To Rise up the Ranks at Work, Women Can Take These 4 Steps

From an early age, many women learn to be passive and timid. Here are four ways to show the world you're a leader.

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By Lydia Belanger

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Each edition of this Women Entrepreneur series, Behind the Numbers, presents a stat about a disadvantage women face at work and in business, examines the dynamics at play and provides guidance to help women overcome obstacles.

Getting promoted can seem like a mystery. You might feel discouraged when trying to move up the ladder, maybe because you don't think of yourself as charismatic or experienced enough, you can't figure out what your boss wants or you just haven't found yourself in the right place at the right time like some of your coworkers have.

Statistically speaking, if your peers have already gotten a boost in title and responsibilities, they're probably men. In compiling the 2016 annual Women in the Workplace report, McKinsey & Company and Lean In found that entry-level women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than their male peers. For women of color, the gap is even greater. One in five C-suite executives is a woman, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color, according to McKinsey. So, what's behind this discrepancy?

Bias, for one, says Maggie Neale, a professor of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who contends the promotion gap is greater than the figures show. Whether we intend to or not, "[both men and women] have very strong stereotypes," Neale says. "We think leader, we typically think male."

Related: 10 Tips for Women to Improve Their Persuasion Skills

While bias is systematic and difficult to overcome at the individual level, some behavioral tendencies largely attributed to women can be limiting. Broadly, women are more passive than men, and they're less likely to speak up for themselves, Neale explains. By understanding where these tendencies come from and how to override them, women can claim more agency and influence their own career growth.

Passiveness traces back to childhood, when adults instill a stronger sense of fear in young girls than they do boys, on average. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology in 2016 surveyed parents whose child had experienced an injury that led to an emergency room visit. It found that parents of a daughter were four times more likely to tell their child to be more careful in the future than those who had a son.

This is just one example of how women are conditioned from an early age to be more cautious. Girls who are reinforced to be risk averse can grow into women who consider themselves less capable than others and needing permission or guidance from authority.

At work, this translates to women doubting their readiness for promotions and waiting until they're perfectly qualified to ask for them. Or being reluctant to take credit for their accomplishments. Or being timid when it comes to suggesting new ideas. The problem is, hesitant behaviors may not offend or provoke, but they also aren't likely to convey leadership.

"If you want to be a manager, you have to prove the fact that you have leadership potential," Neale says. But she also knows that women face a catch-22. People find assertive behavior by women more aggressive than they do by men, so a lot of women err on the side of caution.

With all of this in mind, Neale suggests a few strategies and new ways of thinking that women can adopt to make their voices heard, their qualifications clear and their careers take off.

1. When the opportunity comes, trust yourself to be ready.
"A lot of how people survive in organizations is they learn on the job," Neale says. If you're insecure about your own abilities, remember that you can't be an expert at something you've never done before. Part of working your way up to a promotion, or taking on the duties of an elevated role, is handling new types of assignments or responsibilities. Women not only tend to forgo asking for promotions until they think they meet all of the job criteria perfectly, but they also shy away from some of the work a senior role would entail for this reason. "When you're offered an assignment, you might think, "I'm not ready,'" Neale says. "But if your boss thinks you're ready, then maybe you should step up. Take the risk."

2. Make a conscious effort to give yourself credit.
Many women can be so focused on fostering positive relationships with their colleagues that they avoid any language that may come off as selfish or braggadocious, which can result in their shortchanging themselves credit. When talking about their success, they're less likely than men to highlight what they did individually. "Women are much more likely to talk about and characterize their success as what the team did -- "we,' "us,' "our,'" Neale says, "and men are more likely to say, "I,' "me,' "my.'" So, don't be afraid to own your accomplishments: Use singular first-person pronouns.

Related: 7 Ways Women Leaders Can Win at Negotiating

3. Form a posse.
If you're feeling intimidated about sharing your ideas, or you find that other (perhaps male) colleagues frequently talk over you or don't seem to consider your contributions fully, form a posse, Neale suggests. Talk to both men and women colleagues who will have your back in group situations. If you say something smart in a meeting and no one acknowledges it, and a while later, a man says something similar, and people hear him, that's where your posse comes in. "Somebody from your posse gently highlights the fact that, "Hey, Maggie just said that earlier,'" Neale says. Then, she says, you can get credit for your ideas without crowing.

4. Frame your case as a solution to a problem.
When it's time to negotiate a promotion, think like a leader, Neale says. "Leaders aren't passive. They are proactive, they're engaged, they offer solutions to problems." When you're in that meeting explaining why you deserve a promotion, speak in terms of how your skills can help your organization improve, or provide a specific solution to a problem your superior faces. That way, you'll be more persuasive. And if you get a "no" on your first try, don't just accept it and walk out with your tail between your legs. Think of the negotiation as ongoing. "Say things like, "OK, you don't think I have the requisite skills or responsibilities -- whatever it is that I'm lacking, I'm not ready for this role yet. What is it about where I am that is deficit? Talk to me about what that is, because it's important to me to be able to rise to that level of expertise,'" Neale suggests. "Because what you're saying to the person, in very clear terms, is, "I will be back once I have met the criteria, the milestones, that you have set.'" And once you have met those criteria, then you can negotiate again and say, "Here I am. I'm ready."

Lydia Belanger
Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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