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Inspiration from an Xplore Associate
Angelina Eynon

Promoting, rewarding and recognising based on the principles of ‘meritocracy’ sounds fair and right. However, the reality is that this relies on a clear and shared understanding of what merit is within each organisation, each division and each team. This is very difficult to achieve – particularly when a company’s values might, for example, be ‘Integrity, Teamwork and Customer Focus’, yet the accolades, promotions and rewards go to those individuals who hit numerical targets, at whatever cost – even working against values.

Dictionary definitions of meritocracy talk about ‘intellect’ and ‘credentials’ – something that most of the women I have worked with in my 25 years of corporate life, (over 10 of that via Xplore for Success), have in abundance. Interestingly, though, the numbers of women graduating with high grade averages from Australian universities no where near correlates with the percentages of Australian women attaining senior roles in the corporate world. So this to me suggests that if organisations really are promoting based on ‘merit’, something is going very wrong.

There are some key reasons why I believe so-called meritocracy is not working for women in corporate Australia.

1. Women set a high bar for themselves. “Be Perfect”

By now, we’ve all seen the reports showing that a man will apply for a job if he believes his skills and credentials meet at least one third of the selection criteria, whereas a woman will hesitate to apply if she doesn’t tick ninety per cent of the boxes. Even Xplore’s own MD, Diana Ryall, recounts the story that if she hadn’t have been supported and given encouragement by a strong sponsor to apply for the MD role at Apple Computers, she may not necessarily have put up her hand.

Xplore programs are full of bright women with law degrees, MBAs and even some PhDs. Women who are academically accomplished and often also very socially and emotionally intelligent (especially after doing one of our programs!).

These same women are often the ones that I hear saying things like, “I’m not quite ready for that next step up,” OR, “I haven’t quite achieved all the targets set for me to be able to move on.” When we doubt our own abilities, others doubt us too – and this is certainly the story told by interview success of women compared with male candidates.

When we ask the women in our groups to tell us about a recent success, there’s usually a long silence, and eventually a success that was a year or more ago – and the woman is usually at pains to attribute that success to a whole team – not just herself (see next point).  I challenge women to notice the small successes they have daily and the big difference these make. Most women will just see this as ‘I’m just doing my job’. ‘Success’ to a woman means achieving an Olympic level of attainment.

Let’s lower the bar of perfection that we set for ourselves and recognise our achievements a little more graciously.

2. Women like to affiliate and collaborate – “Be Nice”

If you watch little girls from the age of three upwards, their focus is on making friends and being ‘nice’. They want to please their teachers/carers and will often say things like “I love you, Mummy, you are beautiful!” The highest form of expressing anger toward another female friend is to say, ‘You’re not coming to my birthday party!’ – the age-old female tactic of exclusion. We learn early that ‘exclusion’ is the ultimate weapon – and no one wants to be excluded! (Ask a teenage girl who’s been Facebook ‘de-friended’!).

From a very young age most little girls have been taught to be ‘good and nice’. Being good and nice means including others, sharing, not being ‘dominant’ or ‘bossy’ and not being ‘aggressive’. When a little boy jumps emphatically in a mud puddle and splashes all of those next to him yelling ‘HAHHHHH!” he is “Just being a boy.” A little girl doing that is very inconsiderate and badly behaved indeed.

These same little girls grow up into women who have learned the tacit rules of being a ‘good girl’ and take them into the workforce: Don’t be aggressive – aggressive women are ‘bitches’, (aggressive men are just ‘alpha’ – or good in financial markets!). Don’t be competitive. Don’t show anger or frustration. Play nice. Be nice. Don’t boast. Look nice. Include everyone. And on it goes.

The tacit messages in corporate life are often about competing, winning, taking risks, individualism: messages that women and girls have spent a lifetime being taught the opposite of! Despite lots of talk about ‘team’, it’s not the whole ‘team’ that gets promoted when targets get met. And a lesson that I hear many senior women learn is that you don’t get promoted simply by ‘Doing a good Job’ – you have to make sure you tell everyone that you are doing a good job – and everyone’s boss too!

3. Women are high on personal responsibility – which also means we take it personally. “It’s personal.”

Being on an Xplore program or working with one of our coaches is a ‘safe place’ for women and therefore we see a lot of tears! What do you think is the number one reason women cry in or about the workplace? It’s FRUSTRATION. (And the harsh judgments women make of themselves and each other about crying in the workplace are super interesting – and topic for another article!). Many women feel this level of emotion – frustration, anger, disappointment, overwhelmed, BECAUSE THEY CARE. They want to do a good job. They do not want to let themselves, their team, their bosses (in fact, anyone), down. They have high standards, they want things done 100%. And when ‘stuff’ gets in the way, that can lead to harsh judgments of ourselves and high emotions. Work is not just about ‘doing a job’: it’s a place that creates meaning and purpose for us, we have friendships and genuinely care about what happens at work. If I had a $ for every time I have listened to a woman blame herself – or at least take more than her fair share of the responsibility – for something that has gone wrong at work, I’d be a very rich women. Wow we are hard on ourselves!

This carries over into things like job interviews where candidates are asked questions like: “Have you ever (for example) managed large teams of people?” More often than not I hear reports of the female candidates telling an absolute truth: ‘No, I haven’t.’ The first to highlight what they have NOT done. One woman I recently debriefed had ten years experience in a highly complex stakeholder management role, managing multiple clients and contractors at the one time, and managing both upward and downward in levels of seniority. Her response to this question was ‘no’ as she had no direct line reports. She did not get the role and the feedback was simply because she had no team management experience. I was not only surprised, but I was angry on her behalf: she ticked all the boxes but let herself down by not recognizing her transferable skills of managing highly complex relationships. This is one of many examples I hear regularly (and am going prematurely grey over – because I take my coaching clients’ successes personally!!).  Women need to back themselves more and think about the transferability of the skills that they have achieved rather than simple matching criteria word for word.

4. “I don’t do politics and networking is a bit ‘slimy’”.

You only need to look at what happens to female politicians in Australia to understand why so many women in this country shake their heads and say, “Ewww, I don’t ‘do’ politics!” And here’s the deal: If you want to succeed in corporate life, you need to navigate politics. You also need to build solid support networks.

Politics at it’s most basic is just simply how we manage relationships and gather: something that many women do very well outside of work. Networking is, actually, exactly the same: building our support team. This is something that we can do very naturally and authentically. It doesn’t have to be about uninitiated business card drops and deals done in shady bars, (leave that to TV programs like ‘Suits’ – just like those sky-high stilettoes and skin tight dresses the female execs wear). We need to use those natural relationship development skills to be more strategic about our careers.

I notice at school functions that the mothers – most of them accomplished professionals – do not discuss work. Conversely, one of the first things the dads seem to talk about is their work, and now seven years into my daughter’s education, many of the dads are doing business together. Why is that? Why aren’t we working with these relationships that we’ve built over time? I have recently invited some of my school mum friends to Xplore events and it has broadened our friendships considerably. Why do we place taboos on discussing and integrating our work and personal selves?

If not meritocracy, then what?

Organisations need to look beyond the concept of ‘merit’ at practical solutions that support not only women, but the attainment of more diverse workforces in general. We need to be more cognisant of style distinctions and authentic ways of building professional relationships (support), and also encouraging of making mistakes and risk taking, (no more perfectionism or little miss ‘nice girl’!).

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