Of Cupcakes, Copiers and Careers: How can more women move to and beyond middle management?

I bought Sheryl Sandberg’s groundbreaking book “Lean In” the day it was released. I devoured every word, then read it again. Then I read Goodreads reviews and blogs and articles on the book. As you can tell, I care a whole lot about my career and leaning in. Sheryl Sandberg is an inspiration.

She got so many things right in the book — the difficulty with managing a career and a home, the statistics on men leading the world, the misalignment in women’s pay, the jungle gym path to the top, the need for mentors and advocates, the imposter syndrome and women holding themselves back and what a better world it would be with a 50–50 split in household and childrearing duties.

There was so much buzz around her and the book. She was invited by the CEO of my former company to chair an onsite event, following which he promised to encourage and support women. A year later, there were still no women on his immediate staff or changes in the Board. Her visit also got a lot of discussion going, over lunch and coffee, at middle management level on what’s to be done. Some saw the yellow brick road, some scoffed and the rest went home to fix dinner.

It is much more than leaning in..

I learnt this from first-hand experience. Making the transition into senior management was incredibly hard. Not just for me, but for multiple mentors, coaches and friends who are female. Forget leaning in, these women were all diving into their careers. Yet, most had run through the gamut of emotions from hope to frustration, clarity to confusion, demanding to cajoling their managers as they perilously tiptoed their way through the process.

My own experience was one for the books — agree to a plan, over deliver on results, sponsorship from executives and yet it needed more conversations till I got the promotion I richly deserved. Why was it so incredibly hard?

A friend and I looked at research from McKinsey’s Women Matter and Centered Leadership projects, Stanford’s Clayman Institute research and Joan Williams’ brilliant book on “What Works for Women at Work”, to understand what was the clear path to women’s career success i.e. reaching upper levels of management. Below are our learnings and what women can and need to do beyond leaning in.

At the outset, promotions need three aspects of alignment between the candidate and the promoting manager. For women, it’s an alignment of achievement levels around:

Skills i.e. relevant technical capabilities.

Process i.e. lean-in and play the game. (everything Sheryl Sandberg discusses in her book)

Style i.e. emulation of leadership attributes.

Skills and Process are perhaps more under the candidate’s control than Style. Leadership is nebulous and left to the observer’s perception. To one, a manager coaching their reports is leadership, to another that’s not boardroom material. To one, barking orders all day long to get reports to deliver faster and better is leadership, to another that’s tyranny.

What did the research find?

All the mentioned research points to a difference in leadership style and expectations contributing to the main barrier for a woman’s progress. The inequality is only compounded by proven barriers and biases that hold women from advancing their careers.The McKinsey research calls out four factors holding women back:

Structural obstacles, be it a lack of access to informal networks, lack of female role models higher up or lack of sponsors to provide opportunities.

Embedded institutional mindsets, a culture that does not support desire and lack of management support to prevent women from failing hard.

Embedded individual mindsets, where women lose interest in advancement faster than male counterparts.

Lifestyle issues. But contrary to conventional wisdom, 50% of fathers with one child and 55% of women without children say they will not accept a new job that reduces work/life balance.

Clayman research findings were similar. They found that merely adopting male leadership behaviors will not work because distinct patterns of gender bias exist in the workplace. These take the form of:

Prove it Again, where women need to prove themselves repeatedly. Men are promoted on potential and women on performance/competence — again and again. There is less room for error and mistakes are noticed more.

The Tightrope, which involves walking the line between being liked but not respected or respected but not liked. (Many women use male leadership behaviors to earn respect. Others do office “housework” to be liked)

Maternal Wall, where women have their competence and commitment questioned after becoming a mother and managers hold back additional responsibility to be considerate.

Tug of War, where there is palpable tension among women based on different styles of navigating bias in the workplace. Women clash on “authoritative” and “approachable” strategies and competing for fewer spots.

So, what’s the solution?

McKinsey and Clayman contend it is twofold:

  • Companies and managers need to change their biases and mindsets to enable women to rise to the top. Change needs to start from the top and emulated. Workshops and awareness campaigns and sponsorship programs are a must to start to move this behemoth elephant out of the room. This is easier said than done and the proof is in the pudding.
  • Women need to actively pursue strategies to overcome bias. Women need to form a posse and team up with people to publicly celebrate successes, use a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” traits to be assertive and approachable as needed, be strategic about office housework and learning to say No, being explicit about career goals and choices post maternity, and having crucial conversations with “enemies” — call the bad behavior out, drop the pugilist glove, find common ground and propose mutual support.

Now, back to title of this post

Here is a true story: Alexa, Bella and Max were mid-level managers working on a high stakes project. The VP trusted all three to deliver based on their technical skills and camaraderie. The project took long hours and a few weeks to complete, with quick check-ins by the VP every two weeks. The VP was a busy man, with revenue gods to glorify and expense demons to slay. The final walkthrough was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon. Alexa, Bella and Max were very well prepared. They were going to nail this!

At the start of the meeting, the VP rushed in saying that the EVP of the division had scheduled a department review for later that afternoon. The EVP was arriving in person in an hour.

The VPs secretary was running helter-skelter in a spirited effort to tame logistics. Could one of the three help for a few minutes? Alexa jumped up. She assumed the review would be pushed out. She agreed to collect the cupcakes. Bella also assumed that the review would be pushed out and volunteered to make 25 copies of the VPs presentation at the new copier installed in the office room. Max stayed silent and watched as the women scurried out of the room. Now what were Max and the VP supposed to do for 45mts? They discussed the project results, a summary of which was due to the EVP in a few hours.

The project was an enormous success. The results blew the EVPs expectations and all three managers came in for heartfelt praise from the VP.

Three months later the annual review cycle kicked in. As usual, limited budget this and limited budget that. Only one of the three managers could be promoted.

Who do you think got promoted?


Credit goes to Hoda Mehr for jointly contributing to content development for this post. You can find Joan Williams book here. McKinsey’s research on the topic can be found here. Clayman institute research is available here.

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Originally published at www.aartiskumar.com.