Do women have to work twice as hard in order to advance their careers?

The Queen: Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that! (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass) 

Trying to break the glass ceiling can be an exhausting job. There will be times you will feel like you are running just to keep yourself in the same place. You may witness male colleagues who are running at a slower pace but gaining more ground. This is the reality of life in the business world. Unfortunately there are not any concrete statistics that prove that women need to work twice as hard as men in order to get to the top, even though we all believe it to be true.

Discrimination quotas have helped relax the statistics because the definition of discrimination has been expanded. It covers such broad categories today, that the simple issue of discrimination against women in the workplace has been lost, especially in top management.

Today I had lunch with a woman, who is the CEO of an Eastern European branch of a major European Bank. She told me in order to advance her career in the bank, she had to take a foreign assignment, move her family and live as an ex-patriot for 6 years. The bank informed her that only if she made this move she would prove herself eligible for a more senior position within the Board of Directors.

I asked her if this was a general requirement for all board members or board candidates. Her answer was “no”. None of the other current board members, or the board candidates, (who were all male except her) had ever even had a foreign assignment. As we discussed the situation further we both speculated that the company had set up a barrier to her advancement. Most likely the company did not think she would take the foreign assignment, move her family and change her life. Typically, women do not do this. When she accepted the challenge they were surprised.

Today, 6 years later, it is time for her to transition back. She is now faced with a new barrier: Due to a merger between her bank and another, there are too many candidates for the position she wants. Now this is a barrier that may be legitimate, but what is not surprising is she is still the only female candidate.

We discussed in detail how she should handle this new situation. Our conclusion was that she must remain realistically optimistic yet hard driving. The “realistic” in realistically optimistic is important because she will need to overcome new barriers in order to reach her goal. Some of the barriers will be legitimate and some will be artificially constructed; either way she will need to run very fast in order not to stay in place. This is exactly what the Queen told us.

After the lunch with my friend, I began to reflect on why it seems that women need to run even faster than men in order to gain position. I have concluded that the majority of the time it is due external forces, the games that companies and their management (especially men) play. It is seldom due to a woman’s own capabilities, although this can also be a barrier if one is not as qualified for a position as she should be. In this case, one needs to run fast in order to gain the qualifications needed and the experience necessary for the next step.

The difference between the latter and the first example is, the latter is a decision ruled by one’s own choice. The first experience is not.

If one were to focus on the first experience, those that are not within the women’s control, the experiences where one must run fast for no apparent reason, I have developed my own theory. After my years of experiences I believe very much that the following catagories are used in order to test women and see if they are indeed willing to fun faster in order to achieve what they want.

Artificial Barriers

Setting artificial barriers is probably the most prevalent method used by others in order to stop or slow down unwanted career advancement. One could argue that overcoming barriers is part of any kind of career advancement (men or women) but I am not talking about the normal barriers here. I am talking about the barriers that are artificially placed within someone’s way in order to make the journey up the ladder even more difficult than it is.

Women often face artificial barriers. Companies, management or colleagues put them there in order to make advancement more difficult. How can you tell the difference between a normal barrier and an artificial barrier? Artificial barriers are those similar to the barrier my friend, the bank CEO, experienced. Artificial barriers can be described as barriers that are not part of the normal career advancement process. They are barriers that are usually single in nature, not part of the normal protocol or rules and generally only affect one individual.

I can give you another example of what would be considered an artificial barrier. On my way up the ladder I had a position, which was titled Country Director of Sales. I was the only Country Director of Sales in the company. All the other Country Sales Executives had the title of Vice President of Sales, with the appropriate country name attached. Along with the difference in titles (which was necessary to climb the ladder), there was also quite a difference in the compensation scheme (they were better compensated).

I recognized I was the only one with a different title. I submitted to Human Resources all the correct arguments in order to have my position re-titled and upgraded. Human Resources agreed with my arguments. They agreed I had the same responsibilities as the other Vice Presidents of Sales; I handled the same revenue, and I had reached the same growth objectives. They agreed it was the same position. Everything was approved by HR and sent to the Worldwide President of Sales for the final sign off. He vetoed the decision. He placed a barrier in my way. He said that my country was considered an emerging economy therefore I did not earn the title of Vice President.

I left the position 6 months later and was replaced by a man, whom miraculously received the title of Vice President of Sales for that country. I guess the economy of that country had emerged rapidly within those 6 months…..what a surprise!

Both my story and the story of my friend, the bank CEO, can be considered stories where artificial barriers were set in order to stop or slow down career advancement. Only you will be able to determine if someone is setting up an artificial barrier and only you can choose how to handle the situation.

Important is, if you choose to draw attention to a barrier that you feel is unrealistic or artificially constructed, then do it in a politically correct way. Remember, the barrier is a test, and without absolute proof that the barrier you have encountered is a barrier that others do not have to overcome, then you will not be in the driver’s seat.

If you decide it is indeed an artificial barrier then – when drawing attention to your barrier – you must be politically savvy. Challenge it only at the same time you accept it.

