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How to Reach the Top in a Male-Dominated Business Culture

By John Patrick Dolan

All women know the business world no longer belongs to men. In the late eighties, women started entering corporate management and have continued to increase their participation through the years. But the glass ceiling still exists, and women must face challenges in advancement that men usually don’t have to concern themselves with.

According to a Catalyst survey from 2002, women must overcome male stereotyping and preconceptions, exclusion from informal networks of communication, and their lack of significant general management experience if they want to advance into upper management positions.

You may have experienced some of these challenges in your own career. But these barriers can be broken. Keep in mind; it’s a glass ceiling…not cement. When you understand and prepare yourself for these challenges, you can earn the executive position you’ve been striving to reach.

To beat any of these common roadblocks to advancement, try the following strategies:

1. Abandon the Secretarial Perspective: Women often enter the corporate world at the secretarial level, which requires them to handle detail-oriented tasks that save the boss from disaster. But when you move from middle management to top management, you may need to shift your focus from details to the big picture. Top managers can’t be concerned with typing reports and filing data, or even product development or sales campaigns. They must focus on the grand strategy.

While women are perfectly capable of managing the grand strategy, they often allow their detail-oriented mindset to carry over from past roles. With this detail mindset in place, you may also find it difficult to hand the details off to someone else and hold them accountable for minding them. If you want to be considered for an upper level management position, you must approach your supervisors with big-picture ideas and insights.

2. Respect the Male Egos: Most men don’t respond well to bullying from other men, and they’re even less likely to be positively influenced by such tactics from a woman. The object is not to demonstrate your superiority to your peers and subordinates, but rather to influence them to join you in advancing the interests of the company.

When conflicts arise, the key is to address issues, not personalities. Be clear in what you want, and don’t back off timidly. Directly state your position, rather than using subtle hints. Let your associates know that you respect them, but let them know what you expect of them as well.

3. Look for the Tough Tasks: The best way to convince your male superiors that you’re ready for more responsibility is to demonstrate your ability to handle the hard jobs. You know you are skilled and capable, so give yourself full credit for the assets you can offer your organization. Whenever you have the opportunity to volunteer for the tough tasks, jump at the chance.

Once you’ve done this a few times and demonstrated your capacity, you won’t have to volunteer. The company will know they can turn to you, and will reward you for your reliability in a pinch.

4. Find an Influential Mentor: Some companies pair new employees with more experienced ones in formal mentoring programs. But in others, informal relationships form. These mentoring relationships can be between two people of the same sex or between people of different genders as long as the relationships remain business in nature.

While a male mentor may be able to teach a woman protégé the ins and outs of the organization and serve as her advocate for advancement, a woman mentor may have more insight into the challenges women face in climbing the corporate ladder. Essentially, you’ll be one step ahead with the help and guidance of a mentor, whether that mentor is a man or a woman.

5. Be a Horse, Not a Mule: Mules are smart and hard-working, but they don’t compete like horses. While horses like to push themselves against competitors to win races, mules don’t like to see their fellow mules lagging behind. That’s why horses get all the glamorous, high-profile racing assignments and mules end up pulling supply wagons.

Women sometimes drop out of competition for promotion, deferring to a man because, “He has a family to support.” But in the business world, the higher positions go to the best-qualified person who wants the job bad enough to compete for it.

6. Take Intelligent Risks: Any woman who wants to move into management must also abandon the traditional role of keeper of the nest and move into a more adventurous posture. In other words, she must be ready to take some intelligent risks.

The woman who keeps a low profile will inevitably be overlooked at the line-management entrance. Therefore you must think creatively and voice your ideas. If you want to move into a position responsible for profit and loss, you must be willing to analyze challenges, identify opportunities, devise strategies, and see them through. A can-do spirit will open doors to advancement.

7. Network Toward the Top: Networking is a powerful tool for women who want to climb to the top, and you must be alert for opportunities to meet and know the people who can help their careers. A good place to look for these opportunities is in other women who’ve made it to the top, as many of them have hit the glass ceiling and branched out to form their own successful companies as a result. But don’t limit yourself to women. After all, most of the top decision-makers are still men, and women executives will have to navigate primarily in male-majority environments for the foreseeable future.

Also, don’t limit your networking efforts to your own company. Outside your organization, conferences, trade shows, and seminars are great places to meet other people in your field, and they may be able to steer you toward job openings, business opportunities, or other means of advancement.

Breaking Barriers in the Future: Although advancement is an uphill climb for men and women, it’s steeper for women. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Before a woman can enjoy the satisfaction of making major decisions, negotiating business deals, and exerting her influence over an organization, she must overcome many relic obstacles of the “man’s business world.” When you use these strategies for overcoming the barriers to success, you can prove your worthiness for upper management-level positions and break through the glass ceiling without looking back.

Read other articles and learn more about John Patrick Dolan.

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