How women can escape the “sticky floor” and innovate for the future

Women can achieve anything with a growth mindset, including smashing through 'glass ceilings'

In a keynote speech to the Women in IT Summit, Ruchi Aggarwal, Associate Professor and Director of Business Development at Lincoln International Business School explained how women can escape the “sticky floor” and remove self-imposed barriers to get ahead.

Women need to get off the ‘sticky floor’ and liberate themselves by developing a growth mindset to thrive in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

That was the theme of the closing keynote address given by Ruchi Aggarwal at June’s Women in IT UK Summit. As a TEDx speaker with an interest in women’s leadership, Aggrawal is an inspirational figure.

While the idea of a glass ceiling has been much spoken and written about and is an accepted reality in certain areas, she argues that some women have a “self-limiting barrier.” Aggarwal goes on to explain: “It’s called the sticky floor, which is our reason for staying stuck where we are instead of getting off it and achieving or even trying.”

One reason for this is how job or promotional opportunities are written. Aggarwal says: “They’re written with a certain tonality, context and words that jump out at you, saying ‘this is not for me.’ These are not only gender levelling, but also stop women from progressing to the next level.”

Another reason was seeing women reaching out for more and being unsuccessful, of which getting a place on the board was a typical example.

Networking off the sticky floor

Women needed to recognise the power within themselves to break free from the sticky floor. Networking, the ability to talk to and impress others, was a good way forward.

“Some people say, it’s not for me, I’m not that type,’ Aggarwal admits. “Networking is a very misunderstood word. Whenever you talk to someone, in effect – you’re networking!

“During my stint at Microsoft India, I learnt a valuable tool called the five-cup coffee challenge.  It simply was that if you weren’t comfortable in a room full of people, set up one-on-one conversations with five people that you would never come across in your normal workweek. It’s surprising how much common ground and benefit you find.

“Another tool, one of my favourites, is informal power. Formal power is vested in you through your badge, corner office or your job title. But there are many opportunities offered to us: informal power opportunities, visible and interesting things that engage us. E.g. being part of a committee to contribute to the next open day or annual awards celebration or social occasion. By doing them, you remove yourself from the sticky floor and may be surprised by what they can lead to.”

The sticky floor concept has been featured in many of Aggarwal’s talks. She has numerous examples of women now aware they have been using it as an excuse and, as a result, have done something about it.

Aggarwal points out: “It starts with self-awareness and self-willingness; having the ability to be assertive and the confidence to navigate people who come in the way of it. One thing I’ve learned from experience is that if you focus on something, it will get done or noticed.”

Growth mindset

At the Women in IT Summit, Aggarwal spoke about adopting a growth, rather than fixed, mindset to focus on innovation for the future.

 “The fixed mindset is limiting. It avoids challenges, gives up easily and doesn’t want to learn,” she argues. “And it creates excuses, ignores feedback, doesn’t look at what’s out there and not willing to invest in it.

“On the other hand, a growth mindset is about freedom. It’s about enabling and empowering yourself to realise that there is a constant lifelong learning cycle. And while the world is VUCA, we’re able to read, apply and connect the dots in front of us. Case studies exist of how people have taken informed risks that created tectonic shifts in what an organisation wants to do.”

On leadership, Aggarwal says there is a spectrum with male traits on one side and female traits on the other. In her workshops, she asks participants to think of a leader they want to emulate and list the traits they most admire. The most attractive characteristics of empathy, nurturing and mentoring tended to fall into the female leadership bucket. Ideally, leaders need to sit somewhere between the spectrum, with men and women leaders borrowing traits from each other.

She finished the session by reminding women to acknowledge that they are leaders in their ecosystem – be that with their friends, families or work teams – and that they alone had the power to shape their destiny.

“There are too many opportunities in the world for women to be consigned to the sticky floor,” says Aggarwal.

To find out more about the Women in IT Summit and Awards Series, click here.

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