The hidden challenges of being a high potential woman
Being identified as a high potential woman is a good thing.. right?
The path for a high potential woman can carry a number of downsides when the organisation has not adapted to deal with them.
We all push for someone to be identified as a high potential woman for their talents and skills, given higher visibility and an accelerated career path. But this path can carry a number of downsides as many high potential women experience, when the organisation has not adapted to deal with them.
Here are three cases that 3Plus encountered in the past week alone. The reasons behind these experiences are based on age-old stereotypes and the hidden challenges around successful women in any organisation. Names have been changed.
Martha is the youngest person to have been identified in her organisation for the top talent programme – ever. At aged 32 she is a digital transformation professional with 10 years project management and leadership experience in the function. Despite having some of the best experience and considered as a high-potential woman in her company, her boss will not fully promote her to Director level. She cites her age as the main reason for holding her back and wants Martha to “manage her passion and enthusiasm” before she can be fully promoted.
Additionally, they have split the role into two and allocated the other piece to an older male, with less experience and technical competence than she has. For an added kicker, he earns substantially more. Martha has also researched her market value and has found that her salary is half the going rate. “I always knew I could earn more in another company, and I agree I have been well trained. But I feel I am experiencing reverse ageism and they are coming up with any excuse not to promote me and pay me a correct salary”.
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Carmen’s background and experience is impressive. She is very high energy, while her career has taken her through demanding roles across three continents, she has prioritised continuous academic qualifications in her areas of interest to land a senior legal role. This was at the same time as starting and raising a family. Her problem is that her drive, ambition and energy are perceived as being “pushy, aggressive and arrogant.”
She doesn’t fit into the stereotypical mould of being a corporate female, grateful to be recognised as a high potential woman, happy to wait for recognition and be advanced at the speed dictated by the organisation. Although she is considered to be a top talent, she says “this is only when it coincides with the expectations of my bosses, one of whom is a woman. They think I want to move too quickly. My male counterparts who are less qualified and experienced than me have already been advanced. They are considered dynamic. ”
Elisabeth joined a new organisation last year and after one year was placed on the high potential list. She asked about the next steps and had her eye on a strategy role one level above. She was told that she was “running before she could walk and needed time to embed herself in her current role.” Elisabeth reluctantly accepted that response, until a male colleague who joined after she did was promoted to the role in which she had expressed an interest.
When she queried the move she was told he had a different skill set that was needed in that function. When she pressed because she disagreed, she was cautioned that she didn’t want to look like a “trouble -maker and damage any future opportunities.”
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Address bias and systems
Organisations commit to high potential lists for women, but inadvertently undermine this process. They encourage women to proactively acquire skills to transition into a male-coded environment which men learn organically. When women seek leadership opportunities in organisations that have not addressed the system that assesses them, they experience pushback. These systems and practices align leadership with behaviours and characteristics associated with male leaders and penalise women for acting out of stereotype. This happens even when the people assessing them are women themselves. They query their general leadership skills
This leaves any high potential woman with very little choice but to look elsewhere for those elusive promotions. Not a very cost-effective talent management solution. It’s important that organisations stop trying to fix their high potential female talent and address the biases within their systems as quickly as possible.
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