How Can Women Step up and Stand out in a Male-Dominated Workplace

There was a 1% increase in the number of women reaching senior positions in FTSE 100 companies . The target is 33% by 2020, which is, apparently, “well insight.” But, digging deeper into the Female FTSE Index for 2019 report these statistics are taken from, there’s a problem with the number of women staying in those senior positions and there’s a clear under-representation of women of colour. Interestingly, both the sponsors’ foreword and the introduction for the 2019 report are written by two caucasian men.

The struggle to reach the top, to penetrate the Glass Ceiling continues today. There are still not enough women sitting around the major decision-making tables. On the one hand, we want to celebrate that 1% increase but on the other, it begs the question as to why there is still such a strong resistance to having women in senior positions and keeping them there?

Mary Beard, in her powerful book Women & Power: A Manifesto, refers to a dark historical tradition of keeping women silent; from Homer to Trump. This ingrained resentment of women speaking up exists across the world in almost all societies. From the significant disparity in the gender pay gap to the continuing abuse highlighted by the #MeToo movement.

How can talented and ambitious women step up and stand out without experiencing rejection, loneliness and punishment? For a woman (of any age) entering the corporate world – what must she do to be recognised, acknowledged and rewarded? It still seems to be a game of one step forward and two steps back.

But this is not a situation confined to the business world. I have experienced many discriminatory situations in the entertainment industry and the arts too. And I am sure many women reading this will be nodding their heads in agreement.

Suggestions and good advice abound. From Mary Portas’ book, Work Like A Woman to the short and brilliant We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and, indeed, my own book, The Rule Breaker’s Guide (To Step Up & Stand Out). I am reminded of the Riana Duncan cartoon, from Punch magazine, illustrating this imprinted ‘deafness’ in her famous ‘Miss Triggs’ cartoon:

“That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

This is a continuing situation in many boardrooms, meetings and network environments today. So how can a woman step over the hurdles? How can a woman stand up and still be respected, regarded and, dare I say it, even liked?

One of the most delicate tightropes a woman has to walk is managing aggression and anger. Finding the right balance in the numerous situations that arouse anger is one of the most critical moves a woman in a senior position has to make. Exert too much aggression and there will be complaints, too little and you are seen as weak. And you probably won’t be liked!

In Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s book, The Confidence Code, they cite a conversation between Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel: “When we work on a particular matter, we will work the file inside, outside, sideways, backwards, historically genetically and geographically. We want to be completely on top of everything and we want to understand it all and we don’t want to be fooled by somebody else.”

I believe that herein lies the essence of our problem as working women – perfectionism, overthinking and the need to be liked. We are faced with deep prejudice and tradition. We struggle against unequal pay, conditions and access to better opportunities. In turn, we create our own obstacles. Partly, they are triggered by the indoctrinations we receive as girls growing up.

For example, the ineffectual advice about marriage and being nice. Topics that are rarely taught or discussed with boys. Then, there is the undeniable fact that when you do have children your career, your journey to the top, will be redirected, put on hold and sometimes even replaced by a twenty-something, newer model.

I believe that herein lies the essence of our problem as working women – perfectionism, overthinking and the need to be liked.

How do we as women break through these issues? How do we move around, step over or even overcome them?

Developing confidence, courage and creativity, in theory, is key to standing up to the real external and internal obstacles. But, in practice, how do we walk that delicate tightrope?

I have found all too often that the softly-softly approach does not work. Yes, be polite and diplomatic whenever you can but there comes a point when that manner is overlooked, ignored or side-stepped by those around you. The decisions are hard. The risks are high. In the end, you have to recognise your values, your level of quality and care – and make that decision.

Step One – Find your team – don’t fight alone

It is so important for women to come together, work together and respect each other’s talents and skills. The whole charade about the weakest link has to be abolished. We all have something to contribute. Each one of us has a part – trust your team to get on with it and pool your strengths.

Step Two – There is always another way

My mother frequently told me that if you can’t get in the front door, try the back door. If that door is closed, try knocking on the window. Then, go for the chimney and if that is blocked, it’s time to dig a tunnel. In my book, The Rule Breaker’s Guide, I refer to the Four Fabulous Sisters: Consistent, Persistent, Resistant and Insistent! They are qualities you need in business. Recognise the traits in you that are not as strong as they could be and turn to your sisters for support. Don’t give up. There is always another way.

Step Three – Perfection kills confidence

And if your high heels also kills your feet or your posture, you have to do something about it. Don’t suffer in silence. Speaking up about injustice or inequality in the workplace is not a question of whether it is ‘easy’ or ‘allowed’. When men want change, a pay rise or cooler temperatures in the office they ask, they don’t prepare or discuss it for hours over coffee and cake. They head straight for the head office and ask. Too much preparation is a killer. Too much over-thinking and labelling will dampen your spirit and fill you with doubt… and that will show.

Step Four – Risks are like challenges

Risks can be opportunities and through risk comes change. I write a lot about questioning everything that doesn’t benefit or serve you. Positive change has come about through much rebellion and mutiny. I am not referring to strikes or violent protest, but without some risk, some Daring Bravely as Bréne Brown puts it – change can never come about.

Step Five – Channel that anger

Anger is a natural reaction to injustice, but a woman to express anger in a professional setting can still be considered as a lack of control. When I feel anger rising from injustice, I slow down and gather my thoughts but I keep that energy, the fire and the firmness of my words (and of course, refrain from cursing.) If the ‘crowd’ does not let you finish your sentence or dismisses your view completely – and if you really have value, quality and care for yourself – take the action needed!

From experience, I know you can learn to be more confident, courageous and therefore creative – even if you don’t think you can. But knowing when and how to step up & stand out – is still a precarious operation for many of us.


About Georgia Varjas

Georgia Varjas was born in North London and now lives in Spain, with her partner, where she runs retreats for writers and writes her own books. Georgia spent decades travelling the world as a musician. She loves life, travel and Italian food, dances salsa and grows gigantic Agapanthus! She believes everyone needs to break the rules sometimes…

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