Many successful women’s careers literally stall at a level that does not match their ambition for themselves.


In a recent article in Harvard Business Review by lawyer and consultant Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Rikleen explores the reasons for this sudden halt explaining that many of these women were not being held back by their work ethic or their skills, nor were they ceding to the family pressures. In fact, most were comfortable with how they’d integrated their personal and professional lives and had solid support systems at home. Yes, they faced unconscious bias at the office, but they didn’t see the barriers posed as insurmountable.

So, what prevented these women from advancing to the upper echelons of leadership and compensation in their chosen fields? In the article, Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer ascribes it to a discomfort with mastering power dynamics. Years of research demonstrate that women are far more likely to see their workplace as a pure meritocracy where good work will be rewarded, while men are more heads up about the role influence and power play in getting ahead. Women tend to focus more on achievement rather than becoming comfortable with the pursuit of influence and power.

Natalie Maroun, lead strategist at local performance agency LRMG, believes that women need to realise that they are in fact natural leaders and can perform more effectively than their male counterparts since they tend to be better multitaskers, and then use these strengths as power plays. They also have the advantage of a high level of emotional intelligence – a trait which distinguishes great employees from those that are simply good.

“Then there’s that X factor which women uniquely bring to the workplace. It’s a level of finesse that makes a big difference,” she says.

As Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely says, “Clarity of purpose provides the energy and focus needed to overcome gender barriers.”

Women also need to get over their fear of risk. “They place too much pressure on trying to be perfect. The fear of making mistakes can lead to missed opportunities. You can’t get ahead in the power game without taking risks and being willing to move out of your comfort zone,” notes Maroun.

Then there’s the projection of power – a skill that poses particular challenges for women since it bumps against the societal norm of deference. Rikleen believes that women tend to feel they either can be nice or they can be confident without understanding how to merge the two.

“It seems strange but women need to get better at relationship-building in the workplace and using these relationships as power play opportunities,” says Maroun. Career advancement depends upon connecting with influential people and seeking them out for strategic advice. And, although many women are adept at building networks in their personal lives, the very same people are often painfully uncomfortable building and using their networks in their offices and industries. This reluctance to ask for help is extremely detrimental to their careers.

Setbacks are inevitable when seeking power and women after the most senior roles need to be resilient and persistent. Rikleen notes that the most successful women are those who, when their plans were derailed or they were under attack, pressed on, revising their strategies to come out on top. These women adopted the ‘failure is not an option’ attitude. Maroun agrees saying women need to be highly resilient in the workplace.

Perhaps the most critical element for women to succeed is the need for women to work together in pursuit of influence. Maroun says, “The greatest challenge facing women today is actually themselves. What’s interesting is that men root for men but women don’t root for women – they root for men too.”

“Women quite regularly fall into one of two categories. They are either deeply competitive and often compete at the cost of collaboration. Then, on the other hand, there are those who view collaboration as important and make other women’s upliftment their priority but who compromise themselves. The second group often tone themselves down and try to be more like their male counterparts. I believe women should embrace their differences. Very often women work much harder than men because they feel they have got much more to prove and end up stretching themselves too far. If women can pool their resources better, it will be this group leverage that will truly change the power dynamic over time,” she concludes.