How to build a successful career, regardless of your gender

Nicky Dunderdale

By Nicky Dunderdale

23rd March 2018

Last week I received a follow-up email to a conference I had shown an interest in. The email opened with the line, “As a woman in the tech sector, have you ever felt that you are not being taken seriously at work, or that your career is progressing at a slower pace than is fair?” Wow, what an opening line!

I sat there and re-read the email a few times, thinking deeply about those questions. Had I ever felt overlooked or that I wasn’t taken seriously? Had my career progressed more slowly than my male colleagues? The email insinuated I should have experienced these things.

Gender inequality is a serious subject in professional circles today, with statistics clearly showing a disparity between men and women in senior positions. As a woman in a leadership role within a technology business, statistically I am told I am a rarity, with industry-wide figures indicating that only 18% of senior execs are female in the UK. So surely, as one of the few, the email I received should have, at some level, identified with me. But the honest answer is, it didn’t. Fortunately, the scenarios described have rarely featured in my career to date. But have I simply been lucky in my career choices? Or have I somehow influenced my career to ensure I achieved my aspirations?

In my early career, following advice from a mentor at work, I sought to build experience in many disciplines. He urged me to gain a diverse and rounded skill set that touched on all aspects of the employee benefits industry before I specialised. So my journey has woven a path through administration, project management, client relationship management, business analysis and product management, before I finally progressed into a senior leadership role specialising in technology just over four years ago.

I have always owned my career; I have pushed for opportunities and worked hard to demonstrate my capability. Like all of us, I have made good and bad decisions along the way, which have taught me valuable lessons. Some experiences have been difficult and I have definitely felt the impact of my gender at times, with my most memorable negative experience actually being the result of an office ‘queen bee’, not a male colleague. Throughout it all, I have remained confident in my ability and have focussed on building and demonstrating my skills ready for my next move up the ladder.

Man or woman, your career is what you make it; you must be accountable for it, build your experience and demonstrate your worth. One of my biggest pet hates is when an employee expects their manager to deliver them their entire career path on a plate, qualifications, promotions and all that goes with it. How is that the manager’s responsibility? It’s not their life!? It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to influence and own our destiny. At times that may mean making tough decisions to seek out new opportunities because your current employer can’t or won’t support your aspirations. That’s fine, that’s life, and we can’t all expect to fit-in or succeed everywhere we go.

So what am I saying? To be clear, I am absolutely not denying the evidence that gender inequality is an issue. It is abundantly clear some employers need to address significant cultural imbalances to create a more inclusive workplace, which regardless of background, gender, race or sexuality, enables all talented and capable individuals to achieve in their careers. But, I also believe our careers are our responsibility and no one else’s. At the end of the day, what we do and who we work for is our choice. And if we realise we have made the wrong choice, we must be prepared to move on, or if we stay, we should accept we made a choice and make the most of a not-ideal situation.

To stand a chance of being successful in achieving your own aspirations, whatever they are, you must:

  • Have complete conviction in all that you say and do
  • Push for every opportunity to challenge yourself and grow your skills – don’t expect others to push for you
  • Not be afraid of making choices, sometimes you’ll nail them and other times you won’t, but you will always learn something
  • Be prepared to lead some very challenging conversations. If you really want something you need to ask, regardless of how uncomfortable you feel doing so – don’t expect others to ask, they don’t know what you’re thinking

Own it | Believe it | Achieve it