As a business woman, it saddens me that women today are still fighting for equal pay, superannuation and representation in business. Clearly, there are fundamental structural inequalities in business and in the wider community that need to change. However, in my work as a mentor, coach and recruiter, I have also witnessed time after time how we, as women, sabotage ourselves. There are times that I ask myself, “Are we our own worst enemies?”

This idea may be controversial and of course the following observations don’t apply to ALL men or ALL women. But I share with you some patterns I have observed over the last 15 years, in the hope of making all of us – men and women – examine our behaviour a little more closely.

  1. Martyrdom in the workplace

    Is your need to do the “right thing” and meet deadlines affecting your ability to build your career? Women often take on the role of “the fixer”, both in business and at home. Staying late when something must be done or cancelling a beneficial networking lunch or dinner to hit that deadline, telling ourselves that if we don’t do it, no-one will. Sound familiar?

    What do others see? A workaholic, someone who can’t manage their time, someone who is bogged down by detail and cannot delegate, someone who doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t spend time building networks, someone they don’t know very well.

    How does this damage your career? After all, you’re getting the job done and working hard. But when the time comes for the next promotion or next job, you won’t be considered. How can someone recommend you if they don’t know who you are? Meanwhile your colleagues – probably mostly men – have been building their networks.

    In my experience, most men are very good at this. They attend functions, sometimes when they don’t want to, they make sacrifices at work and home and, when the time comes, they have the relationships, networks and sponsorship they need.

  2. Out of sight, out of mind

    How many times have you let vanity get in the way of promoting your profile? A strong profile and reputation is critical to building a successful career. As I work with leaders to build their profiles, it is the women, not the men, who hesitate. A perfect example is a female CEO of a publicly listed business we worked with who was constantly being contacted for comments and had been profiled in one of Australia’s leading newspapers.

    Investors, media and major customers were looking at her profile. She understood that her incomplete profile was doing her a disservice but when pushed to update it, her response was, “I won’t update my photo until I lose weight.” This is not to say men aren’t vain. Yet, I have never had a male CEO refuse to update his profile or refuse to be photographed for the AFR or The CEO Magazine because he needed to lose weight.

    I am guilty of letting my own vanity get in the way of my profile and business. Just last week I was presented with the opportunity to step in at the last minute as MC for a dinner hosting 70 amazing women. Called at 2pm for a 6pm start, my first thought was that I wasn’t dressed appropriately! I even contemplated running out and buying a new outfit. But I didn’t, and the night was a great success. I nearly missed an opportunity to promote my profile and my business because of my vanity.

  3. Friendship first

    Are you letting friendship get in the way of good business? I’m fortunate to have amazing supporters of both genders in my network. But when it comes to recommendations, referrals and sponsorship, I have found that men are more likely to offer opportunities and recommendations This is not to say women don’t support me, just that there have been more men who have supported, especially when I started my first business.

    I have developed a theory about this. Women generally value relationships more than they value business. They fear finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of potentially having to terminate a friend or their services if they don’t perform. So, the response of many women is to deny their friend a chance in order to maintain the separation between their work and personal lives.

    Men, on the other hand, tend to compartmentalise. They are far more comfortable supporting and recommending others in business, but are also comfortable saying, “this is not working”. And if the working relationship flounders, men seem more able to put the situation to one side and continue the friendship as before.

    I have hired and worked with many friends over the years. Sometimes it has worked out, sometimes it hasn’t. Every time I enter one of these relationships I will say something like, “I value our friendship and I always will, but I run a business and if something is not working for my business, I will fire you”. Yes, I have used those exact words. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a straight shooter and I am proud to say that I remain on good terms with every friend I have brought into the business.

  4. Waiting to be asked.

    How many opportunities have you missed out on because you were waiting to be asked? For centuries, women have waited to be asked. To be asked out on a date, to get married, and sometimes even to speak. It has taken a long time, but some of this has changed. Women can propose, ask out a date and even offer insightful and informed opinions without waiting to be asked! However, women are still waiting.

    We wait to be offered a promotion, a raise, or the opportunity to lead a project. A few years ago, I met an incredible woman who had been managing director of a number of Australia’s most well known brands. She shared a story of how waiting to be asked had nearly stopped her career. After several years as 2IC of a major business, the role of managing director became vacant.

    By good luck, rather than good planning, one day before the applications closed she happened to be speaking to the Head of Human Resources. The person asked her “why haven’t you applied? You would be perfect.” This woman’s response was “He (CEO) knows me. I assume that if he wanted me he would have asked. Clearly he doesn’t think I have the skills yet.” Shocked, the HR person told her to reach out immediately.

    Within two days she had an appointment with the CEO – for anyone who works in a big corporate you know how hard it is to get an appointment with a CEO. His first comment was “About time. I have been waiting for you to put your hand up. If you want the job it’s yours.” If you don’t put your hand up and ask, the answer is already no. Put your hand up because at least if you ask you to have a chance at getting a yes.

I know that we still have a long way to go to change things in society and industry to even out the playing field, but at the same time as looking at what others need to change, we should also be looking at ourselves to see what we need to change to empower and promote ourselves.