Women in leadership

The biggest challenges women in leadership face and how to overcome them

It’s 2021, and it still surprises me, given the number of female ministers right here in the UAE, and the increasing number of female global leaders, that there are still challenges for women in leadership roles.

Much has already been written about how increased representation across gender and ethnic groups in the board room improves corporate decision making.

I was just reading an article that powerful, ambitious women are often disliked by male counterparts in the workplace.

I countered that disturbing news with the massively popular movement that we’ve witnesses at the Tokyo Olympics, which has seen a great deal of attention on female empowerment, despite the ongoing debate over the inequality of the kit women wear.

In 2020, just 37 women are in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies, the largest companies in the US, which means that one in 13 is headed by a woman, and yet this figure is record breaking.

As usual, the debate over inequality seems to be raging, so I thought it would be good to take a moment via this blog to describe what I see as some of the biggest challenges women face in the workplace.

The Pull of Family

Perhaps the easiest explanation is that, in the corporate world, women feel the tension between work and family life more than men. According to a 2019 survey from Pew Research Center, women were significantly more likely than men to reduce work hours to take care of the children.

Whether we like it or not, childcare seems to still fall on women’s shoulders. This challenge can and should be overcome, but there are cultural issues at play, which can only be reduced by women proving themselves in the workplace, which brings me nicely onto the second challenge…

Gender Bias and Lack of Mentorship Opportunities

Experts point to a range of forces creating a bottleneck in the pipeline of female talent, including gender biases that affect hiring and promotion decisions, and a lack of mentorship opportunities. Because of these challenges, there are notably fewer qualified women to serve in the corporation’s highest roles. Researchers at Stanford note women only comprise 13% of the positions likely to land a CEO promotion or board membership, in a recent report which describes diversity in the C-suite as ‘dismal’.

Women get promoted less often than men, despite asking for promotion as often as their male counterparts.

The challenge is that it’s hard to build a support network in an ‘old boys club’ world. My suggestion is that women actively seek to build a gender-neutral network, building strong business connections – and mentors – who are male and female.

Women are Held to Higher Standards

Women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts. This seems to be an unsurmountable fact. But, as Erin Hengle wrote in her 2017 paper: “According to raw numerical counts, women produce less than men.

For example, female real estate agents list fewer homes (Seagraves and Gallimore 2013); female lawyers bill fewer hours (Azmat and Ferrer 2017); female physicians see fewer patients (Bloor et al. 2008); and female academics write fewer papers (Ceci et al. 2014).

“Yet there is another side to female productivity that is often ignored – when evaluated by narrowly defined quality measures, women often outperform.

For instance, houses listed by female real estate agents sell for higher prices (Salter et al. 2012, Seagraves and Gallimore 2013); female lawyers make fewer ethical violations (Hatamyar and Simmons 2004); and patients treated by female physicians are less likely to die or be readmitted to hospital (Tsugawa et al. 2017).”

Women still seem to need to do more to demonstrate their abilities than men. And these biases must be fought – whether it’s gender, ethnicity, height or even weight, we are labouring in a world which is still largely ruled by men simply because there are unconscious biases at play.

A survey by author Malcolm Gladwell revealed CEOs tend to be tall, white men. When it comes to weight, women in the US who were 25 pounds lighter than average earned on average US$389,300 more over the course of their career.

These biases play on weaknesses most women have, which is a reluctance to self-promote or to ask for what they want. And what’s worse is that studies have also shown that women hold themselves up to higher standards – they don’t go for a promotion until they are confidently over qualified.

Confidence/Speaking Up and Building Alliances

Like the famous ‘Rosie the Riveter’ poster, we need to build each other up, share strategy and act in each other’s interests, to enable and empower our female colleagues.

Men are seemingly more adept at strategy and building in-work alliances, but that isn’t necessarily the case. We have to work together, work hard and help society overcome the biases and develop female-centred confidence.

There are tactics to over come the above challenges, such as working towards work/life balance, having the fortitude to meet challenges head on with confidence, and solidly working towards your goals and ambitions. Luckily, in the UAE, we live in a society which works hard towards equality for all.