Recognise the skills you may have developed during your years away from work: Sally Helgesen

Recognise the skills you may have developed during your years away from work: Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen, one of the world’s foremost authorities on women’s leadership, shares why the pandemic has been particularly challenging for women worldwide and how organisations can remove barriers to women’s advancement in leadership roles. She also talks about the internal barriers that are likely to hold women back in their careers and why placing gender quotas on company boards is not an ideal solution for promoting gender diversity in the workplace.


Many statistics, stories, and surveys reveal that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted working women. How do you see the pandemic’s impact on women in the workforce?


I think there are two impacts — short-term and long-term. I see the short-term impact as being a big problem for women. Women have been leaving the workforce in a higher proportion than men because of the burden of caring for children, especially those who have not been in school. This has been highly problematic for families, men, and women, but the impact has fallen disproportionately on women. The other reason for this disproportionate impact is that women are heavily represented in hotels, hospitality, and retail, which are in decline.


However, more flexible and digital work will be a big plus for women. In the long run, the move to more flexible hours and the recognition by senior leadership that productivity is not negatively affected by more flexible working hours and schedules will serve women well. When the pandemic passes, we will have children going to school, and we can have people in houses helping to take care of children, whether those people are relatives and family or whether it’s paid work. I think that the positive impacts will become more apparent over the longer term.


Gender quotas are a common tool used to encourage gender diversity on company boards. However, many organisations appoint women to their boards only when prodded by policymakers and are not geared to go beyond the mandated requirement. While some people believe that quotas are indeed the answer to change, others argue that these laws only solve the symptoms and not the root causes of the issue. What’s your take on gender quotas?


I don’t think quotas are an ideal solution. They’re a good temporary solution for organisations that have been highly resistant to developing the policies they need to achieve better representation. Women now look at who’s on the board and who’s in the senior executive ranks. I’ve talked to hundreds of women who have said they didn’t want to work at a company because women were not well-represented at the top there. Quotas can be useful in the interim, but research has also shown that having one woman on a board doesn’t have that much impact. Having three does. We can have a tough time getting quotas for three, and it also depends on the culture. A culture like the United States tends to be resistant to the idea of quotas.


I’m especially sceptical because I’m aware of cases, especially in Northern Europe, where organisations have taken up quotas with enthusiasm, but it ended up resulting in a two-tiered board situation. Thus, you have women on the board, but they’re not in decision-making roles in terms of the committees they’re on. I don’t think that does anybody any good. So there are limitations to the idea of quotas, and it would be much better to encourage women and create conditions where more women can realise their full potential.


Are there some limiting or erroneous beliefs that women might themselves have about being leaders, which could further limit their active participation in higher-level leadership roles?


There are cultural factors in organisations that can make it difficult for women to break through barriers. There are also structural limitations. I’ve worked with a couple of firms in Scandinavia that had very early retirement policies, and these tend to fall disproportionately on women because women come into leadership generally a bit later in their careers than men do. Thus, there are cultural and structural inhibitions, but there are also internal barriers that hold women back. That’s what Marshall and I worked on in the book How Women Rise. We can’t necessarily control how an old boys’ network operates in an organisation, but we can control what, in ourselves, holds us back.


Some of the self-limiting behaviours stem from women trying to manage perceptions — what other people are thinking of you over being intentional and clear in your communication. I talk about two of the habits in the book: reluctance to claim your achievements and expecting others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions. The question I get asked most commonly when I give talks is: How can I represent my achievements without anybody thinking I am arrogant or that I’m all about me? There are cultural reasons for it, but women can benefit from spending more energy thinking: How can I be clear about what I’m trying to do, and how can I represent that? How can I bring attention to that and bring other people along as I do that? More focus on that and less on what might people think of them would serve women quite well.



I am also becoming more aware of the frequency with which women decide that they’re not ready for a promotion or a job from talking to search firms, internal HR people, and senior executive teams. I rarely do a program where somebody doesn’t say that we’ve offered this position to this woman, but she said she doesn’t feel that she was ready for it or she didn’t have all the qualifications. Women are often hesitant and operate almost under a misconception that they cannot move forward unless they are 100% ready.


