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Advice to women: The workplace isn’t like school

/ Jan 17, 2014 0:00AM / Print / ()

Advice to women: The workplace isn’t like school

This story was first published 18 January, 2013.

It seems all that success women are enjoying at high school and university could actually be working against us.

That's the suggestion in a Harvard Business Review article by leadership experts Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr this week, who ask why the academic skills that put women at the top of the class are not translating to the top of business. Women make up more than half of middle managers in the US, but fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

The figures are no better in Australia, where women have been graduating from university in numbers at least equal to men since the 1980s, and hold just 2.4% of ASX 500 CEO roles.

Johnson and Mohr believe these statistics will not improve dramatically until women realise "that the boardroom is not the schoolroom". The problem is that schools traditionally reward discipline over disruption, celebrate textbook answers over quick thinking, attempt to offer students a straight-forward career path (study this to get into this course to get this career) and make life easier for those who're "well liked". In business, disruption is the means to innovation and success.

The authors suggest five areas where women can disrupt themselves; advice that urges high-achieving students to recognise some of the skills that got them ahead in the classroom may not be all that helpful for their careers. They cover challenging authority, learning to improvise, enabling effective self-promotion, being open to a more surprising career and chasing respect over popularity.

Disruption really is key to creating successful new businesses and keeping existing businesses relevant. As IBM managing director Andrew Stevens told a group of young professionals at a seminar late last year, the best leaders in the future will never shy away from disruption, but rather seek to exploit it.

Many Australian women are doing just that, but not necessarily in ways that'll see them pick up board roles or the top jobs in large corporates. They're often stepping off the path for such roles out of necessity – such as a desire to take better control of their career, determine their own hours, or remove themselves from a limiting corporate structure. They're quitting their high-powered jobs and starting their own businesses. As the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry has found, half of all current businesses started since 2007 were started by women.

Women are disrupting the economy right now – despite their success at high school and university, and despite often entering the corporate world for 10 or so years before they leave to do their own thing.

In 2012, Australian women far outclassed the men in the NSW Higher School Certificate results, taking home two-thirds of the awards on offer. Women scooped all the mathematics awards, despite being outnumbered by men in such courses. Board of Studies president Tom Alegounarias went so far as to say that "it's time for the boys to step back up and really get in there and be competitive".

So will it translate to more success for women later on?

Interestingly, Lilian Zhu, who topped the state in the HSC in 2012 and has plans to become a surgeon, is also entering the retail market by launching her own swimwear brand – unique, handmade bikinis and one-piece swimsuits – that she plans to market herself. It's an incredible small business feat for a high school student, especially one who's managed to pursue her creative vision while studying for top marks in the HSC.

Disruptive, or simply self-disciplined and productive? Either way, she's challenging the existing status quo and looks destined to go straight to the top.

Do the lessons of school need to be unlearnt in order to get women ahead in the workplace? Have your say.

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