Smart, Strong Women: Ask For What You Want At Work

The needs of achievement-driven women have not been acknowledged

Posted Oct 16, 2010

I am tired of reading books, articles and blog posts that paint women as full of fear, can't say no and wish only for life balance. I'm appalled at workplace articles that claim women are indecisive, invisible and can't ask for a raise.

It's time to acknowledge that many of us are clearly assertive without being abrasive, know how to stand up and promote our ideas, and prefer a stimulating life to a balanced one. We get bored if our plate isn't full of new and exciting challenges. We are comfortable with power, though our definition of power might differ from the male-stereotype of taking command. Our greatest wish is that people would quit questioning our decisions and just get on board with our ideas.

We are gaining power in the workforce, we are earning more degrees than men and many of us are now breadwinners at home. We are different, and so are our needs and challenges. It's time that leaders know who we are and what we need to be happy at work.

Women are critical to the success of this country

According to analysts in both the United States and Europe, the more women in a company's senior management team, the less its share price fell in 2008/09 when the recession hit. In another study spanning the last 19 years, Pepperdine University found that the Fortune 500 companies with the best record of promoting women outperformed their competitors by anywhere from 41 to 116 percent.

Yet many women don't stay long enough in one company to reach a senior position. Instead, they choose zig-zagging career paths in search of satisfaction. The Center for Work-Life Policy asked 2,443 working women with graduate or professional degrees how their careers were progressing. Nearly 40 percent said they found their work was no longer enjoyable.1 They were planning their next career move.

The women in the study did not lose their ambition. They felt their ambition was not valued. A common mantra I hear in my coaching sessions is, "it's not worth it anymore."

We reach a level of intolerance and then have to move on.

What smart, strong women want at work

Obviously, most of the leaders in our companies don't know what we need to feel satisfied at work. So we have to tell them.

I surveyed 100 corporate women that fit the profile of "high-achieving" for Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.2 I found that more than traditional incentives of compensation and future promotion, these women prize "motion and meaning" in their work. They hate feeling stuck or that their work provides no significant value. And contrary to popular belief that women sabotage each other's careers, today's high-achieving women long for quality relationships at work. They prefer collaboration over competition.

Here are some ideas to share with your company's leaders:

Provide programs focused on broadening our perspective, not fixing us as women. Some companies provide special programs to develop women to be leaders. Unfortunately, many of these programs are designed more to "fix" us than to develop us. They focus on "women's issues" such as enhancing communications skills and giving tips on how to better cope with work-life imbalance. Few provide the advanced business skills we need to be successful in the ranks with global executives.

Instead, provide us with training and follow-on coaching in senior leadership skills. Provide us mentors and sponsors to help us understand power brokering in the organization. Create opportunities where we can network and help each other grow.

Give us frequent, new challenges. We love to conquer new, complex challenges, ones that will give us the opportunity to shine. Never assume our outside responsibilities will get in the way of a demanding new task. Let us make that decision. Then work with us on creating flexible work schedules. We can be creative in how we achieve goals.

Help us see how our work is meaningful. We struggle with committing to a monetary goal or a drive solely focused on beating our competitors. We want to work for companies that contribute to society, care for their employees, respect the environment and support their local communities. We don't just work to make a living. We will align our energies with your penchant for profit when we see the evidence of our good work in the world.

Continually affirm our contribution and value. Our sense of contribution to the organization is as important to us as our paycheck. We need to know the impact we have on people, inside the company and out. Show appreciation for our creativity, inclusiveness, strategic perspective, and determination. We will work hard to deserve the praise.

Design and foster a creative and collaborative environment. Establish a working environment that provides an open flow of communications in all directions. Organizations are flatter today; let us help you design how work gets done by engaging everyone in the process instead of working through hierarchies.

It's time to acknowledge the needs of smart, strong, goal-driven women. Together, we can make our voices heard.


1Hewlett, S. A. & Luce, C. B. (2005, January). Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Harvard Business Review, pp. 43-51.

2Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.