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Show Notes

This episode is the third in our series on career challenges for women engineers. In this series we’ve already covered the late career plateau and why women leave engineering

This week we’re covering an upward mobility model for women engineers.  And in the context of that model we’ll discuss one of the challenges of moving up in your career.

This is a model that applies once you have a good foundation in your engineering career and are looking to move up in leadership. 

So we’re assuming that to some extent you have taken charge of your career, you’ve established your vision and some goals, and you’re ready to move into a higher level of responsibility.

The model is a great tool for encouraging your career not only forward, but also upward. It’s a great tool for you if your plan is 

– to take your skills where they’ll have wider impact,

– to have ever-increasing challenge in your work,

– to lead more people, 

– to be a key decision maker.

As you may be experiencing, there are challenges for women engineers when it comes to upward mobility. Such as:

I’m going to highlight a particular challenge for women as I present the upward mobility model. It is a combination of lack of affirmation and self-doubt. Let’s go through the model. Then we’ll discuss how to address this challenge.

When you are looking to move up in leadership, you can follow the upward mobility model for making progress. The model is made up of four steps that you repeat in an upward spiral.

STEP 1 – Reach, Stretch, and Risk

As you take on a new position or project or a certain responsibility, the first step is to reach for it. To stretch yourself and take on some risk. This is what initiates growth and gives you a challenge. 

The important thing to remember in this step is you don’t need to meet every qualification of a position to apply for it. Just because you haven’t done that exact kind of work before doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. In any challenge or position you take on, leave room to grow into it.

STEP 2 – Execute

In the execution of the position or project, you’re tested on your skills and abilities. You apply what you know, you learn and try new things. You get some good results, and you make some mistakes. You make decisions, carry out assignments, and accomplish the objective.

STEP 3 – Get Feedback

By the time the task is complete or you reach a certain milestone, you’ll have your own opinion of how well you’re doing, and you’ll have feedback from others. Getting feedback from your boss, or whomever you report to, is key. 

The feedback must affirm what you’ve done well and indicate where you need improvement. 

STEP 4 – Grow and Spiral Up

Once you have proper feedback, you realize where you’ve grown, what you’ve done well, and what you can improve. This motivates you to spiral up: to take on the next project that’s more challenging than the last one. 

After Step 4 you start again at Step 1.  Think of repeating this sequence in an upward spiral. Each time you repeat it you’re at a higher starting point.

It may be your goal to spiral up continuously. You may want to spiral up for a while then stay for a while then spiral up again. You may want to spiral quickly or slowly. 

However you choose to move upward, it’s a good model to follow. It can be matched to the opportunities where you are, to your vision and goals, and to your energetic center. (Recall that your energetic center is where your values, skills, strengths and passion meet.)

Lack of Affirmation Impedes Upward Mobility for Women Engineers

Do you notice where there are challenges in this model? There is one sticky point in particular that I want to point out, and that is in Step 3: Getting Feedback. 

Many women never get the right kind of feedback to reinforce their progress. And in particular they don’t receive affirmation.

When they don’t hear any affirmation, they assume management is not pleased with their work. The story they tell themselves is that they failed or they’re not good enough.

You can see how this is a combination of lack of affirmation and self-doubt.

Many women stop at this point. The feedback that says “you did well” and “keep going” tends to be really important to us.

That lack of affirmation causes many women to doubt themselves, which inhibits their motivation to continue. They don’t progress to the next spiral. Thus their upward mobility is impeded.

This happened to me when I took on a first level supervisory position. It was an experiment to see if it suited me, if I could be successful, and if I might continue to higher levels in the supervisory path. 

Turns out I liked the position more than I expected I would. I liked being able to help people and facilitate their research. 

But at the end of my “term,” I didn’t get the right kind of feedback. And I didn’t get any affirmation or encouragement, so I interpreted that as a message that I shouldn’t continue. I chose to discontinue my upward spiral and I took a different path.

To this day I don’t know if that was the right decision. Maybe I could have had more influence at higher levels in the organization. Maybe I could have had an impact on more people. I don’t know.

How Women Engineers Can Beat the Upward Mobility Challenge

One reason why the feedback step sometimes doesn’t happen for women has to do with leadership stereotypes. Traditional biased views exclude women as having leadership potential and believe that different leadership styles can’t be successful. 

Because of that, women often don’t get the necessary advocacy or sponsorship to help them move up in leadership. Challenging these biases of course is one of our on-going battles.

Beyond that there are 3 specific actions you can take to keep your upward spiral going.

  1. Be aware. Be aware of your progress along the steps in the upward mobility model. Self-assess and maintain consistent consultations with your boss. Be aware of your need for affirmation.
  1. Ask for what you need and want. Ask for more feedback. Ask pointed questions to get the kind of feedback you need. Ask for affirmation. In addition to your boss, ask other stakeholders for their input.
  1. Notice your accomplishments at every step and leverage those to maintain your upward and forward motion. In other words: rely on self-motivation as much as you rely on affirmation from others. 

Take note of all that you’ve learned, completed, and achieved. Celebrate your wins. Look at what you did and not what you didn’t do.

Of course you will make mistakes, too. They will probably stand out to you. Acknowledge them and learn from them. But put more emphasis on the positive.

By applying the upward mobility model and gradually but continuously increasing your career challenge, you’ll raise your risk tolerance and build courage and confidence. The model provides a framework for your career trajectory and guides it in the forward and upward directions.

Remember I’m here to help if you’d like to work on the concepts we’ve covered today to enhance your engineering career. My signature program is a great resource for bringing you into your own as a preeminent engineer and leader. 

Recap: The feature of today’s episode is the upward mobility model for women engineers. We reviewed the 4 steps in that model and discussed it in the context of upward mobility challenges that women face.

Lastly, I presented 3 actions you can take to keep the upward spiral going in your engineering career.

Next time on Her Engineering Career Podcast the topic will be about getting good feedback – a very nice follow up to today’s show. Be sure to come back next time for Episode 19.