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Not business as usual: Realities for professional women

By Sally D'Amato - March 07, 2011

Woman checking postings on windowIn the past year I have co-authored two reports on women—Paths to power: Advancing women in government and The Gender Dividend: Making the business case for investing in women—and participated in many events, including a symposium at the Harvard Kennedy School, discussing how investing in women can help organizations and countries reap a gender dividend. Yet even with all the attention this issue is attracting, it still seems that change is slow in coming.

Statistics bear out that there is awareness of the potential that women represent. There is movement to change the rules around equal pay, equal access, and equal opportunity as well as a resetting of norms to acknowledge the importance of women’s advancement and economic access.  In many cases, these concepts are validated through legislation and policy.  

But the results are not yet there, the change is not entirely embraced, and the “systems” are not acting in concert with the rules. Working women are still limited by a lack of support networks and mentors as well as near -impossible demands in terms of work-life balance. Yes, there are organizations that value women and choosing to work at one might be the single most important decision a woman can make to ensure her career has longevity and advancement.

But if you are waiting for an organization to drive the new behaviors that will allow it to reap the gender dividend, you may miss important windows of opportunity. So what can you do right now? You can build a personal business case for yourself.

The business case concept put forth in The Gender Dividend was built to argue for an organization’s targeted investment in women. But if we morph the concept ever so slightly, it can also be applied directly to an individual. We are at a moment in history when both top-down and grass-roots approaches can coexist and you, the individual change agent, can serve as a powerful element in the current state of play.  Enough individuals taking action can and will have a significant impact.

As you mentally consider your business case, there are two realities to keep in mind:

Reality 1: Recognize that good work performance is a given but is not enough.

  • Examine your own behaviors and consider what are your barriers or perceived barriers to achieving your goals.
  • Define your value and why continued investment in you over your career will generate significant value for your organization. This is an important definition that only you can create. Thinking this through will help you work smartly and strategically to break down any barriers that exist or that you perceive to exist. 
  • Invest in your social capital at work. That is, to advance and to be recognized you will need to build networks and find champions who understand your value.   
  • Talk with others to define your value.  These conversations will help you come to this definition and build your network at the same time.  Your exploration of these topics should not be all-consuming but rather as a means to define, not whine.
  • TIP: Networking should focus on those leaders and peers that will help you achieve your goals. Hone in on colleagues that will speak for you, be your advocate, and will keep an eye out for opportunity and help you reach out and grab it.
  • Expand your comfort zone. If this kind of networking is not in your nature, you are not alone.  But you should try to find a way to seek out these contacts and make them work for you. You won’t regret it.

Reality 2: Consider that most women’s careers typically do not follow a straight line.

  • The majority of women do not work continuously full time over the course of a 40-year career.
  • TIP: If you are going to “take a detour” during your career—as most women, and, indeed, most people do these days—you must have the networks and contacts in place when you get back on the main highway.
  • Remember that this is not just a good personal policy for advancement—it’s also good for other women. A critical mass of women in leadership begets more women in leadership.

Acknowledging these realities is step one on your path as a change agent that can influence the larger systems and organizations of which you are a part. Once you have proven you can be a change agent for yourself, that platform will then allow you to think broader.  How can you be a change agent for others and for your organization?

By making your own business case, coupled with others that are doing exactly the same thing, will reinforce the message that investing in women pays. And as the Gender Dividend makes clear, having women in charge only improves the bottom line.  Everyone wins—and that’s one compelling business case.


Sally D'Amato is a Principal in the Deloitte U.S. firm Consulting federal practice and currently leads the U.S. Department of State and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) account teams. She helped co-author Paths to power and The Gender Dividend: Making the business case for investing in women.

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