THE BLOG
01/22/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

Woman at Work: Power and Positioning

It's tougher being a woman than being a man, especially in the business world. Career women often vent their frustration to me that they work harder and longer than many of their male colleagues, and deliver better results -- yet are passed over for promotion. Is it sexism, old boy networks, traditional attitudes? It may be a bit of all of these things but mostly it comes down to two things: power and positioning. Oh -- and beer.

The two sexes often approach work from quite different perspectives. When I'm coaching a man, the focus tends to be on the things that will best help him position himself to his boss and colleagues - in that order. His own career and network may be more important than the welfare of his team or even his company - unless it advances his own goals. He thinks: "When I obtain my targets it benefits me and the company." Moreover, I've worked with several men over extended periods of time without knowing if they were married or single, childless or fathers, straight or gay. They don't tell me and I don't ask because these are immaterial details in their quest for power and position.

In meetings, men - unless they live in San Francisco -- rarely check out other men's hairstyles or shoes; "Nice watch" is about the extent of a male-male complement, with the hidden thought, "Hmm. How did that s.o.b. afford that?" Much to the surprise of women, my male clients habitually tell me that their colleagues' gender is irrelevant; both should deliver. Men don't really think about women co-workers as such unless it is in the framework of power, position and budget. Men are not particularly interested in how women think.

When working with women, on the other hand, the discussions are often about both people and things. They actively discuss men. They not only want to know what they're thinking about but how they think. They talk about the feelings of other employees. They tell me about their families and friends. And they talk about other women co-workers: their clothes, their style, their private lives. Sadly, they often tell me that they prefer to work with men rather than women because they find women "complicated." Instead of being sisters united, women extremely critical of each other - much to the amusement of men. In the brutal atmosphere of interoffice politics, men like to see all of their competitors battling each other, irrespective of gender.

Women often attempt to impress their boss by being Superwoman: working overtime, taking care of their colleagues' needs, delivering top quality before the deadline, and then rushing off to pick up the kids from school, clean the house and cook dinner only to answer emails before going to bed. Ta-da! Superwoman can do it all!

The only problem is, a typical male boss may not give a damn about anybody's private life. When he observes Superwoman marching around the office with three files in one hand and a smartphone to her ear, he may simply think she's stressed-out and can't handle her job. Why should he promote her?

So what should dynamic, gifted and ambitious women do? Crop their hair, wear Chinos and spit? Certainly not. Stay authentic. But they should do what men are very good at: positioning themselves and knowing that the game is about power, not personality. Men spend a good deal of their time networking--sharing a coffee with the boss, enjoying an after-work beer with a door-opener, playing a round of golf with a client, meeting decision-makers for dinner. What are they talking about? Work, customers, strategies, office politics, sports. Is the conversation brilliant, the ideas profound? Rarely. Are they building relationships and raising their profile in their bosses' crowded heads? Hell yes. And when the promotions are handed out, don't be surprised when it goes to the networker.

And where are the women? They are busy being Supermom/wife/girlfriend/sister. This is a grand as it is noble. "I don't have time to network," many tell me. They're right but it is essential that they find the time.

The lack of positioning and networking by women explains, in part, why there are still so few of them at the executive and board level even when they are superbly qualified. Many men would simply shrug and say, "Hey, that's just the way it is." And until the return and reinstatement of the overthrown goddesses of old, that's the way things will remain. Men have little incentive to change this structure. It's up to the women of the world to do so.