Roxanne Taylor is chief marketing & communications officer with Accenture.
Having recently marked International Women's Day, it's worth pausing to consider how women can remain competitive in this challenging economic environment.
A recent Accenture survey offers some useful insights. In 18 nations, including developed and "emerging" economies, we surveyed 3,600 female and male professionals, split equally by gender, working in medium to large organizations. Based on the results, we have identified key differentiators of high performing professionals: they are more likely to take on challenging roles, stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones—and make use of "enablers" such as technology.
First a key baseline discovery: About half of all executives—46 percent of women and 49 percent of men—around the world believed they are insufficiently challenged. The great majority (76 percent) reported confidence in their skill sets, which included the ability to manage their workload and deadlines, to delegate tasks and to negotiate.
Contrast this "I'm-not-used-enough" finding among professionals in general with the attitudes of those who described themselves as "very successful." Almost half (46 percent) of the women who put themselves in that category reported that their jobs required them to stretch beyond their expected responsibilities. But they didn't stop there. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) said they sought additional responsibilities and complexity to advance their careers, and 75 percent reported that they regularly stretched themselves beyond their comfort zone.
Additionally, these "very successful" women said they were learning new skills so they could move to the next level (reported by 78 percent), were ready to consider a new position or role (76 percent), regularly asked superiors for new challenges (65 percent), and were willing to travel globally (68 percent). More than half (54 percent) said they would relocate to another country to advance their careers.
In other words, when they felt they weren't being used enough, these women did something about it. They learned. They stretched.
That's the good news. According to our findings, however, there is one area where women in general need to stretch more, and that is technology. More than three-quarters (79 percent) of men and women who claimed to be "very successful" said they rely on technology in their current roles, and 74 percent of senior executives keep up with the latest technologies, versus 57 percent of those below management levels. Yet, at the same time, just 59 percent of women called themselves early adopters or innovators of technology, compared to 70 percent of men. In fact, women said they are early adopters or innovators of technology as much as men only in India, Mexico, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.
This discrepancy between men and women does not bode well for women. We've known for some time that technology—blogs, social networks, PDAs, microsites, etc.—play a growing role in the business environment and can help professionals achieve success. It's incumbent on all of us to encourage other women—friends, colleagues, those we mentor, and family members—to become comfortable with existing and emerging technologies, so we can turn these numbers around.
Finally it's important to remember that "stretching" is a two-way street for employers and employees. Remaining competitive in this sobering environment requires all employees—both men and women—to seek and seize new challenges, and, at the same time, it demands that high-performance businesses foster and offer new opportunities to their employees.