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Culture

Women should build networks not walls, says career coach

What's to blame for women's continued disparity in the corporate world? A long-standing debate is revived as discussion of quotas for women and the so-called "mother myth" gain media attention in Germany.

A woman at work with a laptop

Professional German women face lower pay than men in the same positions

"The Cowardice of Women" represents a new chapter in the debate on women's obligations to themselves, their families and their careers. Published this month by journalist and author Bascha Mika, the book argues that women want emancipation - but aren't doing what it takes to attain it.

Hurdles aren't particularly conducive to action, however, and women in the workplace still have many. In Germany, women earn an average of 25 percent less than men for the same work, which can be a major demotivating factor.

Many well-educated women want to pursue careers, though, and "often take the necessary steps to do so but are hindered at many levels by the companies for which they work," said sociologist Annette von Alemann, a gender researcher at the University of Bielefeld in western Germany.

sociologist Annette von Alemann

Women lacking courage or will isn't the problem, says sociologist von Alemann

For instance, women may be placed in departments like personnel or marketing, where chances for promotion are limited. And there's at least one significant prejudice against young women, which is still common: Bosses often assume that they will leave to have children, so they're generally given less support when it comes to long-term career development.

"Due to these handicaps, women need to be twice as daring as men when scaling the corporate ladder," said von Alemann.

Connect with people

Still, that's no reason to flee to the comfort zone of the home, argues Bascha Mika. She sees networking as key to success, and author and career coach Anni Hausladen agrees.

"It's important to recognize your own strengths and to make use of these on the job. It's a way of stabilizing and developing your sense of self-worth, so that you don't just see your value as being in a relationship," explained Anni Hausladen, who advises women in a number of professional arenas, from politics to management to freelance endeavors.

Being goal-oriented isn't enough, though, according to the career coach: In order to have their achievements recognized, women have to position themselves in a strong network. Informal meet-ups - with new colleagues, for example - can often be more valuable than staying hunched over a desk.

A brick wall graphic

Women tend to build walls at work rather than networking, says Hausladen

Building this kind of network often conflicts with the perfectionism women try to cultivate in the workplace, observed Hausladen.

Wall of perfectionism

"People who want to be perfect build up protective walls around themselves, so everyone thinks the perfectionist is doing great and is untouchable. But the wall is an illusion," said Hausladen, who sees connecting with others as a much more useful strategy.

"By networking, I can take a more active role in what's going on. That brings me more security than if I just make sure that I'm doing my own job well."

But what about women who earn university degrees and then choose to stay at home with their children while their husbands go to work?

"If I say that I want equality and independence, then there are some things that just can't run the way they used to. I can't then take on the role of just being a mother," said Hausladen. Before a woman gives up her career for a family, she may want to try and think ahead 10 years to a time when the children will be grown up and her marriage may no longer be so harmonious.

The 'mother myth'

A woman with her child at work

Some see Germany as particularly hard on working mothers

A phenomenon dubbed the "mother myth" by German media has been widely discussed and criticized in recent years, including by Bascha Mika. The idea that a mother should be present at all times to raise her kids is a view held more strongly in Germany than in some other western countries - but some see it as just a myth.

"When women have children here and only see them on the weekends because they work full-time, many people throw their hands up and say she's abandoning her kids," said sociologist Annette von Alemann. But when men do the same, it's seen as perfectly normal, she added.

Despite all of the difficulties involved, von Alemann knows from personal experience that family and career don't have to be mutually exclusive. She has an 11-year-old son and a husband who is actively involved in raising him.

"It's been my experience that it can function and that it can all be organized well. I know that life at home will go on smoothly and our son will be well taken care of, but something is still missing for me as a woman when I don't see him. My son and my job both belong to my life," von Alemann said.

Author: Alexandra Scherle / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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