April 9th, 2010 | 6:00 am

6 Steps to Take On the Unwritten Rules Keeping Women out of Leadership Roles

filed under Expert Answers

Lynn_24P2193_FContributed by Lynn Harris, Author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today’s Organizations.

For years we’ve been told to be patient.

“Just give it time,” say the powers that be. “We’ll soon see more women leaders in government, corporations, law firms, universities, and more… just give it a little more time…”

The fact is, men still lead 80% to 90% of organizations worldwide. Yes, some women have moved up and into corner offices, but they’re relatively few in number, and the rate of change is painfully slow – in some countries it’s actually stalled.

Women constitute half of the world’s labor force. We now make or influence the majority of consumer buying decisions.

Why, then, do we still see so few women making key decisions in boardrooms and executive suites?

A big part of the answer is the unwritten rules.

What Are The Rules?

Unwritten rules determine organizational behavior. And unwritten rules produce leadership norms and expectations that advantage men and disadvantage women.

The rules aren’t explicitly acknowledged in organizations; they are rarely if ever talked about in job interviews. But we all know they exist. What is more, they have produced the predominantly male leaders who continue to control our organizations and governments.

How many corporate leaders do you know who don’t play by these unwritten rules?

The Unwritten Rules of Senior Leadership

  1. Senior leaders are available anytime, anywhere. This means:
    They are always available. Full-time work is the norm and part-time work is out of the question or career limiting.
    They must be physically present in an office for ten or more hours per day, with little or no flexible working or working from home.
    They must have total geographical mobility. It is career suicide to turn down a promotion because it is undesirable or inconvenient to move.
    They travel extensively as part of their job.
  2. Senior leaders have a linear career path. This means:
    They have a continuous employment history with no career breaks.
    They typically make their career breakthrough in their 30’s, with rare second chances if they miss the boat.
  3. Senior leaders are competitive. This means:
    They are tough strong and assertive.
    They are typically motivated by money and position.
    They value career and family, but when these values are in conflict, career takes precedence.
  4. Senior leaders promote themselves. This means:
    They build relationships with people who can support their career progression.
    They speak confidently about their accomplishments.
    They know what they want and influence others to get it.

According to these unwritten rules, an ideal female candidate for senior leadership is a mid-30s woman who:

  1. Wants to devote her life to her job.
  2. Doesn’t intend to have children.
  3. Can relocate to work in different parts of the world.
  4. Is motivated by money and position.
  5. Can be tough, strong and assertive.
  6. Can build good networks and negotiate for what she wants.
  7. Is able to bounce back from the inevitable attacks on her femininity.

Those who don’t conform to all the rules, and most women certainly do not, should be aware that they are swimming against a strong tide and success will be hard won.

So what does this mean to you?

Aim for the Top: Take the Initiative and Maintain Your Authenticity

This picture is not intended to deter you, just to ensure that you’re in touch with the reality of today’s organizations. This knowledge can help you make conscious and informed choices about your career and professional development as you move forward (and/or upward as the case may be).

The unwritten rules of senior leadership are unlikely to change any time soon. This doesn’t mean you have to behave like a man to climb the corporate ladder.

Should you decide to aim for the top, I believe you should focus on six key professional development areas – doing so will help you progress your career and maintain your authenticity as a woman, and as a senior leader.

  1. Conduct due diligence on your organization to ensure you are operating within a culture and environment that make it possible for you to succeed.
  2. Develop your strategic influencing skills so that you can counter sex-role stereotyping, handle difficult situations and still maintain good working relationships while enhancing your credibility.
  3. Build strategic professional relationships to give and get support.
  4. Work with a mentor and executive coach, both internal and external to your organization.
  5. Manage your energy so that you can perform at your best for eight to 12 hours per day; be enthusiastic about getting to work in the morning, look forward to getting home in the evening, and stay healthy.
  6. Be yourself with skill – know your values as a leader and develop the ability to behave in alignment with them, even within the context of the unwritten rules.

(For in-depth advice on each area, see chapters four through nine in my book Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today’s Organizations.)

It makes sense to expand the talent pool and fully utilize the attributes of both women and men to achieve more effective organizations.

I am confident that we will one day achieve balanced leadership, but only if we stop being patient, fully understand the impact of the unwritten rules, take the initiative for our own professional development and eventually change the rules to create better organizations.

Lynn Harris is the author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today’s Organizations. Check out Lynn’s women and leadership blog and become a friend of Unwritten Rules on Facebook.

4 comments

  1. Becky

    Although I understand these rules to be present in my everyday life, seeing them written here in a clear concise way with possible ideas on how to change the rules is refreshing and motivating. I am one of those women who took a few years off in her 30s and am now in complete catch up mode to achieve the leadership role and the accompanying salary that goes with it.

  2. Lynn Harris

    Hi Becky
    you are in good company – many highly capable women are in the same position. The 6 key development areas I mention in the article are not typically part of an organizational development program, but I believe them to be essential if you, and others like you, are to “catch up” and achieve the leadership roles. Which of course will also be advantageous for the organization you work for. Good luck!

  3. Shayna

    I’m a woman professional in her mid-twenties (25 to be exact) – and while I don’t have children (and am not married), I canot say that that remaining single and childless is a goal, or a certainty. I know that what I do now is what will set me up for success or failure later on in my career — I’m just not certain that working hard and learning as much as I can is enough. Any advice?

  4. Laverne

    Great article. I think managing one’s energy is a key challenge. Going from meeting to meeting and sitting in front of a computer all day can sap one’s energy.

    Finding ways to staying active during the day and the evening is a great way to keep that energy level up. Going for a quick walk with a colleague can be an effective way to network and burn some calories.

    In fact, I used to hold a one-on-one with one of my team members as we walked from one end of our work complex to another and back – a 30 minute walk!

    By the way, I love the high heel image on your website, using it as a way of describing the levels of management. Very clever!