by Christine Silva and Nancy Carter / Harvard Business Review
Want to get ahead in your career? We all know the proactive career advancement strategies you should use. Let your boss know you’re ready for that high-profile assignment he’s seeking to fill. Tell him clearly and directly about your career aspirations, and that you’re willing to work longer hours. Don’t just build a relationship with your boss—also be sure to rub shoulders with your boss’s boss. Oh, and meanwhile keep your options open by constantly surfacing opportunities outside your organization, as well.
It’s all sound enough advice—but the problem is, it doesn’t work for everyone. Catalyst’s latest research on the career trajectories of high-potential men and women finds that doing “all the right things” to get ahead—using those strategies that are regularly promulgated in self-help books, coaching sessions, and the popular press—pays off much better for men than it does for women.
It isn’t that women are neglecting to wage the campaigns. In the large population of high-potentials we’ve been tracking, Catalyst finds equal proportions of women and men using proactive strategies. Many in both groups report seeking high-profile assignments, networking with influential leaders, and making their accomplishments more visible, among other tactics. But regardless of the career advancement strategies used—proactive or relatively inactive, internally- or externally-focused—men were more likely than women to have reached the senior executive/CEO ranks. Most interestingly, while within the group of men we surveyed, more proactivity meant greater advancement, among the women, this wasn’t the case. Employing the prescribed proactive strategies didn’t make as much of a difference to women’s career advancement.
What does work best for women? Among the career advancement tactics we studied, one stood out as having greatest impact. The women who did more to make their achievements known advanced further, were more satisfied with their careers, and had greater compensation growth. (A second strategy was also effective: Women advanced further when they proactively networked with influential others.)
The implication for women is obvious. They should continue to ensure that their managers are aware of their accomplishments, seek feedback and credit as appropriate, and ask for promotions when they are deserved, just as the high-potential women we’ve followed have been doing. Helping others recognize their contributions will help women get ahead further and faster.
Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to close a gender gap that begins to appear on day one. Among high-potential employees—the people companies invest significant dollars to recruit, develop, and advance—Catalyst research has documented that women lag men with respect to both level and compensation starting with their very first job out of business school. Worse, the pay gap grows throughout a woman’s career. In one of our previous studies, we reported that the gap between women’s and men’s salaries in their first post-MBA jobs was $4,600. By the time of our latest survey, as the careers of these same high-potentials had progressed, the gender gap in pay had increased to over $31,000. When you start from behind, it’s hard enough to keep pace, never mind catch up—regardless of what tactics you use.
And no, it’s not that women are less ambitious, or that they have too few mentors, or that they take time out to have children. Catalyst has examined all these supposed explanations and finds that, still, the gender gap in both advancement and compensation persists.
And with these most recent findings, yet another myth is busted: the one that says women fail to pursue their career goals as proactively as men. The truth is that women do, but even when they make use of the same strategies, they still don’t get as far ahead.
This brings us to implications for organizations. If the issue isn’t a difference of behavior between their high-potential men and women, then the problem can be laid at their doorsteps. Why does being proactive pay off more for the men than for the women in their ranks?
Take a look at your culture—the way things are done in your workplace. To what extent are people advanced and compensated based on their strategic career tactics versus their skills and performance? How, then, are people being coached to get ahead? Are there assumptions made that what has worked for men in the past will work for women? And when women and men use the same strategies, are reactions and evaluations sometimes different?
Individuals who don’t strategically manage their careers run the risk of lagging their peers. Likewise, organizations that allow individuals’ use of advancement strategies to overly influence talent management decisions without checks and balances are at risk of lagging their competitors in attracting, developing, and retaining the best candidates—and in particular high-potential women—to serve as their next generation of leaders.
In the coming weeks, we will unpack some of the other myths around “ideal workers.” Are men paid for potential while women are paid for proven performance? Are women intentionally seeking slower tracks? Does the gender gap exist because “women don’t ask”?
The answers may surprise you—and change the way you do business.