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      December 2012

Breaking through

Feeling stalled and stymied on your career path? Here are some roadblocks you might recognize — and ways to power past them

By Sandra E. Martin
Illustration: Carey Sookocheff

Karen Duggan, CICA’s principal, guidance and support, recalls talking to a CA who had recently transferred from one city to another.  At her new workplace, all the female senior managers worked through lunch, grabbing food at their desks. Meanwhile, their male colleagues went out to lunch with the firm’s partners.

Question: Which group would you wager is on the upper-management career track? If you said the men, you’d be right — but likely not for the reasons you might have expected. Those lunches? “That’s networking women aren’t getting in on,” says Duggan. “If women aren’t tapped into those informal networks, they may not hear about the opportunities their male colleagues do.”

Glass ceilings aren’t supposed to exist anymore in the 21st century, yet a fifth of the women interviewed for CICA’s Work/Life Balance Report say their careers have been hindered by gender discrimination. At the very highest levels of career achievement, the gender gap is still in evidence; although half of new CAs and a third of CICA members are women, fewer than 15% have made it to partner or own their own practice. And we’re seeing the same inequity over many industries.

At the same time, there’s empirical proof that promoting women is good for businesses. A report by McKinsey & Co. called Women Matter, written after three years of research on the topic, indicates that companies with the largest proportion of women in senior management roles also have the strongest bottom lines. And, notes Kathleen Grace, an executive coach who has led webinars for CICA’s Women in the Profession series, once women are put in leadership positions, they score higher satisfaction points from employees than do their male counterparts. As Beatrix Dart, a professor, associate dean and executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, puts it, “Investing in women leadership through training, mentorship and sponsorship yields a stellar return on investment not only in financial, but also in social terms.”

So if you’re a female CA and you feel your career hasn’t advanced as it should, why is that? Maybe you’ll recognize your own roadblocks — some of which you might have built yourself — and break through them using the guidance we’ve collected from career coaches, human resources professionals and women who have reached the senior ranks of the accounting profession.

ROADBLOCK #1:
You aren’t a member of the club
As Duggan described, women miss out on opportunities to build relationships with hiring decision-makers because they aren’t taking part in the informal networking sessions traditionally dominated by men. Case in point: the golf course. “Golf isn’t merely a leisure sport. It’s the martini lunch of the modern workforce,” notes The Business Case for Women Leaders, a position paper by CICA’s Women’s Leadership Council. Where else but the links can you secure consecutive hours of an important person’s attention? Successful women recognize this, and get themselves a set of clubs — and contacts. Going even further, former US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice and banker Darla Moore literally became members of the club this year, by becoming the first women to be invited to join Georgia’s prestigious Augusta National Golf Club.  

Besides perfecting your putting, you can also join industry associations and go to conferences as a way of building relationships with influential people. Finding a mentor or, better still, several differently connected mentors can also help you get introductions and acceptance into networks that might otherwise seem impenetrable (see “Show me the way,” p. 34).

ROADBLOCK #2:
You have to drive carpool? That’s OK, we’ll have that meeting without you
When your firm’s culture makes extensive travel or long hours a requirement for management roles, women are generally less able than men to go “all in.” Women still carry a more-than-equal share of family responsibilities — both in raising children and in caring for aging parents. “These are obstacles which men, historically, have not had,” notes Michael Stern, president and CEO of Michael Stern Associates in Toronto.

As men’s and women’s parenting and caregiving roles continue to evolve, we might see more women ascend the ranks because their partners have taken on primary child-rearing responsibilities. But Stern and other executive-coaching professionals believe the best way to effect change in this area is through government and corporate policies designed to give women more support in their caregiving roles so they can devote the attention needed to achieve their career objectives. Examples might include providing after-hours daycare, says Stern, or giving women the flexibility to leave work midday for an elderly parent’s medical appointments.

ROADBLOCK #3:
Deep down inside, I want to hire someone like me
As Grace points out, some implicit biases still exist in the workplace. “We don’t recognize the full potential of everyone in the company, women and minorities in particular. We have a ‘similar to me’ bias,” she says. As a result, those tasked with handing out promotions may unconsciously prefer a male candidate over an equally qualified female. Again, hiring and talent-development policies targeted at women can address this bias, in part by reminding talent managers that they need to be aware of similar-to-me biases — and not be led by them (see “Women at work,” p. 20).

The message is starting to take hold. In its most recent budget, Canada’s federal government announced its plan to encourage the private sector to promote more women to the director level. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in business, has also launched a call to action for Canadian FP500 companies, with the goal of increasing the number of female board members by 25% in the next five years. And many accounting firms already have policies in place to encourage women to take management roles at various levels. Such policies are “controversial at the start” to people who do not directly benefit, says talent development consultant Mary Bennett. “But it forces companies to take a hard look at how they’re selecting talent.”

ROADBLOCK #4:
Where are the female role models?
Partly because of the traditional biases in roadblock No. 3, women CAs looking to get ahead in their firms have few role models. As Bennett says, when these women look at upper management, in most cases the roll call is homogeneous. “It’s out of line with the general population. It’s mainly Caucasian men with non-working spouses.”

