The topic of breaking the glass ceiling is not a new one, yet it is still very much on the agenda of many industries to the point that some organizations have imposed a quota to encourage women into leadership positions. Whilst I am always supportive of promoting gender equality, I disagree with quotas as the means to that end. In fact, quotas may even hurt women as people may view them as unqualified – even if they genuinely deserve. This is because the best person should get the job regardless of gender. I have come across so many talented women in the course of my career and I know from my own experience that the talent pool is there, hence quotas are not needed.
Women are less likely to ask for promotions and raises, and also at times, lack the ability to internalize accomplishments
I have been fortunate to work for most parts of my career as a management consultant in over a dozen different industries which exposed me to the reality that there is still insufficient female representation at the top of most organizations. By this, I am especially referring to the C-suite and Board levels. And even at the board level, it appears that many women board directors tend to be the same ones being “circulated” across different boards and in some cases, are only selected due to being a family member of a family-run business.
So why are there so few women in senior leadership positions despite a highly talented pool being available? There are some who believe that it is due to the “boys club” mentality, where men will only promote fellow men who are similar to them in educational background or share common interests in and outside of the workplace. I feel that it is perhaps this very reason —women have fewer alliances with decision makers which impact their journeys to securing senior leadership positions. “Who you know” still makes a difference in the world of business and politics.
Another challenge that women face in their careers is managing the demands of motherhood. Being a mother myself and having undergone two rounds of maternity leaves, I will admit that it is not a simple one-size-fits-all when it comes to juggling the needs associated with motherhood. A mother’s ability to have a proper career is dependent on:
(i) Different children having different needs
(ii) The level of support available to the mother/parent
(iii) How flexible the employer is willing to be
(iv) The governmental regulations in place to support families
The same considerations apply to those who are caring for ailing parents. By no means is a person less capable as a result of family obligations, and quite often supportive employers benefit from high staff morale, higher productivity levels and better retention.
In addition to the “boys club” and motherhood, other challenges that women often face in their quest for successful careers may include the “imposter syndrome”, with the hesitation of speaking up and sharing their accomplishments. Women are widely reported to be less likely to ask for promotions and raises, and also at times lack the ability to internalize accomplishments in order to become more confident leaders. Many studies indicate that women choose to exclude themselves from jobs if they feel that they meet only 80 percent of requirements, whereas men will think they can “wing it” even if they don’t meet the job requirements.
When I reflect on the last 20 years of my career, it is definitely one that started with many bumps and challenges. I was a Singaporean studying in Australia who graduated with a Bachelor degree during the height of the Asian Financial Crisis. With very limited employment options, I deferred my career to do a Master of Commerce and then Master of eCommerce, to then be met by the Dot.Com crash. As my initial job offer with a Big 4 consulting firm was retracted due to the economic downturn, I started off as an IT business analyst in a Utilities company in Australia. The combination of IT and Utilities clearly meant that there were hardly any females in top management. However, I was lucky to come across a female mentor in this organization who held a middle management role. She explained to me that it is possible to remain feminine and yet be a respected professional in a male environment. She encouraged me to always dress professionally and not to feel a need to behave like a man to feel accepted. At that time, I was not always comfortable in my own skin, because I was a young female Asian migrant in an Australian male-dominated industry. Moreover, the lack of female representation at the top made me wonder if I needed to be like “one of the boys” to get recognized and promoted in a workplace.
After 3 years with the Utilities company, I joined a management consulting firm to get back on the original career path I was after with the recovery of the IT industry. I had the privilege to gain experience in a diverse range of industries in Asia Pacific, and with this vast exposure, I came to the conclusion that for most industries, not only was there a significant lack of female representation at the senior leadership levels, but I also realized that women can be best friends or worst enemies in a work environment. I experienced “Queen Bees” who are very much the heartless, bullish ice queens, to the other polar extreme with the wonderfully kind and supportive female colleagues. The “Queen Bees” seem to want to be the only female in the room and work to harm any other females. From the kind and nurturing female colleagues, who helped mentor me, encouraged my ideas, and supported my career aspirations, I learnt who I wanted to be and what I needed to become.
It is my hope that we continue to support other women in and outside of the workplace. Let's celebrate diversity and womanhood, and pave the way to have inclusive workplaces
There are two key ingredients that I feel are truly necessary to be successful as a professional regardless of gender. The first is far too under-utilized by women — professional networking that can help with identifying new opportunities, broadening perspectives and strengthening relationships for a more even plain field. In times of economic uncertainty, having a strong network always helps. The other ingredient is to never compromise on your own integrity, no matter how appealing an opportunity might be when it arises. Reputation is everything, especially in the ever-connected digital world.
As women, we are naturally better at building relationships, seeing things holistically, recognizing non-verbal cues in communication, and being nurturing to those around us; and I value providing a different perspective in a male-dominated boardroom and strive to lead by example as a woman leader to both my male and female colleagues. I mention male colleagues, as some of whom already in leadership positions have the ability to recognize contribution women make and promote deserving women. It is my hope that we continue to support other women in and outside of the workplace. Let’s celebrate diversity and womanhood, and pave the way to have inclusive workplaces.