I once read an article that burned down the corporate ladder principle in favour of a jungle gym. It posited that the road to professional success was less about clearly defined rungs reaching up to the sky, as it was about bars moving both vertically and horizontally which you climb in your own unique design. Even in such a short time my definition of success has changed, evolved, and expanded to agree with this jungle gym theory. The longer we work the more we realize that our definitions of success are flexible and adaptable – and so they should be. What might start off as a desire to go from being the corper to the CEO in the same company, might evolve to include pursuing one’s passion for baking or basket weaving, going back to school, developing multiple sources of income and/or raising a family. In reality our individual career paths include many moving parts. As such it is near impossible to see that straight-line projection anymore, or to embrace it. Yes, one might want a promotion, but one might also want things that cannot be quantified by a bottom line.
Imagine someone trying to climb this complicated by design jungle gym to success while wearing high heeled shoes. Imagine if that person is wearing a dress too. So she is not only climbing, but doing so with extreme caution and watching every step. She is also simultaneously trying to ensure that the wind does not blow her dress up and those coming below her do not have a view of what’s beneath her clothing. All of a sudden the climb has become even more of a challenge. She is watching where she is going and she is being closely watched, for slip ups and slips and sights of her slip.
So first success is complicated by the lack of its straight line trajectory, then it is further confounded by climbing in certain attire that comes with added risks and considerations. One might ask, why doesn’t she change into trousers and running shoes? That would be fair enough, but does it change the fact that she is a woman? No. So if we take the jungle gym, the dress and the heels out of the playground and insert them into the proverbial boardroom, we might begin to realize the challenges females in the workplace face have little to do with what they are wearing.
Statistics support the fact that as one moves higher in companies there are less women present. There is also research that reveals the same traits in women and men are judged differently. For example case studies have been conducted where participants read a report about a manager’s conduct and rated their decisions and performance. All the details remained the same except for the manager’s name. By changing the person’s name from Yomi to Yetunde (for example) the former was commended as a good male manager while the latter was criticized as an aggressive female manager. Essentially women are judged differently and more harshly for exhibiting similar traits that men are praised for. Also, findings show that many women who work similar hours as their male partners tend to do the lionshare of the household chores and child rearing. So if a man has 1.5 jobs between work and home, his female partner who is also a working professional might have the equivalent of 4.
As far as personality traits and leadership styles go, there is data that shows women tend to second guess themselves more, suppress their opinions, credit others for their success, sit at the back of the room instead of at the main table and miss out on networking opportunities that occur during later hours and in informal settings due to hostile environments, lack of invitations and other limitations. These statistics raise some obvious questions… Why can’t women just stop second guessing themselves? Why don’t they just say what is on their mind? Why do they feel the need to suppress their opinions? Why do they credit others for their success while men attribute theirs to their own skill and effort? Why don’t women just wear trainers and trousers and climb the jungle gym?
By design the corporate world comes with more hurdles for the average woman than for the average man. As people progress in their chosen profession there are less women present for various reasons. Women take time off for various reasons, keep quiet for various reasons, feel unwelcomed for various reasons and lean back away from the table, the boardroom and the bonding exercises for various reasons. If the women reading this article could collectively contribute I am sure they would easily tell you what many of these various reasons are.
Today we are not here to point perfectly manicured fingers though. We are here to reach out hands to and clap hands for all the professional women out there. Whether she is an entrepreneur or a working professional. We are here to encourage them to lean back in. Encourage them to use their gifts, talents and abilities to influence their industries. Encourage them to look for other women below and beside them on the jungle gym and play nice with them – offer advice, opportunities and encouragement. We are here to celebrate women who are juggling personal and professional life, those who are climbing the jungle gym in heels, those who are pressing on even when it feels awkward, lonely, even threatening.
March is Women’s Month and March 8th was International Women’s Day. We stand with our sisters in stilettos and commend their presence, their passion, their professional drive and their determination. While it might not be easy they are showing us it is doable. With continued encouragement and endurance, success, by our own definition, is imminent. Little girls dressing up in suits and corporate attire and dreaming of being government officials, professions and other professionals are doing so because they have the opportunity to look up to their working mothers, sisters and aunties. If you are a woman in the working world, keep climbing the jungle gym, keep playing nice, keep learning to trust your voice and your unique insight and opinions and realize you have something very special that only you can contribute.