Lost Direction After a Career Break?
Whatever the reason for taking a career break, when you come to think about making a return, you’re likely to feel unsure of a few things.
For this first part in our series on Women, Career & Empowerment, we are focusing on unequal pay as one of the many issues affecting women at work, such as the glass ceiling, adopting a male persona and juggling family and career, which we will be discussing on another occasion. Here we are going to explore some common reactions to unequal pay and how these can have negative impacts on women and their careers.
1. Self-devaluation: ‘I am not worth it’
Do you accept the lower pay and have stories to justify it? Perhaps you tell yourself that your male colleague takes on more work, works later and contributes more in team discussions. You may lack self-confidence and undervalue your own performance. You may not apply for promotion or seek out a leadership position because you don’t think you’re right for it. Regardless of whether you have talent, others rarely see it because you are wary of speaking up. Others may get the impression of you having little gravitas, presence, authority, or potential. The woman who devalues herself gets devalued by others. You feel ‘stuck’, unable to progress forward and too scared to improve your position. Your belief in your true worth has completely disappeared.
2. Your frustration takes over
Does getting less money than male colleagues for doing the same work as you fill you with a burning sense of injustice? Do you feel consumed with rage? You may feel compelled to fight back, confronting your employer with gender discrimination, male favouritism, or personal prejudice against yourself. Further down the line you may find yourself in continuous conflict with your employer, defending your rights on a daily basis. You may even consider pursuing legal action. The original issue begins to permeate all aspects of your working life and inadvertently impacts your relationships with your colleagues. Others may see you as aggressive (research has found that behaviour considered assertive in a man may be seen as aggressive in a woman). You may find yourself isolated, alienated and progress in your career may be impeded as a result.
3. You harbour resentment
When it’s your personal pay packet that is reduced by gender pay discrimination do you turn your anger inside and bottle it up? You may develop an unexpressed grudge against your employer and your trust in them might fall. Enthusiasm for your work drops off, performance is lack-lustre and you begin to sulk. A corrosive bitterness takes hold and you identify with negative voices in the organisation, becoming resentful of any demands or changes that are made. Your sense of good will has expired! You may not put yourself forward for opportunities that arise. You are regarded as no fun and a spoiler and gradually become excluded from the social life of your colleagues.
Pay discrimination based on gender is a social evil that hurts women. However, these three ways of dealing with it, devaluing yourself, smashing up your own career or becoming resentful, hurt you even more and do nothing to change an unjust system.
1. Be a realist
Recognise that unequal pay is still a widespread social issue. If for good reasons your circumstances force you to continue working in an unfair situation, then you will be happier if you do not take it personally. Women who succeed in these organisations understand it to be an external reality, an unjust one, but they do not take it as directed against them personally. The reality is that it is neither directed at you nor is it due to your personal failings nor is it a reflection of your true value to your organisation. It is a yet to be resolved societal issue. Most likely, as an individual employee there is little that you can do in the context of your workplace.
2. Express your feelings
The reality of the workplace can be harsh and it is very healthy to give yourself permission to actually feel sad and angry and experience emotions with regards to an unfair situation. It is also helpful to share your feelings with people close to you who you trust in order to vent and to reflect on ways of communicating with management. If you feel comfortable doing so, then discuss the situation with your employer but try to communicate by describing your own experience of your feelings, rather than apportioning blame on to them. If you are not satisfied with the outcome you may have to accept it without agreeing with it or seek other employment.
3. Align with your purpose
The women in these environments who have grown the most into leadership roles have been those who continue to focus on what they do best, aspire to contribute to the organisation, their purpose and excel with that. These women are not being steered by the need to prove themselves, nor to constantly live in comparison mode with their male counterparts. This approach will allow you to grow into a leader of a new kind, one who does not base herself on the example set by men. It may also give you an opportunity to improve the position of women in the workplace. Check back for the next part of our Women, Career & Empowerment series which will explore purpose in more depth.
4. Become an activist
There are independent organisations and workplace unions that campaign for equal pay for women. If you are passionate about fighting for social justice regarding women’s pay, then by joining one of these you will be able to do so in the company of like-minded colleagues and in an organisation whose primary purpose is to fight for gender equality. You can have authentic social relationships, be enthusiastic and creative in this work and advance your career in alignment with your values. Instead of undermining yourself and your career, your rightful anger will be constructively channelled into achieving a social benefit for all women.
"It's not what happens in your life, it's what you make of it." W. Bion
 On average male workers are paid c. 20% more than their female counterparts. However as careers progress to senior level, this difference increases to up to 55%. Harvard Business Review, June 2017
 Harvard Business Review, September 2013
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