In my friend’s case that would have been something like saying: “Thank you for the opportunity to advance. I have spoken to my family and we have agreed to the foreign assignment. It will be an opportunity for all of us to grow and I understand, this is prerequisite for advancement. Since I will be new at this, would it be possible to speak with others who have also made this step and hear their experiences?” Here you have acknowledged the challenge, accepted it, but drawn attention to the fact that you also know this is an individual situation. In other words, where are all the others that also had this prerequisite?

In summary: Recognize, understand and be clever about how you accept and acknowledge the barriers that stand in your way. They will be there, that I can guarantee you, I only hope they are real barriers and not artificial ones.

Tests of Flexibility

Testing one’s flexibility is one of the most beloved games of companies and management when determining who should move on. In demanding jobs you often have many legitimate work situations where you need to be flexible, and flexibly is an attribute you will need if you want to move up the ladder. Once again, like with barriers, there are legitimate needs for flexibility and there are some situations that are artificially constructed to test flexibility.

The constructed flexibility tests I am talking about are unnecessary situations made up just to test flexibility. These normally revolve around deadlines or workloads that do not have real delivery goals. In these situations one must try to manage the situation, focus on delivery and not time.

For example, if it is suddenly demanded you work in the office all day Saturday and Sunday, then focus on what the delivery of that time should be. Because flexibility tests generally revolve around time. They are tests to see if you are willing to put in the time (can she re-arrange her schedule with the family and kids?). They are also tests to see if you can still deliver when you have conflicting demands (personal demands at home). To succeed you must take the focus away from the time and put it on the delivery, the result. This puts you in control of the situation. Arrange your own time but make sure you deliver.

Another flexibility test companies and management love to give women is the sudden travel test. Can she drop everything and go to our Cincinnati office? With these kinds of demands, once again, focus on what the outcome should be. Always agree to go, and at the same time explore if there are other ways to deliver what the company needs.

If they want you to drop everything and to go to Cincinnati, there must be a problem in Cincinnati that needs your attention. You may have to be in Cincinnati to solve this problem or you may be able to solve the problem in other ways. Focus on the issue; do not get distracted by the flexibility test. Solving the problem will usually neutralize the flexibility test.

Once again if you want to advance your career flexibility is a necessary attribute. The key issue is, you must be able to determine when real flexibility is needed in order to meet the companies’ goals and when the situation is just an artificial situation constructed to test your flexibility. If it is the latter, then focus on the delivery and you will demonstrate to your company another necessary attribute – problem solving.

Tests of Loyalty

This is my favorite game. One that is played a lot by companies and especially by men because they love to watch women run faster.

For some reason, many companies and men in management believe that women do not have the same loyalty to a job or a company as men do. I think this is perhaps because they believe women cannot be loyal to their families, husbands, partners and children while at the same time being loyal to their company and their job. Somewhere there is a belief that a woman’s priorities are all mixed up and are not the priorities needed or wanted in the business world.

I have one simple example surrounding loyalty tests and it comes from my own current experience. My company belongs to an international group covering 13 countries. There are 15 CEOs, I am the only female. Each Monday morning we have a Skype meeting that lasts about an hour. Needless to say every week at least 2 or more CEOs are not present due to vacation schedules or accessibility to Skype. During peak vacation times, since most of the CEOs have children, therefore up to half of them are not present. I am always there during these times because I have no young children.

Two weeks ago I had my first vacation, which was one week long. The coordinator of the meetings (assistant to Board of Directors) called me, hunted me down, asked me, and actually insisted that I had to join the call, even though I was on vacation. I asked why should I when there are minimum of 2 men missing every week? I was told that this week was special, there was to be a critical discussion, I needed to be there – the loyalty test!

Now the poor assistant had nothing to do with it, it was not her fault, she was asked to contact me. Needless to say that I am high up enough that I decided not to play the game, I did not call in and the next week life went on as usual. There was no critical information on the call, no special weekly discussion. As far as loyalty is concerned, I believe I demonstrate, in other ways, my devotion to my position. Now if you are climbing your way up the ladder, I would not advise you to do what I did, but try and withstand these tests of loyalty in your own way.

Tests of Quality/Standards

My advice when it comes to quality is, try not to make mistakes. We are human therefore you will make mistakes. The key is when you do make a mistake bring it to your superior’s attention before someone else does. If you are too late and someone has already brought attention to your mistake then approach your superiors before they approach you. Stand up and bring them the bad news if you have to.

Why is this important? It lies in the motto “Stand up and be a Man”. It’s a man’s business world and that’s what men do (even if they do not), but it is what you need to do if you want to play the game.

In order to handle errors, quality lapses, missed standards or any other kind of mistake you must approach it head on. If you do not, it will only give others the excuse to say: “She cannot stand up to her errors like a man”.

Focus on quality; this is the most important issue. You may have to run faster than the rest, but at least you will not need to stand up as often and admit your mistakes.


These are the four main categories that I believe contribute to the fact that women need to run faster just to stay in place and even faster to get ahead. It is the barriers we have to overcome, the flexibility and loyalty tests, the attention to quality that is needed that demands we run at a very fast pace. A pace that is twice as fast as our male colleagues’.

In the end the Queen made a very valid point in saying “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)