loud, red-suited woman declared to me at a cocktail party. But we women have won our revolution, and we are now on the cusp of a new era. Not long ago we had to prove every minute to every audience that we are worthy of working, able to take responsibility and generate results. That "prove it" phase has been replaced by a "forging ahead" environment. Women need not to be so grateful for every acknowledgment. It's time for us to let go of the sense that we are on probation and move on to take larger roles at work.

Women have made such progress that we can safely pronounce the revolution over. Some 51 per cent of managerial and professional jobs go to women today, compared to only 25 per cent in 1980. The drama of the revolution, when women pioneers were treated like celebrities or freaks, has been replaced by a blurry-edged evolution with little ceilings everywhere, not so high up but more opaque. One young woman law student was asked about these glass ceilings. She said, "Glass ceiling, you mean like a skylight?" She was blissfully unaware that while women make up 50 per cent of graduates from law school, only a third of them have made it to even low-level positions of power in law firms.

This period of evolution has no clear rules or roles because our workplace is reinventing itself, and it is full of inconsistencies and misleading counsel for women. There is a lot of voiced support for women in almost every enterprise. Women are acknowledged as uniquely talented, are better educated than men (60 per cent of all bachelor degrees go to women), and are very hardworking (give it to a woman if you want it done).

But this combination of a good education and hard work adds up to women frequently bearing the brunt of the workload but not being well represented in the tight circle of decision makers. That universe is still dominated by men.

One of our ceilings is that there is less real communication between men and women than we might expect. Women work easily with men side by side, but when women deal with authoritative and powerful male bosses, their sense of familiarity flees, replaced by undue caution and a wavering self-confidence.

It is so much easier to pick another fellow because he can be sized up much more reliably. It's not bias; it's more that "she's a mystery and she does things in a different way." Since picking the wrong people under you can capsize your career, men at the top who are making these choices would rather be right than fair.

Musical auditions are now often conducted behind a screen so the performance of the musicians can be judged on a gender-free basis. This little manoeuvre increased the number of women chosen by conductors at five times the earlier rate. But in most job situations, our notes are yet to be heard, our performance is in many ways an unknown. We don't have a gender-erasing screen. We have a ceiling.

A focus on political correctness has replaced frank and genuine work assessments with vague or coded reviews, opinions, and evaluations. Some bosses never dare to express what they really feel about a woman employee. The in-depth training that every company offers on how men should relate to women has greatly reduced and discouraged harassment, but in the process it has created a climate of caution.

For the life of you, you can't figure out how you are doing. Good luck getting a straight answer. People feel free to evaluate your work results but rarely give you an honest critique of your behaviour. Men feel they have to be very careful about what they say and even how they hold their body when speaking to women. I'm not trying to romanticize the past, but it's unlikely a woman today will hear about her failings with the same candour I received coming up as a pioneering woman.

Discussions I've had with today's managers have taught me that a lot is being spoken in code. Once, at a closed meeting of top managers, I heard this report from Sally's boss: "Sally doesn't own her leadership."

What does that mean? I wondered. Did she lose it?

Nevertheless, the report had serious implications, because it implied that Sally would not be promoted to the next level. But Sally was not likely to hear this comment, so she'd never learn what she most needed to modify.

In evaluations, men have a built-in advantage because other men are more likely to speak directly to them: "Joe, don't be such a wuss! Answer back next time you're challenged – don't just sit on your tongue." Whack! That's how a guy will learn he "doesn't own his leadership." He gets immediate, unpleasant, and very useful feedback. Men still feel free to talk to other men, grab them by the collar, and give them a yank, usually in the right direction. This is the real-life version of mentoring, and it's far less likely to happen with a woman who is equally qualified.

During this cusp period, when women are evolving into these upper levels, there are two things that I urge women to accept and act upon:

• Women need to change how we see ourselves in the world of work.

• And we need to change the perceptions of those around us, to make our true potential more obvious.

Gathering ever greater influence starts with knowing your own potential. Obviously we can't count on others (read: men) to accurately assess our capability nor can we wait around to be applauded or recognized. This forging ahead period offers us an opportunity to gain more say in our workplace, affect outcomes, shape events rather than have them shape us. Focusing on titles and the career ladder alone won't get us there. What will is keeping alert for chances to speak up, to act, to be influential. We must be prepared to take controversial stands, initiate ideas and projects; that's how influence is felt. As we learn to be influential, the titles, recognition, and sense of accomplishment will follow. It doesn't really happen the other way around.

Once you refine your ability to understand what you want, identify what has meaning to you, and learn to trust your instincts and intuition, you will then need to master presenting these intangible and evocative but very influential aspects of who you are. And I don't mean the usual 20 power points presentation, with you obscured by the lights that are focused on the screen. I mean your presentation of yourself in persuasive and memorable ways.

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