I am generally not one for focusing on the differences between men and women in the workplace. My logic is that our individual differences- our upbringings, our personalities and preferences, and so many more factors- are so much more dominant than our genders in how we show up at work every day, that I haven’t found it particularly fruitful to divide the world into two big buckets. The lack of subtlety alone is off-putting.
However, I was recently considering that I have had a few conversations with women that all were a flavor of the following:
“I wanted that promotion/job expansion/opportunity/cool project assignment- but I didn’t get it. I never spoke with my boss about it, because if he thought I could do it, he would have tapped me for it.”
I am sure there are men who do this too- and perhaps women talk about these missed opportunities more, because there is usually an implied or explicit follow-on commentary about a “glass ceiling”.
Here’s the thing- your boss (whether male or female) is busy. They also are not mind readers. If you look super happy doing your job, they probably aren’t going to prod to find out if there are other things going on- because you have co-workers who ARE vocal about wanting the promotion/new opportunity. From the boss’ perspective, they are creating a win/win by giving the other person the new assignment- you get to stay doing what you (apparently) love, and the other person gets what they want. Everyone is happy- except you aren’t because you never spoke up.
Years ago I was running a large team of a few hundred people and there was an opening that I needed to fill on my leadership team. I let the group know that I would be looking at internal and external candidates. A number of people internally raised their hand for consideration, and ultimately one of them was selected. After the announcement was made, there was a person (happened to be a woman) who asked to speak with me- to ask why she hadn’t been considered. I asked her why she hadn’t thrown her hat in the ring. We had plenty of strong candidates vying for the role. She indicated that I should have been able to discern her interest- and perhaps that is true. But the fact was that I didn’t need any more candidates — and to me she was doing great in the role I needed her to be in. This was my first direct interaction with this sort of “I need an invitation to participate” mindset. To her it seemed she should have been proactively noticed, but to me it looked like arrogance and self absorption. The others who were considered raised their hands- why should she be different?
A few years later a young family friend sought my advice with a work issue she was having. She was a high performing junior lawyer- well regarded according to her reviews. Yet, she was discouraged because of the “glass ceiling” in her firm. I asked her to describe how this was manifesting. She said that she worked longer hours and objectively got great feedback about her work- but a male peer was getting the more interesting assignments, while spending more time “goofing off” chatting with the boss.
I asked that she consider for a moment the position of the manager. She is doing spectacular work, and seems to be enjoying it. She looks like she is “in the zone” and is also a total workhorse. What boss wouldn’t love that? However by her own admission, she had no real relationship with her boss- didn’t really know what mattered to him and never shared her professional aspirations with him. In contract, her male peer had developed a great relationship with the boss, and was very vocal about wanting to work on some of these projects coming in. He took the time to understand what made the boss tick and was delivering on those things. What looked to her like goofing off, was in fact relationship building.
I suggested that the boss probably thought he was making them both as happy as possible by not disturbing her flow and by giving the other guy these projects. I suggested she keep her head down a little less, and consciously work to build rapport with the boss- and in doing so express the desire for some of this project work as well. Her response was that as far as she could tell, her boss and colleague primarily discussed football- and as she didn’t know anything about football, so she was permanently excluded. I suggested to her that there is no way that her boss is so two-dimensional that the only thing he was able to discuss was sports. Her job as the junior person was to engage with him and find other ways to build the relationship. Where was he from? What about family? Where did he like to vacation? What movies has he seen lately? It takes effort to build a relationship — with anyone. Some people are easier than others, but if you want your boss to take an interest in you, you have to take an interest in them- it is human nature.
Often people feel that their work should stand on its own merit- and of course it should. If you are doing excellent work, you should be rewarded for it appropriately- and if that isn’t happening you may need to look for another employer. However, if you expect that in addition to acknowledging the work that you have done, your boss is also expected to manage your career trajectory, you are misinformed about the primary role of your boss. It is YOUR job to manage your career- no one else’s. If you want the promotion, or the interesting assignments, you have to have the courage to sit down with your boss and say it. If they say you aren’t ready, this is your chance to work with them on a game plan to get you ready. No one is going to issue a special invitation to grow your career- and if you aren’t interested enough to take the initiative — why should anyone else be?