“Women are already amazing. The problem is that the unwritten work culture in most organisations has just not been designed to value typically female strengths.” —Helene BannerEquality
“I am tired of seeing so-called ‘women empowerment trainings’ that try to make women tougher, louder and more assertive,” says Helene Banner. “Women are already amazing. The problem is that the unwritten work culture in most organisations has just not been designed to value typically female strengths.”
To be honest, I was part of that system. I felt ashamed when I had to take days off for my period which, of course, I was hiding. I felt small and “not yet tough enough” when I was side-lined in difficult negotiation situations. I wished I could become less emotional and more teflon-style when journalists attacked me as a young spokesperson. I wore tights, over-knee-skirts and a blazer, clothes that protected me and “made me older” in the hope to be taken more seriously. I was young and I was a woman. And I basically tried to hide that I was young and that I was a woman.
So me too, I took for granted that “this is the way it works”. I didn’t question this work culture, but I often questioned myself because I wasn’t (yet) part of this norm. As Mary Portas puts it so well in her book Work Like a Woman, I actually respected a work culture that over-rewards so-called ‘masculine’ qualities, like risk-taking to prove strength, competition, the drive to ‘win’—which can make workplaces a battleground in which emotions are seen with suspicion. More ‘feminine’ traits like collaboration, resilience, empathy and the ability to show weakness by admitting mistakes seem to be consistently devalued or even belittled in this work culture.
Breaking the glass ceiling is not the right goal
That’s why I want to put into question the infamous image that women have to “break the glass ceiling” to make it. For two main reasons.
First, because this image of a glass ceiling suggests that there is a world up there that women finally need to “enter” to be part of that infamous “club“ of decision-makers. But wait a minute, that very club works according to informal rules that do not necessarily invite diversity and openness for new forms of management and leadership.
While I believe that a “glass ceiling” certainly exists, the very reason why the air gets “thinner” for women—but also for many men—above it is that its work culture has been created at a time when women did not yet have the opportunities to sit at decision-making tables. It was designed by men for other men, which seemed to have made sense at a time when women were the ones serving the coffee or taking notes in those meeting.
So encouraging women to “break the glass ceiling” means to take for granted an outdated world of power—and to even conserve it.
Let’s stop putting the burden on women to “make it”
The second reason why I believe that the image of breaking the glass ceiling is not helpful is because it puts the burden entirely on women to have to be “strong enough” or “tough enough” to break it.
It nourishes arguments such as “Oh, not enough women had the courage to apply for this high-level job, they need to become more [fill in your favourite word to diplomatically say ‘like men’]”. I believe that the true reason why many women do not apply for these posts is a work culture on many top floors that is simply not very attractive for women: I am not only talking about lacking family-friendly work flexibility, but also about the “boys club” that actually doesn’t really welcome diversity and new and transparent ways of working together. Nobody wants to give up the good old golf round and late-night business deals over a whiskey, ey? Talk to any woman in a managing post to hear daily examples of how these informal power structures still operate.
Because yes, there are already many amazing women who are in top posts to make a difference. Women quota supports it, in the hopeful promise that “once there’ll be more women on corporate boards, the atmosphere will change”. But come on, we cannot leave the onus entirely on these women’s shoulders to make a change—it’s everyone’s responsibility to open up crusty and closed structures.
We need more “manbassadors”…and imperfection
For that to happen, we need men on board. Because men hold the main lever for change. We also need to make so-called “women’s events” more attractive for men’s participation—and the SHE Conference is doing exactly that. There are so many amazing “manbassadors” out there who have understood that female leadership is not a threat but a key for everyone to rise—men and women.
So what I say to my female clients is that they don’t have to become “tougher”, “more assertive” or “louder”—but instead, more imperfect. Because I deeply believe that women are not “too emotional” or “too sensitive”. To the contrary, the world needs women’s voices, their passion and their natural strengths everywhere, exactly the way they are. All we need is to value these powerful strengths more in the workplace. We need to encourage women that it is OK to be…themselves. That authenticity is leadership.
I had to learn that through a long burnout. The day I returned to the office after 8 months of forced break, I decided to no longer have a “professional me” and a “private me”. There would only be “me”. I no longer tried to “fit in” with my behaviour, with my clothes and with my worry about “what they will think of me”. Instead of questioning “what could be wrong with me” I started questioning “what was wrong with this work place”.
So, instead of breaking glass ceilings, let’s be more imperfect, ladies. This is how we will change work cultures and make glass ceilings redundant in the process.
Helene Banner founded “Let’s Just Be Imperfect, Ladies” after having worked as a senior communication advisor at the European Union in Brussels for 10 years. She was the speechwriter for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and co-wrote the speech that made Ursula von der Leyen the first female European Commission President in history. In her free “Imperfection Training for Perfectionist Women” Helene shares how she overcame people-pleasing, overperforming and perfectionism in order to help more women to dare to be more imperfect in their workplace.