Existing and aspiring female business leaders across the globe have been asking for insights regarding women thriving in business. As a woman that has grown and functioned as a leader in business and coached other business leaders, both men and women, it was an interesting topic for me to sit back and ponder. I have worked in and across industries and cultures and each one has had slightly different nuances to consider.
Much of the time I have been in male dominated environments where women are outnumbered and often underestimated. That said, I have done a couple of stints in female dominated industries / specialty areas and have not found them to be particularly positive experiences. Women are not always the best advocates of other women (a complex topic to be addressed on its own).
Sometimes I’ve navigated these differences well whilst other times I have not. Simply put, there are no right answers. But there do seem to be some common threads to explore.
In addition to drawing off my own experiences and those of others that I have mentored and coached over the years, I approached some women from different countries, industries and backgrounds to obtain their views. I ask them a common set of questions to find out more about their respective highlights and challenges. Going through the responses and thinking of my own journey, it was interesting to note some of the key items and more particularly the consistency between the responses from people from divergent backgrounds. Even though the cultures, industries and professions were so different, there were more commonalities than discrepancies.
It’s hard to provide a complete picture in a short article without examining the complexities and nuances behind the comments, so I expect that there will be a number of follow up pieces where I delve into some of the more significant points raised. For now, I will give you a summary of the findings as I read them. Please bear in mind that I am not a psychologist and statistically the findings are limited by the sample that I have used. In addition, the comments are from my own viewpoint and those of the other women that made their contribution. In some instances you will find the opinions to be quite strong and you may disagree with them just as vehemently as the manner in which they were made. You may have heard people say “perception is reality”. At the very least, perception tends to be an indicator of reality. The chances are if someone is perceiving it or feeling it there must at least be an essence of truth.
So if you’re reading this and disagree with what’s been said, that’s OK. You may be in a totally different situation to where these women find themselves. It may challenge your own thinking or confirm some of the things you thought but figured it was just you. Or dare I say it, you – as a male or female – may be someone that could do with taking a look at your own behaviour and understand the impact you may be having on the women around you in the workplace and elsewhere. I implore you to read it with an open mind, give it some thought and take what is useful and discard what isn’t.
Working with men
This is probably the most widespread challenge expressed by women, particularly those that are working in professions that are male dominated. It requires some sensitivity when dealing with it as this is by no means intended to be a witch hunt aimed at men and blaming them for the demise of women. But the fact that it is the most commonly raised issue that women face, there must be some grounds for the concern and the topic needs to be addressed. The elephant in the room cannot be ignored or suppressed.
In general, there seems to be some resistance by a large number of men to be managed by a woman. At least until the woman has proved that she has the technical ability. Consensus seems to show that women need to work much harder than men to gain the equivalent credibility. In many instances, the skills of the man do not even come into question but are assumed. This frequently leads to male arrogance and females questioning their own capabilities and self-worth.
As recommended by one of our panel – “Believe in yourself and do not let anyone belittle you – work hard but do not become hard”.
Whether male or female, being assertive means “having or showing a confident and forceful personality”. Similarly, being aggressive is “ready or likely to attack or confront”. Assertive behaviour is generally regarded as the positive one, all about standing up for oneself, where aggression usually involves threatening, attacking, or (to a lesser degree) ignoring others. Assertive individuals stand up for themselves—for their beliefs, their values, their needs. And they do so in a respectful, unthreatening, nonviolent way. That all seems pretty clear. The challenge is in the interpretation and resulting execution. What someone sees as assertive may be seen by others as aggressive. Some men are not used to having an assertive woman in their lives so may regard an action as aggressive that they would consider perfectly acceptable from another man. What is regarded as assertive for a man is often deemed to be aggressive from a woman.
To navigate the path to success, this line between aggression and assertiveness will need to be managed. Whilst acknowledging your own background and biases, adjustments may be required to your own behaviour to cater for the cultural and historical norms that surround you. At the same time, there is an opportunity to challenge and effect those norms for your own benefit and the benefit of others into the future.
Leveraging your unique capabilities
As one of the contributors – an engineer and senior executive – put so succinctly – “don’t try and compete with the men by acting like a man”. At the risk of generalising, as women, we tend to have a greater share of so-called “soft skills”: One could debate whether these are born in or bred in, but either way, most females are better than their male counterparts at listening, empathising, building rapport and exhibiting vulnerability. Rather than trying to change it, use it to your advantage. It may give you the perfect element of surprise when you come out with something profound in a soft but firm voice rather than attempting to be brash.
