When Time magazine named the Silence Breakers—those brave individuals who courageously took a public stand against the men who used their power to “have at” what they wanted—as their 2017 “Person of the Year,” 150 women had yet to take the stand and address Larry Nassar in court.
The fact is that women are standing up to sexual harassment in droves. There is courage and strength—and needed confrontation happening to bring justice to victims. We know that standing up to abuse of power brings self-efficacy and personal empowerment. The time is now to channel this same kind of focus, courage, voice and steadfastness to take on the hurdles unique to women that perpetuate inequality in the leadership ranks.
The reality is that bias—and the other hurdles to leadership advancement that many of you have heard me talk about—may be unknowingly impacting us. The good news about the hurdles—and the realization that I have had over the years developing women leaders—is that these are hurdles we can control. Navigating these hurdles can become our springboard to advancement, and require only our own behavior change.
The proverbial ball is in our court. We can confront felt bias. We can get clear about what we want. We can ask for more help. We can take charge of our brand. We can get masterful at selectivity and stop over-rowing so damn hard and fast. We can build and leverage a powerful network of relationships. We can convey confidence from a deep place of knowing our worthiness.
I’m not suggesting that we do this to the exclusion of men. We can and should work with and learn alongside the aware and supportive men in our lives. And, let’s be clear—the hurdles I share represent unique obstacles for women. Some, perhaps, because they altogether don’t apply to men; and yet, while others may apply, the impact on a man’s career trajectory is mitigated for any number of reasons.
What’s behind the metaphor?
I am not a runner. I am not a hurdler. I actually thought hurdles were jumped by the runner. I was wrong. I understand now that one doesn’t jump over hurdles; one runs over them. This newfound knowledge didn’t come my way because I decided to take up track and field in my 40s. That would have been more painful than admitting that I call myself “honey” when my Inner Critic gets loud and super mean and focuses her energy on one of my many shortcomings. No, I didn’t physically hurdle. I researched hurdling. And watched a few videos so that I understood the metaphor—hoping to support my theory that women leaders can succeed if they “jump” the seven hurdles to advancement.
What I learned: there’s a reason that the hurdles are considered running events, rather than jumping events. The ideal hurdler runs while taking long, gliding strides over each hurdle. The runner spends as little time in the air as possible. They’ll get their feet back on the ground quickly after clearing each hurdle. They then continue running with consistent strides so that they can clear the next obstacle just as smoothly as the last. Oh—and a hurdler-in-training will start with low hurdles and raise the hurdle bar until they reach competition level to learn how to scale an obstacle while running full speed ahead.
It starts with you
But what if you aren’t a runner? What if you don’t see the hurdle? What if no one clued you in on the presence of hurdles to begin with? What if once you realized there were hurdles, you felt alone and confused or even ashamed because you had no idea how to take “long, gliding strides” while you run at full speed? Insert mental image of me—nearly 6 feet tall—jumping (not gliding) over a hurdle more than waist-high and crashing, full belly-flop, on the ground. My goodness. Just the very thought of this makes me wince.
Many of us were never aware of or believed that we had (or would need) a support system to advance into positions of greater leadership. We didn’t ask for these hurdles, and we often can’t control how high or low they are as we learn different ways to clear them (gliding strides seem exhaustively daunting.)
Most women I know who aspire to positions of leadership have drive, intelligence and the will to work their asses off. They believe that performance—the ability to get it done—will usher us into the positions of leadership that we know we’re capable of. In fact, our data shows this: women leaders, in our database of 10K+ multi-rater feedback, are more often than not seen as “highly competent, (e.g., she demonstrates exceptional job-relevant knowledge and achievement of results).”
Here’s the problem: we as women aren’t advancing nearly at the rate we want to or that our organizations want us to. So we need to assess our situation. We need to fearlessly size up the hurdles to our own advancement, and take decisive action. Why? Because once a hurdle becomes visible and it is named and talked about, once we allow ourselves to share our experience about it and learn how to “clear it,” we begin to see progress for ourselves and can help others navigate hurdles as well. We can be intentional—and on purpose—as we glide.
What has been a hurdle for you in your own leadership journey? What steps can you take to make it visible and help others learn from it?