Women, careers and personal safety
Personal safety: danger on the street
A few weeks ago I returned to London from a trip to São Paulo in Brazil. On my arrival there and on my return to the UK I was struck by the issue of personal safety: in São Paulo you’re always aware of the threat to this safety, and you take precautions as a matter of course. Pedestrians and car-drivers are mugged at a rate that British city-dwellers find shocking, cars are stolen from their owners at gunpoint, and car-drivers are held up by thieves on foot dodging in and out of the traffic. The experience of any of those situations can be traumatic.
Returning to the UK and the absence of such threat on the streets brought into sharp relief for me the relative safety of my everyday life that I usually take for granted, and helped me appreciate not having to be prepared with a contingency plan to get out of life-threatening situations each time I drive in London and its suburbs.
However, unexpected hazards of other kinds occur in our organisations. Senior employees may be manoeuvered into positions where it is difficult to make their voices heard or where their place in the organisation may be unclear. Women in particular may find it difficult to be respected or regarded as engaged and committed, and may find themselves sidelined, under-valued and out of the loop. Working relationships may feel insecure or out of kilter.
Balance and confidence
Leaders who find themselves in positions like this may feel an existential sense of danger. For them it is almost as if they are metaphorically staring down the barrel of a gun, so threatened do they feel. Like the victim of street crime, they need to rediscover their self-confidence and re-establish their balance in order to get themselves and their careers back on track.
Tensions in career planning
For women in these circumstances, the tensions inherent in planning their careers have an extra dimension: namely, the career sacrifices they make by having a family and prioritising their families’ needs in terms of their own availability. This has nothing to do with their commitment: many part-time professionals are as committed and conscientious as full-time employees – if not more so.
Career development and resilience
These women also need to tread a knife-edge between feeling on the back foot and failing to attract as much respect and value as their full-time peers, on the one hand, and promoting their own career development, on the other. They need to develop career resilience: a flexibility in being prepared for – and handling – the unexpected, and learning from tough experiences so as to feel more resourced for the path ahead (see more on resilience in this blog). They need to convey the message that they bring added value to a team, especially a largely male and/or largely full-time team, a value which should be exploited.
Career self-protection for women leaders
In other words, just as the inhabitants of São Paulo on the street have developed self-protective strategies to keep themselves safer, women leaders need also to arm themselves with strategies for career resilience and elegant promotion of their value.