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BBC Capital

Women and work: Saying yes to big assignments

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part BBC Capital series on new strategies women are employing now to find success in the workplace.

Behind all the fraught discussions about women “leaning in” and “opting out,” there’s a bigger question: how do women who choose high-powered careers get ahead — and how do they beat male contenders to the top executive roles?

“Even in cases where men and women adopt the same strategies for their careers, the man achieves more success,” said Deborah Gillis, the chief operating officer of Catalyst, a New York-based non-profit that studies executive women and leadership around the world.  

Traditionally, women who wanted to climb the corporate ladder focused on finding senior mentors and acting as much like male executives as possible. But that career-success handbook is out of date, experts say. Today’s executive women are using better strategies to rise to the top.

They’re jumping at every opportunity, expanding their networks and turning their attention from mentors to sponsors. But these new approaches are not without their challenges. Women have to do more and figure out how to get paid more. They have to learn how to network differently. And they have to create a personal board of advisors and try to find a senior executive to sponsor them within their company.

Over the next several days, BBC Capital will explore the new art of getting ahead for women. In this first instalment, we highlight women who have gone after bigger assignments —and successfully demanded higher salaries.

Always Say Yes

For Abbe Luersman, who worked as a top human-resources executive at consumer products maker Unilever, the secret has been never saying no to an assignment.

Based in Rotterdam since 2009, Luersman, 45, left her role at Unilever Europe on 1 November to become the chief human-resource officer at Royal Ahold, a large grocery retailer.

“I wasn’t ever hesitant to take on a big global leadership project,” she said. “When you consistently deliver on your commitments and you deliver results, the outcomes are there, and people will ask you to do more.”

Luersman, who is American, has also worked in the United Kingdom and Italy, and has completed several one- to three-month stints in other countries for specific projects. She started her career at appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, where in her early 20s she organised the company’s first live broadcast to workers around the globe.

Pay gaps

The corollary to asking for bigger assignments is asking for more money. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s book Women Don’t Ask scrutinized the differences between men and women’s negotiating styles and examined how that difference affects pay and  career progression. Since women are less likely than men to ask their managers for a pay rise, promotion, or other career moves, they place themselves at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues, the authors asserted.

Chantal Glenisson, Sallie Krawcheck, Julia Hobsbawm.

Chantal Glenisson, Sallie Krawcheck, Julia Hobsbawm.

THE NEW ART OF GETTING AHEAD: Also this week...

Over time, this disparity adds up, with men tending to climb higher in their careers and earn bigger salaries.

“Men ask for raises more than women do, because they feel they deserve something more,” said Laura Pincus Hartman, a professor of business ethics at Chicago’s DePaul University.

Hartman encourages her students to speak up for what they want. In her own career, Hartman has learned to fight for herself at work, even threatening to leave when necessary. “Once people see how valuable you are, they’ll give it to you,” she said.

Hartman came to DePaul in 1990 to teach business law at the business school. She was running a business-ethics institute as well as teaching. But with a law degree, not a doctorate, she felt underappreciated and underpaid.

“The only way I could get a significant pay raise was to say to DePaul, ‘I’m leaving’,” she recalled. The university called her bluff and she left in 1998, accepting a “very good high-paying job” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Moving to Madison involved relocating her family — her husband at the time and their two small daughters — to another state, but Hartman was willing to do it because she felt her career was stalled at DePaul if the university wouldn’t increase her salary. Two years later, DePaul lured her back with an associate vice president title, matching her University of Wisconsin compensation.

If women the age of Hartman’s students take these lessons to heart, demographics and attitudes might make this sort of dilemma fade or resolve without as much angst in the future. Younger women are increasingly savvy about speaking up for what they want at work. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where 42% of MBA students are female, the women students’ group holds events and panels for members on how to avoid the pitfalls Babcock and Laschever highlighted in their book.

It’s a problem that could cost these students money. According to Catalyst, female MBAs earn $4,600 less, on average, in their first job out of business school than male MBAs, even accounting for differences in industry, work experience, and other factors.

“We talk a lot about the pay gap… how women are different at work … and some concrete ways that we can start to change our behaviour,” said Hee-won Kang, 30, a second-year student who is co-president of the group, Wharton Women in Business. This September, the 700-member group’s annual conference bore the theme “Own Your Career.”