In my career as a head of selection at Standard Chartered, career coach and leadership specialist, I’ve encountered many under-valued women managers in banking and other sectors.
These people have high career potential, but just need a bit of feedback, self-awareness and encouragement to radically transform themselves at work.
After coming across many anecdotal examples, I decided last year to start collecting evidence about women’s development needs using an online survey with both open-ended and rating-scale questions.
The survey (which is ongoing) is open to all industries, but so far I’ve received many responses from women working in financial services.
While it’s just a snapshot, these women have told me about the key problems they face at work and I’ve categorised these into the three themes below.
My survey conclusions shouldn’t be used to label women or to assume that they exclusively face these problems. Instead, they reflect what a sample of women in one study indicate are their biggest career development concerns.
Problem 1: the ‘inner game’
What I call the ‘inner game’ are factors such as negative emotions and thoughts that are holding women back in their jobs – assertiveness issues, for example. In my survey, more that 80% of the career development problems women say they face at work fall into this category.
The survey found that women are experiencing workplace challenges with: ‘having the confidence to push back against unreasonable requests’; ‘fighting back when treated unfairly’; and ‘not being too nice all the time’.
Many women in finance say some of their biggest obstacles are related to gender stereotypes, such as having to ‘prove your value’, not being taken seriously, and being seen as ‘aggressive’ when being assertive.
Another important inner game issue is ‘limiting beliefs’ – thinking that you’re not good enough to perform on the job, that you don’t have what it takes. While this is by no means unique to women, my survey highlights that it’s near the top of the list of challenges that women face at work.
It’s not difficult to see how inaccurate beliefs about yourself can negatively affect your courage, confidence and assertiveness in the workplace.
Problem 2: communication
Under this theme, women in the survey pointed out problems with ‘communicating with impact’, ‘being heard’, and ‘influencing others’.
This is related to the confidence and assertiveness issues highlighted in theme one. Taken together, it is clear that many women – including those working in my former industry, banking – want to be more powerful and influential in getting their voices heard and their ideas accepted at work.
Problem 3: stress management
A significant number of survey participants considered ‘balancing family and work’, ‘social pressure to be family oriented’, ‘long working hours’ and ‘having to work harder to get the same recognition as men’ to be significant challenges at work.
Long working hours were especially challenging among Asia-based participants. Many finance professionals in the region face late night phone conferences that are elevating their stress levels, for example.
My work on wellness and stress has taught me that stress is often caused by inner game issues: our personal interpretations of external stressors and beliefs about our ability to cope with stress. So, once again, at least part of this theme links back to the inner game.
What needs to change?
What can we take away from these results? Well, it’s certainly interesting that ‘soft’ issues cover almost all of the development needs of women.
‘Operational understanding’ and ‘strategic thinking’ are the only two ‘hard’ themes emerging from the survey the women are struggling with at work.
Practically speaking, the results indicate that financial services firms interested in empowering women leaders should create opportunities for ‘inner game’ development for female employees.
However, organising inner game training specifically for women may actually serve to reinforce gender stereotypes at work and undermine the very influence women hope to gain from attending such programmes. Making it part of leadership courses for both men and women could remove this dilemma.
Another consideration is that developing inner game capabilities are more effective when initiated early in life, not at the time when leaders start to encounter problems at work.
The development of inner game capability is ideally addressed through one-on-one coaching. Unfortunately, coaching is rather expensive and most leaders do not get access to it until their leadership style has been shaped to a significant degree.
For women in finance, the survey results do offer some reassurance, however – these inner game issues are widely shared, and you are not unique, different or ‘broken’ if you experience them.
It all confirms what I’ve learnt in my practice as a coach and organisational psychologist: In order to achieve your full potential, you will need to develop self-awareness, confidence, assertiveness, courage and influencing skills.
These strengths are often developed indirectly, not by trying to be more confident, but by being self-aware and able to identify and manage unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.
This requires time and energy – it is a long-term development progress and it will be important to allocate time to it. You will benefit from support – psychological assessments can fast-track self-awareness and insight, for example.
Henry Chamberlain is an industrial psychologist, internationally accredited executive coach and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. If you'd like to take part in the ongoing survey, get in touch via info @hccglobal.net.
Image credit: laflor, Getty