  As a result, Bennett says, it can be difficult for emerging female leaders (and even for young male leaders) to approach these influential senior leaders. They “do not have a perspective on the changing social trends, such as dual-income families.” She adds, “The very people you’re going to for advice are people who’ve done it the way it’s always been done. Women do not have access to enough examples to make informed decisions.”

That’s one reason why CICA’s Women’s Leadership Council  has developed a series of profiles of successful women CAs, including financial consultant Robin Taub and Alana Deten-beck, manager, forensic services, at PricewaterhouseCoopers. In each profile, the CA discusses her successes, challenges and triumphs and in so doing provides a much-needed role model.

ROADBLOCK #5:
Oh, no — that’s way too risky for me!
While being risk-averse might have kept your RRSP in the black through the stock market correction of 2008, it’s detrimental to your career, Grace says in her CA Source webinar Risk Taking. At work and in life, men have a greater appetite for risk than women do. In turn, women “experience emotions more intensely than men — especially fear and nervousness.”

As Grace notes, this skittishness could be there for a reason: parents emphasize safety and vulnerability more with their daughters than they do with their sons. But she’s quick to add, “Sex is not our destiny; your own personal experience with risk-taking is the largest factor.” In the webinar, Grace offers a number of ideas for building up your tolerance, such as taking a risk right after you’ve done something well. Start small, and as you begin to see positive results, you’ll become more confident staring down bigger fear-inducers.

ROADBLOCK #6:
Women can’t handle the truth about themselves (and other gender-based stereotypes)
Grace has found that male managers often hold back from  giving women employees the kind of unvarnished feedback they give other men — feedback that is essential to gaining the self-knowledge required for personal development. When she asks men why they hesitate, the answer she often gets is, “I’m afraid she’s going to cry.” The solution is not for women to bottle their tears or to be carried away by other emotionally driven reactions. Men need to know that “when a woman cries, it’s kind of like when George pounds the table in meetings. It’s just a strong emotion,” Grace says. “When I train mentors, I let them off the hook by saying, ‘If she cries, just give her time to compose herself.’ ”

However, it’s not just men who are guilty of harbouring stereotypes. Sometimes it’s other women as well. Attitudes such as, “you could be a good leader, but you can’t be a good mother” (or vice versa) are not uncommon. Witness the controversy over Yahoo CEO, president and director Marissa Mayer’s decision to take a very short maternity leave this past October.

ROADBLOCK #7:
Hold on, I’ll be right there — after I’ve finished the report and clipped the hedge
Women can end up spreading themselves too thin — partly because they say “yes” too often. But a “yes addiction,” as Eileen Chadnick of Big Cheese Coaching calls it, can lead to frustration and might actually hinder your career; agreeing to take on too many small, inconsequential tasks takes your time and focus away from more important, career-building projects.

Luckily, there are ways to gain better focus and control. “There is power in knowing what you want,” says Grace in her CA Source webinar The Seven Deadly Sins of Career Management. Also, it’s important to understand your own value proposition — your unique combination of skills that produces valued results. “Write it down and keep it in front of you,” she says. You should also make a “to not do” list. “What you put down is as important as what you pick up,” she says.

ROADBLOCK #8:
Modesty is a virtue … isn’t it?
Many assume they will be promoted solely on their work merits — and of course you need to have a strong performance record, says Grace, but you also need to put yourself in line for key career-building opportunities. “As women, we have a little bit of a naive belief that if we work hard, someone will notice,” she notes. “But your boss isn’t psychic.”

What you should be doing is advocating for yourself: “If there’s something you want, ask,” she advises. If Jim down the hall seems to be getting all of the plum career-building assignments, tell your boss you want the next one. Don’t settle for recognition; go for rewards. Do you believe you deserve a promotion? Put it into words — and numbers. Women on a team say, “We accomplished this.” Men say, “I accomplished this.”

In her Seven Sins webinar, Grace offers some useful reminders to get you out of a non-self-advocating rut and to help with other potential career-limiters such as wanting to be liked by everyone. For starters, she says, think about whether you are sending yourself unconscious messages about how a woman ought to behave; if you were raised to put others first, talking up your own accomplishments might feel wrong. You might actually be suffering from self-censorship — a fear of “outsucceeding” your male colleagues at the office or your spouse at home. You might also be trained to steer away from conflict and confrontation at all costs. But remember, your boss has limited time and attention, so there’s no room for martyrdom. If talking about yourself is simply too uncomfortable, ask a mentor or coach to sing your praises for you.

And if you feel you’re being passed over for promotion, Grace says it’s time to have a tough and potentially scary conversation with your boss. Ask, “What is it that you’re not seeing in my performance? What is holding me back, in your view?”

Grace says, “Often those conversations don’t happen. It’s a scary question to ask because you have to be prepared to hear the answer.”


Sandra E. Martin is a freelance writer in Toronto




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