Another of the contributors referred to an ability to be transparent, to be vulnerable, enabling a facilitative approach to decision making. This leads to “solutions that would work for everybody and for everybody’s benefit”. A fear of vulnerability is more likely to make us competitive and far less likely to build the rapport that will lead to buy in and collaborative decision-making.
Finding an equilibrium
Whilst it’s never too late to do so, many people – male and female – wait longer than they should before actively addressing the priorities in their lives. Sadly, this often results in failed relationships. Illness, burnout or bowing out of the race as it’s become too much. At the very least, one or more areas of your life are likely to suffer. Either way, you’ll probably not be able to maximise the potential you have.
Having climbed the ladder of corporate success, run marathons and been part of a local church, I thought I had it all together But because I didn’t know when to slow down, I became the victim of my own success and ended up with a sudden and serious illness that nearly stopped me in my tracks. One of the women that I questioned for this article experienced burnout from driving herself too hard and not looking for equilibrium. Based on her experiences, when asked about the need to engage our personal, professional and spiritual lives to make an impact, she said “if you don’t, you will end up frustrated, stressed and burned out. Your quality of life would not be what it could be. There are times where we need to put more focus into one element because of circumstances. But that can’t be a permanent state without causing a vacuum in the other elements”.
If you haven’t already done so, don’t wait until illness, relationship breakdown or worse forces you to do so – take a look at all aspects of your life and work out how you can prioritise them so that you can have the impact on the world that you know you’re capable of. And if you’ve already been hit by one of those life-changing forces, don’t be discouraged and give up. You can regroup, refocus and create an equilibrium in your life as never before.
Perfectionism and self- doubt
For some reason women are often particularly hard on themselves, having high levels of perfectionism. If it’s not 100% it’s not good enough and it’s my fault. This also exhibits in low self-esteem or the imposter syndrome.
Maybe it’s due to the need -perceived or otherwise – to be better than men to receive credibility. Perhaps it’s the expectations built in us from an early age that we have to be the best at everything to be successful. I have found that reducing the need to compete with others – male or female, learning to believe in my own abilities and leveraging my strengths has gone some way in helping me overcome. The best way I have found to do this is by finding a cheer squad. One of more people that you trust and that will always be on your side. You may even choose to make a financial investment in engaging someone to challenge and encourage you if those you trust are too emotionally involved.
Being intentional and seeking help
Both based on the responses I received and what I hear regularly from the women that I coach, most leaders wait too long before asking for help. They wait until there’s a problem or they’re burning out before making an investment in their development as a leader. This is particularly prevalent for women. I am yet to determine whether it is because they don’t want to be seen as weak by reaching out, or as a result of not having easy access to other women mentors and advocates in the workplace.
You may be fortunate to have positive role models from which you are able to learn as much as possible. If you have another woman nearby that embodies the type of leadership approach that you are working towards, you are in a privileged position. If this is the case, take advantage of your good fortune and be intentional about the self-improvement process. Ask her to be your mentor. The worst that can happen is she’ll say “no”. But far more likely is that she’ll be willing to share her learnings so that you can avoid the same mistakes and leverage the good things.
People pay to go to the gym or to engage a personal trainer to improve their physical bodies before investing in something that may be able to help them across all elements of their life – personal, professional and spiritual. As a coach, you may say I’m biased – and that could have some truth in it – but I have seen first hand the results of those that have taken the time to reflect on themselves. And very few people are able to have that degree of introspection on their own. The benefit of doing it with someone else is that they will hold you accountable – a bit like the personal trainer. The workout happens! In my own experience as a leader, I only had a business coach for a short period – when the organisation paid for the service – and I regret not having made a greater investment in my development. I am pretty motivated so don’t need a personal trainer for exercise, but I could’ve done with someone constantly challenging me to acknowledge my strengths and deal with my flaws.
Being intentional, investing in yourself, engaging help (even if you have to pay) are some actions you can take to support you in your growth as a leader and a person. Particularly if you’re surrounded by male leaders and mentors, you may consider whether there are some things where a woman’s insight can help.
Embrace who you are and enjoy the ride!
If there is nothing else that you have gained from this article, I trust that you will take the confidence from the fact that the challenges you’re facing are not unique to you. Your challenges and possible frustrations at not achieving what you believe you are capable of are not because of any lack of ability or something you’ve done wrong.
Believe in the talents and skills you’ve been given, gain support from others and go out and reach for your dreams. Ensure that you take care of yourself and others, engaging your personal, professional and spirituals life so as to maximise the impact you can have on your circle of influence.
Finally, remember to help and support other women along the way and educate the men in your life on how you need them to think, work and behave for the benefit of everyone.