Female executive, promote thyself: Succeeding in a male-dominated business world

by Gayatri Shenai

I’ve been fortunate in my 15-year-plus career as a consultant to have counseled dozens of ambitious female executives—some just starting out, ecstatic to have received their very first middle-management promotion, and some who’ve worked their way up to being literally the only woman on the leadership team.

Many companies today are focused on gender diversity. Employees in more than two-thirds of the 132 companies polled as part of McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace research said it is a top-ten priority for their CEOs. But the reality is that women are still vastly underrepresented in the workplace and at every level. Our research indicates that women account for fewer than 50 percent of entry-level workers and only 19 percent of senior leadership roles.

To me, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that to move the needle on gender diversity, change has to come as much from women themselves as from the corporate culture. Women in the workplace need to adopt a different mind-set—one that chips away not just at the limitations a male-dominated status quo imposes on us but also at the limitations we impose on ourselves.

I frequently think about the situation one of my clients faced a few years back. She was an executive at a large bank. In meetings, surrounded by mostly male colleagues, she found it hard to get a word in edgewise. She was interrupted so often that she eventually kept silent. But over time, it irritated her that some of her best ideas were being credited to male peers. She decided enough was enough. She insisted that the team should take the time in meetings to go around the room, individual by individual, to seek inputs on critical decisions, thereby allowing herself the space to participate.

Her reframing of the problem demonstrates how, by changing our own mind-sets and actions, we can realize our full potential as female executives. To change the system, we need to begin by focusing on ourselves. But how?

  1. Follow your passion. There have been endless studies about women’s behavior in the workplace. Women are quieter, less likely to raise their hand in group settings like workshops or senior-management meetings. A senior VP at a large company told me that one of the best pieces of advice she ever received was to take on work and issues that inspired her. Following her passions ensured that she held nothing back, that she spoke up. She found meaning in her work, became more energized and engaged, and in turn motivated those around her to follow their own bliss. I’ve seen it myself, firsthand: when female clients are following their passion and are engaged in making a difference—to customers or the bottom line or both—it’s much easier for them to find their voice and participate.
  2. Focus on your strengths. Most women, according to the Women in the Workplace research, perceive an uneven playing field; they say they get less access to the types of opportunities that can accelerate careers—challenging new assignments, for instance. As a result, too often women in the workplace tell themselves they are “not good enough.” They systematically underestimate themselves, focusing way too much on their developmental needs while attributing their successes to good luck. By contrast, most men attribute their success to their own skills. By believing in our own strengths, we will shine more brightly, thereby improving the odds that others will see our strengths as well.
  3. View your gender as an advantage. Given all the conscious and unconscious biases women face in the workplace, it would be easy to cave in and regard the female gender as a significant disadvantage. Many women have told me how awkward they sometimes feel as the only woman in the boardroom, or when they are in that corner office previously occupied by a man. However, as Hillary Clinton said, “There’s never been a better time to be born a woman.” Remember that the characteristics associated with gender differences can also be a source of advantage. We have already demonstrated the intellect and empathy to be at the table, and we have so much to contribute, given the positive effect of gender diversity on customer orientation, employee satisfaction and business decision making.
  4. Network, network, network. Research indicates that there are marked differences in women’s and men’s professional networks. Women are three times more likely to rely on a network that is mostly female—and mostly junior. Most of the women I’ve worked with, especially early on in their careers, underestimate the power of networking and of putting their calling card out there. Instead, they put their nose to the grindstone and do their best, feeling that will be sufficient to draw attention to their skills and capabilities. Senior leaders often need a community of supporters to achieve lofty goals. These communities are not built in a day. They are cultivated over time, through a series of interactions—coffees, lunches, dinners. To ensure people know who we are, we need to be able to pitch ourselves. For instance, everyone should have an “elevator speech” prepared—a short but ambitious overview of who we are, what we do, what our future plans and aspirations are. As women get to know other people and their own aspirations and ambitions, they will have an opportunity to understand where their goals may intersect with the goals of others, and what skills they need to advance their careers.
  5. Take time to recharge. The more women achieve, the more they are trusted to solve difficult problems, such as how to revive a flagging business or mentor and develop struggling colleagues. The requests can seem endless, but it can be difficult to say no, for fear the opportunities will go away. The most successful women leaders I work with consciously say no when they need to—not so they can shift to more pressing professional issues or to handle personal household and caregiving tasks, but simply for themselves. Some impose a hard stop on working hours, or listen to music, or switch on their favorite show to unwind. Some steadfastly avoid email on the weekends. One senior leader told me she takes two weeks off every year to ride horses in Argentina. Just as professional athletes need time to recover from their games and races, so do we. It need not be dramatic. Research has shown that finding even as little as ten minutes twice a day for “me” time can help us recharge.

Understanding these practices isn’t hard; what’s more difficult is committing to adopting them so they become fundamental to who we are. Adopting them won’t sweep away all the barriers to advancement, of course, but it will bring women a step closer to knocking down the barriers and creating a work environment where the sky’s the limit, regardless of gender.

Gayatri Shenai is a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office.