MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important for women to take risks in business? is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.
There is no shortage of advice about the importance of taking risks to succeed in business. Success — for men and women — does not come without risk. Every job accepted, business started, and new assignment comes with the potential of failure. However, the one true axiom that emerges from those who choose to take risks is the ability to learn from failures and build on successes. Everyone can learn from these stories.
We seldom, however, hear about a different kinds of risk-taking. That is, what about the risk that comes from making a decision that impacts the entire workplace, rather than an individual’s career? For women, this may be the biggest risk ahead, but the only one that will change the stalled metrics. For decades, women in the workplace have read about their slow rise to the c-suite and gender-based compensation disparities. A few break through and achieve extraordinary success, but they are the exceptions. However, we can now confirm what many of us stated years ago: The problem isn’t women, it’s the workplace. And the only way to fix the workplace is for women to take two huge risks. First and foremost, to work collectively with allies (women and like-minded men) to push for change, and second, in the absence of any progress, to leave and find a place that recognizes their talents.
Most workplaces are used to hearing that continued loss of talent and the failure to provide equal opportunities can cost time and money, but they have yet to understand how their own unconscious biases and workplace structures hinder progress. The lack of gender parity is a challenge that, history has long made clear, cannot be solved by individual statements of commitment or false promises for change. Changing the gender parity metrics requires collaboration with others in your organization on a difficult topic, and trusting your colleagues to work towards an inclusive culture that offers equal opportunities for leadership roles and pay equity. And success will rely on focused training, the development of performance metrics, and the implementation of accountability structures.
Yet if the workplace is unresponsive, then sometimes success will require the scariest risk of all: recognizing that it’s time to leave. Career or job changes are one of life’s most difficult and seemingly risky transitions. However, many who have made the leap attest, it is a bigger risk to stay where you feel that your success is limited. Comfort with the familiar lulls you into complacency, but complacency doesn’t not always mean a positive outcome.
Gender parity is not a zero-sum game. It is the ultimate team sport and requires men and women willing to come together to tackle the hard work of developing goals, rewarding success, and holding people accountable for failure. It requires the risk of saying that, after decades of false starts and slow progress, it is time to do the hard work of setting goals and measuring results. The rewards that will come from a changed workplace are well worth the risks.
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