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How Women Build Their Own Glass Ceiling – by Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

The story I hear over and over again from high achieving women is how hard it is for them to obtain those coveted executive spots. It’s so familiar that I’m surprised women haven’t banded together to create common strategies to overcome the breakdowns and roadblocks to the corner office. We women have so much in common, we can learn from each other and at least give each other the support and encouragement we need to “screw up” our courage (to quote Lady McBeth) and demand more.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, there is much existing literature and “self-help” direction for us to choose from. One of my favorite sources is the book, How Women Rise, by Marshall Goldsmith, co-authored by Sally Helgesen. In this book, the authors point out 12 practices, that indicate how women’s own actions sabotage their careers. Their research produced no surprises for me. Every item they uncovered; I’ve heard from almost every woman I’ve ever worked with. And I understand how and why, having worked in corporate America for over 30 years. It goes against our natural female instincts to want to “help” and “be liked” and “cooperate”. It’s no secret that men don’t worry about such things in the business world.

Here are another 3 Limiting Beliefs that we women practice that keep us bobbing away from the Glass Ceiling:

1. The Perfection Trap. One quote I remember hearing back in the Reagan era was, “the 80% solution”. In other words, it didn’t have to be perfect, it just had to get done. As President Reagan famously said, “…if I can get 70 or 80 percent of what it is I’m trying to get, yes I’ll take that and then continue to try to get the rest in the future.” Why is it that we women can’t settle for the 80% solution? One of the most agonizing stories I’ve heard regards a woman who worked so hard to be perfect, the best, the number one in her department, but was still passed over for promotion. Why? Because she was perceived as a “doer” not a leader.  Striving for perfection keeps women buried in detail, micromanaging, redoing the work of others, and not using our time wisely. You might be a great technologist, but if you’re aiming for the corner office, you need to take off your blinders. Your boss isn’t going to notice your leadership qualities while you bury yourself in work. Accept the 80% solution, mindful that you’ll figure out the rest in due time. By getting out of details, and not worrying about everyone else’s work, you’ll free up your mindset, get out of the spinning mode, and look at the world more positively. A positive mindset makes all the difference. Remember, nobody’s perfect.

2. The Disease to Please. I’ve noticed that women I’ve worked with desire to make everyone else happy. They want to be seen as “wonderful people”. Always ready to volunteer for work related charitable projects, they’re the ones giving up vacation time to wrap and deliver Christmas gifts the whole company has donated. They’re the first ones to take over the bake sale, the food drive and the carpool. They are the people pleasers. It’s a deadly trap because people pleasers often can’t keep their priorities straight. If you are a people pleaser, you can’t tell which item is more significant, and you begin to realize that you have no time for anything that YOU want to do. You are constantly juggling, and completing projects becomes more and more challenging. You find yourself working late into the night because you are taking care of kids, preparing meals, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, paying bills, and wedging your work in wherever you can. You may even be at odds with your boss because he or she is putting a lot of pressure on you to take more responsibility and of course, you won’t say “no”. So, your sleep is cut short, you never have time for exercise or self-care, and your day is hectic, filled with everyone else’s emergencies. Where do you fit into this picture? If you please yourself first, you’ll be better prepared to help everyone else in your orbit.

3. Minimizing. Whether it is physically making yourself smaller, apologizing too much or using “we” instead of “I”, women have a habit of minimizing themselves. In fact, one of the most maddening parts of coaching is when a woman comes for help with a specific challenging issue, and when we get right down to the core problem, she tells me “I’ve seen worse.”, “I’m not the only one”, or “it’s really not that big a deal”. I have to ask her “What are we doing here?” I’ve heard this speech pattern so often, that I could write a separate book on the subject! Women need to acknowledge that they have legitimate problems at work, and those problems can have devastating consequences. Don’t minimize bad behavior, whether from bosses or your kids. Don’t lessen the impact of your inconsiderate co-worker. Don’t play your disappointment at being passed over. You must maintain your self respect to stay credible. Don’t rationalize away the issues that bother you. You have a right to your feelings, and wrong is wrong. Face it!

Another “minimizing issue is how small we make ourselves. Just observe how men sit as compared to how women sit. You’ve heard the term “man splaying”? It’s the posture of a man sitting in any public area, like a bench or subway seat. His legs are so far apart that he’s literally taking up two or three seats. A woman would never dream of such a thing. Women sit very pulled together, straight posture, arms at sides with hands folded, legs or ankles crossed. We don’t want to be noticed. We don’t want to take up too much space. Notice men in meetings. They drop their belongings on empty chairs and don’t move them when someone else needs a seat. Women do the opposite. I’m not suggesting that we splay ourselves in public places or hog up all the room at a conference table, just that we get the men to move so everyone is more comfortable instead of trying to take up less space ourselves.

Women, if we want to truly get to the top, we have to develop what’s known as “executive presence”. That means be self-aware enough to take your place in the organization. Stop overworking yourself and be professional. As I’ve asked many of my female clients, what do you think a man would do in the same circumstance. I know you already know that answer.

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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