Does doing all the right things really get women ahead?

Catalyst, the non-profit group that aims to expand opportunities for women in business, has published a new study on October 13 that looks at the obstacles male and female high-potential employees experience as their careers advance.

The report, entitled “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?“, examines tactics employed by the proverbial “ideal worker” to get to the top. These attributes include: actively seeking high-profile assignments, rubbing shoulders with influential leaders and calling attention to achievements. Researchers asked whether these strategies work for both women and men.

So are men more proactive, better at speaking up about their goals, and asking for more opportunities? The short answer is no, but the long answer is discouraging. Even when women stay on a traditional career path and do “all the right things”, they are unlikely to advance as far or earn as much as their male counterparts.

I spoke with Nancy Carter, senior vice-president of research at Catalyst and the co-author of the report. She says:

“The standards being applied in terms of the way the talent is viewed are very different: men are awarded for their potential, whereas women are rewarded for proven performance.”

She and her colleagues studied over 3,000 smart and ambitious workers, each of whom stayed on a “traditional” career path following graduation from a full-time top MBA programme. Among the research subjects, more than half of both women and men had employed the strategies attributed to an ideal worker – but the payoff was different for men.

“The age-old explanation that women are not as proactive as men as adopting the same strategies to advance their careers is not right. We found that while there were equal numbers of male and female ‘hedgers’ – people who are actively seeking jobs outside their organisation and promotions within their organisation – the men benefited more. They were twice as likely to move into senior leadership or a chief executive role as women [who were employing the same hedging strategy].”

There is one small bright spot though: women who make their achievements visible advance further and faster than women who do not make their accomplishments known. Their compensation grows at a more rapid rate, too. Carter says:

“Women need not be shy. They need to step forward and ask for assignments, and when they perform they need to make sure that that is recognised. They need to have an elevator speech ready in their hip pocket.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.