Some believe that your background and culture can have a huge impact on your behavioural patterns and that any challenges you face are distinct to your environment.
My experiences in international coaching and training and the global survey I conducted on 300 women for my book, tells a different story and confirms a theory I have had for some time that the internal roadblocks impeding a woman’s climb to the top exist regardless of her culture or locality.
The inspiration for my research came from global personal experiences. Each time I worked in a different city, I began to notice a trend in the internal roadblocks women face in their career. At first, I attributed these inhibiting factors to the women’s backgrounds, but it soon became apparent that whether in Karachi, Dubai, New York or London, there were gender-specific issues that were unanimously faced by women across the globe.
The role of conditioning
Many of these internal roadblocks have their roots in social conditioning and how girls are raised. Research indicates that the confidence levels as boys progress into manhood largely remain unfazed, whereas many girls feel an overwhelming need to belong. This can mean they subdue their aspirations so as not to be perceived as boastful or controlling by others.
Even today, in the main, girls are raised to be polite and diplomatic, rather than bold and assertive. This conditioning stays with them as they grow up, and as they gradually adjust to fit in with the traditional expectations of female communication: Don’t be too loud. Wait for your turn. Don’t interrupt. Let the other person finish. Don’t be pushy. Don’t brag.
Society continues to reward girls for being ‘good’ not audacious or ambitious, so it’s not surprising that so many choose to just play by the existing rules. Social realities reinforce these feelings of self-doubt, which in turn breeds internal roadblocks like impostor syndrome, fear of missing out (FOMO) and perfectionism that manifests in a woman’s career path.
Several women who responded to the survey confirmed the role of social conditioning and the differences they had experienced when compared to their male counterparts to date.
One respondent described how her competency is regularly called into questions as she only holds an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts, despite her vast amount of professional experience. Would this still happen if she was male? Why do women need to get additional degrees and qualifications to ‘prove themselves’ when most men are comfortable just as they are?
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study further supports the idea that men are more often promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments – feeding into the idea that women always need to prove themselves.
Topping that, women are often judged more harshly for their appearance and choice of attire than men and obesity is known to have a more demoralising impact on women than men. This leads to all-encompassing feelings of impostor syndrome or inadequacy – which universally, was an internal roadblock for all women, except for a few ethnicities.
External challenges are important too
External challenges such
as working in male-dominated industries and organisations, workplace harassment
and lack of provisions for working mothers were some of the top external
challenges described by the women surveyed. Again, these were prevalent across
the world. Women expressed their frustration on how many industries and
organisations still reek of male misogyny and provide unequal advancement
Universal internal roadblocks
These are some of the internal challenges that defy global boundaries and that were universally acknowledged by women as barriers to their career success:
Women are often made to feel ashamed if their homes and children give even the slightest indication of neglect. Underlining societal pressures can cause many women to feel exhausted, overwhelmed or fear missing out on aspects of the many roles they juggle.
As popular as the film Bad Moms was, no one would aspire to be perceived as a bad mother in real life, would they? This causes women to work unbelievably hard, constantly multitask and try to make the best of every role and responsibility entrusted to them to overcome what Sandberg calls ‘the holy trinity of fear’: fear of being a bad mother, bad wife or bad daughter.
It’s no surprise that women across the world cited FOMO as the number one internal roadblock. Working mothers, in particular, are afraid of missing out on the responsibilities of the different roles they play – wife, mum, working/businesswoman, daughter or friend, to name just a few.
A focus on perfection is universally recognised by women as one of the most difficult internal roadblocks to tackle as women feel that a task is not done ‘right’ if it not perfect.
Women are incredibly prone to making extraordinary efforts to mask their supposed ‘ineptness’. Perfectionism causes the latter to obsess over every minute detail, study exhaustively, stay up that much later, work harder and do and redo tasks ad nauseam. However, the need to always conform to what is considered ‘perfect’ is draining for both ourselves and everyone around us.
Whether it is a professional or a personal task, we pay extraordinary attention to ensuring that even the smallest details are just right and avoid delegation out of fear the task will not be completed as meticulously as we would want it to be. Rather than asking for help, perfectionists would rather shoulder the burden of increased hours but this, in turn, harms all other areas of life.
Many women in the survey highlighted self-promotion as a prominent internal roadblock. Downplaying our achievements, especially around others, means we can ensure that we are not seen as boastful; many women believe that this protects them from the possible negative judgements and shaming from others. Self-promotion is synonymous with bragging out loud, and that’s tough for women to do when coupled with social conditioning.
Some women start assuming the worst of themselves even before others can form an option of them. While men see self-promotion as a positive trait, women are prone to hold back from sharing their successes which stops them from reaching their next goal.
Time-poverty and stress
In my survey, a large majority of women, irrespective of where they lived, confessed that managing time was the primary challenge holding them back in their careers; respondents ranked time poverty as the third-highest challenge after FOMO and impostor syndrome.
For working mum’s in particular, finding any spare time can be incredibly difficult. In the Real Simple/ Families and Work Institute (FWI) survey ‘Women and Time: Setting a New Agenda’, data showed that 49% of women say they don’t have enough free time (defined as ‘time that you spend on yourself, where you can choose to do things that you enjoy’).
Because women often juggle so many responsibilities at once, they are very susceptible to stress. Sometimes multitasking isn’t enough, and a ‘multitrack mind’ is required to switch between different tasks across various roles. An unsaid expectation for women to be ‘the ones to flex their schedule’ and realign commitments more than their partner is prevalent worldwide, and this reinforces the pressure felt by many working women. According to Harvard Business Review, many women experience more stress at work because, on top of domestic responsibilities, they must also contend with a stereotype threat at work – a phenomenon unknown to men.
Expressing vulnerability in the workplace divided women in the survey – some women found that a show of vulnerability helped them to connect with others, while many others thought being perceived as vulnerable had held them back in their career.
Historically, expressing vulnerability has been considered a weakness so women will do anything to avoid appearing to look weak or frail. The truth is that being vulnerable is scary for even the most confident women. By exposing how you really feel or think, you are opening yourself up for people to see into the person you truly are and are thus opening yourself up possible criticism. However, expressing vulnerability can actually allow people in your team to connect with you and relate to you.
If women are going to be able to excel in their careers, both the internal roadblocks and external challenges must be tackled head-on. Moreover, it’s important to realise that women across the globe are in this together and they, therefore, need to work together and support each other to make it to the top.
About the Author
Hira Ali is an author, executive career coach, leadership trainer and keynote speaker. She is Chief Executive Officer at Advancing Your Potential and Founding Director of The Career Excel for Trailblazing Women. She is the author of the new, revolutionary book Her Way To The Top (Panoma Press) designed to empower women across the world to work together to overcome barriers towards success.