International Women's Day 2022: How to crack the glass ceiling
International Women’s Day 2022: even in the 21st century, female executives in Western societies still do not enjoy equal opportunities. Women earn less, even if they are entrusted with the same tasks and are equally qualified as their male colleagues. They are responsible for the bulk of unpaid domestic care work and still have to deal with strong headwinds when pursuing their careers. But the times are changing. Slowly but surely. The glass ceiling is still there, but it is possible to crack it. So what can women themselves do to boost their career prospects and succeed in taking the lead?
Claudia Eder, Managing Director of ASFINAG Maut Service Gesellschaft (the company responsible for the operational management of Austrian motorways and expressways), Katarina Stanisavljevic, founder of the marketing consulting company Amazing Next and former Managing Director of the Austrian media agency Carat, and Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, came together on the occasion of the 111th International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022, to share their most useful tips for career, networking, and self-empowerment with other female executives and women who want to move up the career ladder.
Should women bank on women’s or mixed networks? All three experts agree that, ideally, this shouldn’t be a question of either/or. Barbara Stöttinger puts it in a nutshell: “Men need a network. Women need two.” Katarina Stanisavljevic, Vice President of the WU Executive Academy’s Female Leaders Network, adds: “Women’s networks bring together remarkable women and provide a safe space where they can openly share their experiences, discuss urgent issues, and get guidance, advice, and feedback.
I’ve made the experience that the feedback of women with similar goals and ambitions has always helped me to reach the next stage in my professional development.
The Female Leaders Network organizes events where women can share knowledge and find inspiration for tackling the pressing issues many women are faced with in their professional lives: career management, leadership, salary negotiations.
Katarina Stanisavljevic adds: “Women are usually faced with more challenges than men, but they could actually use this experience to their advantage. The paths of female leaders are less smooth. They are usually hard workers and very self-confident. As their leading positions are often hard-earned, they often assume their roles with a strong sense of responsibility. Female leaders have their hearts in the right place. In their decision-making process, they focus on people and business rather than on their own ego.”
Claudia Eder recommends that women also become part of mixed networks and engage in networking with men: “When I started my career, it was men who placed their trust in me. I also had male mentors who supported me with valuable feedback,” she relates. Katarina Stanisavljevic announces that the Female Leaders Network will also start to open selected events for male participants: “We want to open some of our events to men to raise their awareness of equality issues. We want them to get actively involved. And there are many men who are really interested in these topics.”
“When participating in further training programs, such as an MBA course, women can acquire up-to-date leadership skills when it comes to leadership approaches, decision-making and modern management. At the same time, they’ll also find opportunities for exchange with other executives from various sectors. This gives them the chance to learn about the diverse career paths of their colleagues. They’ll also gain valuable insights and make new contacts that may prove beneficial on their future career paths,” Dean Barbara Stöttinger explains.
Another advantage in her opinion: degree courses provide a safe space for informal social learning. “Participants are able to test their skills in a competitive, yet friendly environment. This gives them a chance to grow in confidence and reflect on how they can deal with negative experiences, unconstructive feedback, or criticism in general.
This is particularly important for women. There are, of course, all different types of women in our degree programs: they are tough, introverted, and everything in between. Our programs offer all of them the opportunity to learn to better stand up to their male colleagues, which will further boost their self-confidence.
Feedback on projects and in discussions, particularly from male colleagues themselves, can be really valuable. Working together with their male colleagues also gives our female participants a chance to learn how male executives are wired. Challenging each other’s leadership skills in the framework of project groups is valuable for both women and men and helps them to evolve.”
“If you start out in a new sector or position, advice from experienced mentors can be particularly helpful to find your way and make the right decisions,” Claudia Eder shares. Claudia Eder herself has already worked in various fields: tourism, retail, the health sector, and HR consulting. Her current job has now taken her to the transport sector. Katarina Stanisavljevic agrees with her: “I benefited enormously from informal mentoring among fellow students during my MBA studies.” The members of the Female Leaders Network also act as mentors for one another, helping each other out if specific questions arise in their professional contexts: “A colleague who works as a product manager was faced with a sales-specific challenge. Within one day, she received valuable input from our classmate, who is a sales superstar and has a lot of tips and ideas on how to turn challenges into competitive advantages. Her ideas worked perfectly, and the new product was in the stores within only one month’s time,” Katarina Stanisavljevic relates. Claudia Eder emphasizes that it’s always good to have a sparring partner or a mentor from the same sector. She had been a successful consultant when she had the opportunity to apply for the job of the managing director of ASFINAG Maut Service Gesellschaft. “In this situation, I was glad to have a sparring partner from the transport sector with whom I could carefully ponder the job offer. Together, we soon got to the conclusion that I should go for it and apply for the job. My main task as a self-employed consultant was to advise other people. I missed working together with others on the same project, getting things done as a team. Talking to my sparring partner, I realized that I was prepared and willing to accept a new challenge,” Claudia Eder remembers.
Claudia Eder recommends visualizing your career goals: “The more specific and clearer the goals, the better. Such a visualization process can give you tremendous energy and power – and the conviction that you can make it.” Although this technique is useful for both men and women, Claudia Eder recommends particularly to women that they always remain focused on their goals and overcome what might hold them back.
Focus on your goals, even if you think that there are others who are better than you or that you don’t meet every single requirement.
In such cases, an exchange with members of your network, such as your mentors or experienced experts from the respective sector, can provide valuable input and help you overcome fears and insecurities.”
Even executives cannot always organize their work according to their own ideas – but what can they do if they hit hierarchical walls or are overruled? Claudia Eder’s advice: “Don’t be afraid of hierarchies, accept them.” Particularly in fields in which politics also has a say, executives are faced with issues that may be out of their sphere of influence. “In such cases, it is important to try to understand and ponder the needs of the other stakeholders – and to elaborate a strategy which may help you to still win the day in the end. You should maybe also ask yourself: is it the prevailing structures which prevent me from reaching my goals or is it my own values that are no longer in line with the company’s set of values?” Claudia Eder recommends that leaders regularly take their time for reflection: “Of course, leaders have to be able to cope with a certain amount of frustration; if you lead other people, there will always be situations that are less harmonious. But I already found myself in situations in which I quit a job because something had become incompatible with my own values.”
Another important piece of advice: always address the elephant in the room. “Listening to people and communication are very important elements of leadership; if there’s something that’s not going right, you’re well advised to address it rather sooner than later,” Claudia Eder explains.
If a team consists of men and women, this has an influence on the way in which the group communicates. Claudia Eder shares her experiences: “In my company, male and female employees often tell me that communication changes and even improves when a member of the opposite sex joins a team. I often see that the atmosphere changes; communication partners suddenly respond better to one another. Team members suddenly take time to reflect; they change their behavior compared to when they’re part of all-male or all-female teams.” She has observed that the members of all-male teams, also at board level, often treat each other very respectfully. Women tend to communicate rather matter-of-factly when talking to teams involving male colleagues. Claudia Eder admits, “I’ve noticed that I’m better able to stick solely to the facts when I’m talking to men, while I tend to become more emotional with women. This happens in all kinds of situations.” If things get emotional, she suggests to resist the temptation of reacting emotionally to them: “Take a deep breath, try not to get wound up in the topic, let it rest, and, if possible, take counsel with your pillow. More than once did I go out of a meeting with three inadequate solutions, just to come up with the fourth and appropriate solution the next morning.”
You can find more information about the networking opportunities of our students and alumna on the Female Leaders Network site.