How to Survive in a Good Old Boy’s Club: Women in Government

Global business leaders are predominantly male. Males make up the majority of politicians, too. And of the 500 Fortune 500 companies, only 17 percent of those board seats are held by women.

The number of college-educated women in America far surpasses the number of men with degrees, but it seems the world of business and politics are still dominated by the good old boys’ club. It seems like women, who are often underrepresented in council meetings, board meetings, and meetings of elected officials, maybe don’t have as much say as you’d think regarding decisions about the cities they live in, schools they send their children to, and policies that affect women. What gives?

Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg believes she knows why, and she is blaming women just as much as men. Sandberg states that chauvinism and corporate obstacles are partly to blame, but she also asserts that women are not taking advantage of opportunities for upward mobility as aggressively as they should:

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

– Excerpts from the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg

As a company that employs more women than men to serve a client base (city, county & school clerks) that is predominately female, we have some personal experience with this topic.  We want the best for our female clients and staff, so Sheryl Sandberg’s message struck a chord with us. Inspired to speak up, we drafted a list of five things to help women succeed in a man’s workplace.

Surviving in A Good Old Boys’ Club (as a Woman):

1. Let Your Credentials Do the Talking.  Black Mountain Software County Support Specialist Pat Cook, who has worked in the government arena nearly her entire career, seems to be right in step with Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to not “pull back.”  Pat has this advice for women in government: “Try to always be positive and confident about yourself. When campaigning you need to ‘put yourself out there,’ know your job, and be willing to find the answer if you don’t know it.”

Many women find themselves being modest (“It was nothing…”), apologizing when no apology is necessary (“I’m sorry that vendor’s price came in too high”), or downplaying their successes (“I could have never done it without…”) in order to be more liked. But how often do men apologize for situations beyond their control? Men are also less likely to attribute their successes to a team effort or to circumstance, and are less likely to downplay their personal role in a success. Women could learn something from this!

2. Focus on your strengths.  It’s natural to want to overcome your shortcomings.  However, true success doesn’t come from working on your weaknesses, but from building on your strengths.  Spending time becoming competent at something makes less of an impact than investing the same amount of time elevating your skill at something you excel at.  Why be mediocre when you could be dynamite?

Who cares if Michael Phelps can sing when he can swim like he does?  Almost no one is good at everything; what makes you special are the things you can do better than others. Knowing what makes you stand out from the crowd makes you marketable to your superiors…don’t underplay those qualities.

3. Sell yourself. Be proud of yourself and your accomplishments.  Be confident.  Celebrate successes. Waiting for someone else to give you a pat on the back for a job well done is like asking permission to be proud.  People are consumed in their own jobs, and may fail to give proper credit for a job well done, so sometimes you just got to say, “I’m proud of what I accomplished today!”

Keep a journal of your successes no matter how minor and review those before a one-on-one, professional evaluation, or job interview.  This will help remind yourself why you deserve to move up, and help you sell yourself using concrete examples of your accomplishments. When someone asks why you are the right person for the job, don’t be shy in telling them why, and don’t be afraid of coming off as arrogant or self-righteous.  The key is being able to provide concrete examples of your accomplishments, stating the truth without embellishing, and selling yourself with dignity and class.

4. Make alliances with other powerful and influential women.  Whether you adopt a mentor, schedule an occasional lunch with a superior, or just create a comradery with a fellow female co-worker, it is so important to build alliances with other women.  They can offer advice, teach you something new, and even provide a foundation of support when times get tough.

Don’t limit yourself to building relationships only with women who are your superior.  Women of all ages, education levels, and job functions can prove to be important allies in your climb up.  There’s a little saying in business that goes, “Be careful the toes you step on…they could be connected to the butt you have to kiss someday.”  Everyone’s job is important, and mutual respect is key to building lasting alliances.  You may be surprised who has influence in your office, so disregard no one!

5. Ask for what you want.  Don’t assume everyone (especially your boss) knows what you want.  Be clear about your future goals and the steps you plan to take to get there.  Reiterate these goals in one-on-one meetings and during performance appraisals. If you believe you are worth more, say so (very carefully, and using statistical data). If you recently received a credential or learned a new skill that makes you more valuable, suggest new tasks you’d like to take on.  And be clear about where you intend to go and what you intend your future role to be.

There’s a reason certain people are “pegged” for certain future openings–they made it clear that’s where they wanted to go.  Not speaking up can be mistaken for satisfaction or complacency with your current job, so you may be overlooked just because no one knew you wanted something different. Never stop learning, never stop wanting, and never stop trying for new things.

It’s still a man’s world out there. In every field, and at every level of education, men make more than women. But the fewer women there are in positions of power, the less likely any of that will change. We encourage women to aggressively pursue higher positions and of be advocates for themselves and their fellow women in the workplace. Ladies, pursue your dreams! To help you along that path, we are giving away a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s newly released book, “Lean In” to the reader
with the best response (in the comments) to this question:

“What is it about your job that would be different if you were a man versus a woman?  Or, if you are a man, what would be different if you were a woman? What are your tips for breaking through barriers in the workplace?”

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