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Do you have to work harder as a woman to get ahead?

Categories: Career Talk


I work in technology, which I feel is one of the career fields less prone to old-school stereotypes and norms than some older fields. It’s not all rosy or equal: We have a lot more men developers than women, there are too few women on the executive team, and women occupy most senior positions in areas where they’ve traditionally been more numerous, namely, marketing and HR. But I can’t point to any time when I felt like I was given less chances because I was a woman and generally it feels like if you’re good, you’ll do well, regardless of your gender.

But in a conversation with a friend recently he made a comment that caused me to pause for a bit. He said that women have to work harder to get ahead.

Do you agree?

I started to think through my own career to see if this were true. Right out of college, I worked for a top consulting firm where every entering business analyst worked 18 hours a day, without exception. I then worked in a series of start-ups where everyone on the small founding team busted serious butt, all the time. Then came the world of finance and venture capital and here perhaps my friend was right. I’d often find that my male partners would get support for their proposals without needing to back them up with as much analysis as I’d put in. And too many times I felt like I had to prove over and over again that I was smart enough for my opinion to count when I was at a board meeting with other male investors, who’d known me for years.

Thinking about the last few years of my work in large and medium-sized companies a few women come to mind who I feel went above and beyond what they needed to deliver in order to get to the same place as their male colleagues. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure that we, as women, don’t sometimes choose to work harder vs. smarter. We don’t play politics as well as the guys, with some exceptions. We don’t advocate for ourselves as well or negotiate for what we want as hard. We are sometimes afraid that being confident will make us appear bitchy and so we understate our opinions.

None of this is our fault entirely, of course — we don’t operate in a vacuum and we can’t just ignore how our actions are perceived. (For example, men don’t like to work with women who negotiate well.) But still, I wonder if sometimes we wouldn’t be better off making slightly different choices, trading in some of our work ethic for work strategy, borrowing a page from the guys’ book.

I’m curious what you think:

Do you think women need to work harder to get ahead? Are there things women can learn from guys to work smarter, or more strategically, or is it silly to assume that we can play like the other gender?

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3 comments so far...

  • It’s worth thinking about. Part of it really is biology, but not all of it.

    For example, the ability to speak as if we are the smartest person in the room, without sounding arrogant, is probably a skill many women could develop. Be straightforward, don’t look like you need approval, etc. But men have a biological advantage in the natural tone of their voice, etc. So all things remaining equal (raw ability wise), things still aren’t gonna be equal. And this is true whether the male colleagues are MCPs or not.

    Women have advantages too, though, and can compete with “charisma” by, for example, performing consistently over time (something I’ve rarely seen a “charismatic” man do).

    Come to think of it, I’m having trouble thinking of a man I’ve worked with who has been consistently successful over a long time period. My mom used to say, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I’ve seen this many times. (Often I wondered why it took so long, but eventually it happens.) Even if they remained employed and made lots of money, they had problems I wouldn’t want, e.g., constantly watching their backs, covering lies, neglecting family, having lifestyle-related health problems, sacrificing integrity. I would watch all this and putz along, “slow and steady wins the race.” (OK, my putzing ranged from 70 to 100 hours per week, but you get my drift.) So yes, on a day to day basis I could “succeed” only by working harder than most “successful” men. But in the long run, I’m not sure it doesn’t even out.

    SKL  |  October 25th, 2011 at 1:31 am

  • We do have to harder to gain the same respect…at least that has been my experience in the financial industry. I work for a company that does have many women at the top of the house so the opportunity is there. However, I have to prove that I’m worth the company’s investment. I have had to do that more since being out of work for 8-12 weeks for each of my pregnancies. Men don’t necessarily face that choice. Also, when my kids are sick or have a school event I’m usually the one to take care of it. Partly because I have been more consistent in my career so I have more paid time off and partly because I want to be there. I’m not going to put in as many late hours as a male counterpart may.

    However, I do not look at this negatively. I don’t believe that you can give 150% to both work and home. You have to sacrifice on both ends. I balance more to the side of my family. In all honesty, I am at the second to last level that I would wish to be at until my children are much older. I want to do my best in my role, take another step up the ladder in a couple of years, but I know to go beyond that at this stage of my girls lives, I would have to give up more on the homefront and I’m not prepared to do that. I’m ok with all of it, because that is my path I have chosen.

    I think that is the key when you are planning your family and career. Knowing what and when you are willing to sacrifice. Excellent article!

    MomofTwoPreciousGirls  |  October 26th, 2011 at 8:21 pm

  • I would say take a step back and see the perspective a little different. Maybe if you stop seeing yourself as separate you will not feel so separated. The people you work with are your cowokers, your friends, your teammates, your family. You are there to help each other and to grow and to share. Do not let your mind intimidate you, stay in the heart. Do you best and share!

    xoxo kt

    Katie  |  October 29th, 2011 at 7:53 am