We can benefit from a stronger recognition that we don’t need to be 100% ready for everything. There’s always going to be a learning curve, and we don’t have to be perfect, especially not on day one.


One significant obstacle to women returning to work after a career break is the confidence crisis they experience. Many might feel they’re no longer capable of making it in the professional world or of taking up the same level of responsibility as before. What would your top tips be for women who are trying to rejoin the workforce after, say, an extended career break?


First, you want to look at your skills. I remember working with a woman who had been out of the workforce officially for about ten years. Meanwhile, she had done active volunteering at a children’s school, and her technological skills were superb as a result of her responsibilities there. She wasn’t even counting that when she was looking at her skills. She was thinking that the only way she could get work experience is by being in the workplace. That’s not true.


I was struck when, a few months back, I read an interview with Nancy Pelosi, who is the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Her father was the mayor of Baltimore for many years. So the interviewer, who was a man, said to Nancy that it was assumed that the reason she could step so comfortably into her role and manage such a difficult situation was because of the experience of growing up with her father as a sixterm mayor of a major city. Nancy replied no and said she could handle Congress the way she does because she had five children in six years and learned how to manage chaos. More women need to approach things this way, recognising the skills and talents they might have developed during their years away from work.


The other thing, in addition to skills, is maintaining and building your networks. Often, when women take time away, they lose their networks. It’s important to keep up some level of a professional network when you take time away from work. You obviously won’t have the internal network in an organisation available, but you can maintain membership in a professional association and not be embarrassed that you’re not working. Life is long now, and careers are long, too. If you take 5 or 10 years off, it’s not much in the broad span of things. We all need support; that’s part of what makes us resilient. Maintaining and rebuilding networks, along with recognising the skills you may have developed in your time away, are essential to boosting confidence.


Have you witnessed women losing interest and opting out of further advancement to senior leadership positions, despite being successful? What can organisations do to support women in sustaining their ambitions to enter higher-level leadership positions?


What you said is very widespread, and it’s unfortunate. The word you used — sustainable — is exactly right. I remember going to a sustainability conference several years ago. One of the world’s top tech companies was represented there, and they were presenting this whole thing on what they’re doing to build a sustainable future and their sustainable supply chain, and so on. Because I had worked in this company, I had seen levels of burnout among the employees. I asked the guy, who was their sustainability head, “What are you doing to build a sustainable workforce?” He replied, “What do you mean?” I said, “You seem very committed to sustainability, which is a wonderful thing, but it’s not just supply chains. It’s also the experience of your internal people.”


Many organisations buy into the idea that we’ve got this big project. This year is crucial. This client is very important. We’ve got to fire on 110 cylinders for this effort, and then we can recoup once it is done. Of course, something else is always there waiting in the wings. So, the number one thing that HR people can do is be a voice for building a sustainable workforce so that people are able to recoup their resources and energy and keep going.


I’ve interviewed thousands of women who’ve left good positions in companies that are known to be excellent. What I hear most often, in addition to burnout, is they felt very alone and got tired of being the only woman in their immediate environment. Anthropologists have shown that women’s resilience is rooted in the relationships that they have — at work, as well as at home. So the difficulty of building those networks becomes discouraging for women.


The other thing is that many women don’t see a way to reach their full potential and express their talents. Some of that relates to performance parameters. Very persuasive research has shown that men tend to be valued for their potential and women for what they’ve already accomplished.


In my experience — and my work shows this — women also tend to view satisfaction more intrinsically, whereas men are more likely to be motivated by and find satisfaction in hitting benchmarks in terms of income, earnings, or position. I find that women can be well financially rewarded and have a high position and still not find enjoyment or satisfaction in those achievements. That’s a good thing, and in fact, more men have begun considering whether what they do is a good use of their time and if they are making a contribution to something important. However, women have felt that way for a while. So it’s helpful for organisations to think in those terms.

Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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