Both the internal AND external challenges need to be addressed for women to succeed

A survey I conducted on 300 working women internationally for my book Her Way To The Top, uncovered a multitude of both internal and external challenges that were universally common amongst women across the globe, despite their background and geography.

Within the survey, women increasingly pointed out how difficult it is to climb the corporate ladder in male-dominated industries that reek of misogyny and are inherently male privileged. Women’s low employment within some traditionally male dominated fields correlates with negative perceptions of workplace fairness and personal treatment. Women who are part of these industries often feel alienated which in turn impacts their self-esteem. Research has evidenced that women speak 75% less when men are in the majority. Often they have no qualms in asking questions in front of other women, but in male-dominated audiences, some women can struggle. Moreover, women in leadership positions have reported that the expectation around their performance was above and beyond than that of their male counterparts.

A lack of infrastructure and support further complicates things for women and their careers. Even when playing the same game, men and women are often subject to different standards. One of the biggest challenges that we women face on our way to the top is that we work and live in a world, culture and system that was traditionally designed for men. Without the proper infrastructure, it is much more difficult for women to achieve equal career success. This is a global issue – working environments do not effectively protect women from harassment, bullying and sexism and the existing laws, rules and systems are much more favourable for men than they are for women. It is therefore little surprise that are large proportion of women across the globe find it incredibly difficult to make it to the top. Whilst there are actions being taken to create diverse workforces, there is still much more work to be done.

Some of these above external challenges faced by women in the workplace tend to be more obvious ceilings that inhibit women from reaching the top. However, there are also many internal challenges identified by women across the globe that are very crucial too and need to be addressed first.

Most of these internal issues are universal and can hold women back form progressing due to socially acquired behaviour including Impostor Syndrome, perfectionism, FOMO and a fear of self-promotion. There are many women who are pursuing their desired careers regardless of gender stereotyping, however there is a large majority that struggles to be assertive because over time they have learned gender specific derailing behaviours that have been difficult to unlearn.

Many women from my survey were of the view that it’s up to us and we should take matters in our own hands. One respondent stated: “I believe that misogyny must be combated whenever it rears its ugly head. I feel this is best done by getting your own house in order first so that you recognise what is going on.” Another fellow respondent stated that when she began her career, it was a predominantly male profession and she dealt with a lot of discrimination until she quietly demonstrated and proved she could ‘hold her own’. She proved that she could ‘pioneer’ just as well as ‘the guys’, and most of the guys remember that.

Over my career I have recruited, managed, coached and trained hundreds of women at work in many different regions. This has provided me with first hand experience of the ‘female confidence gap’. Young women coming into work are (generally) less assertive, less pushy, and less arrogant than their more seasoned colleagues. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, of course, and my survey reveals the same. However, how we rise above these gendered work environments and choose to respond to them is often up to us.

In the article Men Aren’t Holding Us Back – We’re Doing It Ourselves, author Liz Jones recognises that: “It isn’t men who need to change in order for us to get to the top. It’s us. The reason women aren’t on the board is not the fault of men. It’s our fault. We simply conduct business in a different way. We don’t always think we are right. We scare (quite easily in my case). We protect subordinates. We are not arrogant, have children and lives and housework, but we also have empathy. We see the person, not the job title.”

Personally, I advocate empowering your own self first. As much I’d love to change the world, I am well aware that my circle of influence is the strongest around myself. Yes, undoubtedly,  I am passionate about building more inclusive work environments and I fully intend on playing my part in the wider picture by raising my voice and pointing out any inequalities whenever and wherever required. However, I am also of the opinion that I am and always will be my own best rescuer first and foremost! I want to be that strong feminist, who will first bring her ‘own house in order’ before moving on to tackle the external hurdles because I believe that by conquering our internal challenges we will be better equipped to deal with the external ones. After all, whether the challenge is internal or external, change does begin with me.

Hira Ali, Author of Her Way To The Top

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