Women's struggle for recognition and respect continues to be an uphill battle but she will not stop

'We do patriarchy, we just hide it better'

08 Mar 2024 05:45pm
Moderator Human Rights Lawyer Ainie Haziqah Shafii with panelists Nisa Ismail and Penny Choo. (SINAR PHOTO)
Moderator Human Rights Lawyer Ainie Haziqah Shafii with panelists Nisa Ismail and Penny Choo. (SINAR PHOTO)

Let's face it, it's 2024, and it's still a struggle for women to build a career compared to their male counterparts. A woman's struggle in the workplace is often 'unique' but somehow universal, which I think most women would agree with—the glaring lack of support to advance in the workplace and also being viewed as less competent than a male in the same role.

A famous saying goes, "behind every great man is a great woman''. While this may ring true in some cases, it couldn't be further from reality in business and leadership. A woman does not necessarily need a great man behind her to be an effective and successful leader.

But it still seems like bias and prejudice are still holding us back. Just ask any women in a powerful position of leadership and they will have stories of having to work two-sometimes-three times harder just to prove their worth and even sometimes just for acknowledgement and visibility.

A core memory for some would be Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran's duet of the song Perfect at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she looked utterly incredible in her big floofy pink ensemble while Ed looked like he just woke up and slapped some jeans and T-shirt on.

Among the descriptions that made heads turn was by American comedian and actress Aparna Nancherla: A pitch-perfect representation of a male vs a female employee's expected level of work for the same position. But hey, we love Ed and we know that's just how he dresses!

As a woman in business or in any career setting, you will likely face many challenges that your male counterparts won't. From the moment you enter the workforce, women are often met with bias and discrimination and many if not all, find it hard to break through the glass ceiling.

However these challenges can be overcome with the right tools and mindset in place which was discussed recently in She Leads 1: Setting Goals & Structure, a curated networking event organised by Sinar Daily, where two influential women leaders shared insights behind their success and what contributed to their perseverance in reaching their career goals.

The two women, Sedania As Salam Capital Sdn Bhd CEO Nisa Ismail and BloomThis founder Penny Choo touched on various subjects including how to set career goals, fear of failure, motivation, how to seek for mentorship and how to handle working with difficult male colleagues. You can watch it here.

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I was inspired by their stories of how they overcame failure and challenges many women could identify with such as gender bias, the wage gap and the ultimate challenge - the struggle for work-life balance. Both women agreed that with determination, persistence and the right strategies, women can maintain momentum in their careers and achieve their professional goals.

One of the tips shared during the event and stood out for me most was how both Nisa and Penny emphasised on the need to continuously learn and develop skills.

In today's rapidly changing world, skills become obsolete fast. Therefore, women should strive to continuously learn and develop new skills to remain competitive and marketable. This can be done by attending conferences, workshops, training sessions, reading industry publications, and seeking out mentors who can guide you on your career journey.

Another eye-opening point that was touched on during the event was one on personal branding, on being assertive and advocating for yourself.

Often in an Asian society, we collectively are afraid to 'toot our own horn' so to speak and more so as women - to put ourselves out there, afraid to be seen as too aggressive or full of ourselves.

When we speak out, we are often deemed as being unreasonable or prone to 'emotional outbursts' when trying to get a point across.

Researchers at Barnard College and Emory University found a potential key reason why women may hesitate to speak up at work. The researchers reviewed transcripts from more than 24,000 hearings in Congress that spanned 25 years. Their findings showed that, in Senate committees, women were 10 per cent more likely to be interrupted than men.

The research also suggested that these interruptions were more significant when issues particularly important to women were on the table.

But because of this, we as women particularly need to show up for ourselves more than ever before, because if we do not advocate for ourselves in all the spaces that we could, who else will?

It is high time for what we bring to the table as women to be recognised,therefore, women should be assertive and advocate for themselves to ensure they get the recognition and opportunities that they truly deserve.

A point that stood out for me during the discussion particularly crucial was when Nisa mentioned that what we often see as weaknesses for us women in the workplace can actually be used to our advantage. The one key factor women often miss is to work strategically.

We do not need to be the loudest person in the room, but what we can do is use our communication and negotiation skills to advance and steer our career successfully.

Speaking to many of the career women at the She Leads event, many confessed that the working environment today is of course much more conducive to women than how it was in the past. Yet, there is still discussions being held till today and that niggling question of what exactly holds a woman back in their career?

There are various books in the market discussing the phenomenon like “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, formerly Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, discussing why women have not ascended to the more senior positions.

She concludes that it is partly women’s own fault: they do not “lean in” and ask for promotions.

Of course there is no denying that the working environment now is more open and accepting of female leaders, but is this acceptance only at surface value, still remains to be seen. Anyone seen the billion-dollar blockbuster last year called Barbie?

Ken, who is played by Ryan Gosling, complains to one man in a business suit that his company must not be “doing patriarchy right” if a man without any qualifications (Ken) can’t get a job. The businessman assures him that they are doing patriarchy correctly, they just need to hide it better than they used to.

“I thought we were doing that patriarchy thing here?” — “We do, we're just hiding it better”, the manager confirms.

The easiest example would be to see women in politics, no matter how effective of a leader one may be, male counterparts often resort to sexist jokes, jabs on weight, looks or marital status often brought into an intense political debate, when these factors have nothing to do with women's ability to lead or work.

Many women at the event also talked about the struggle to maintain a work-life balance and holding more senior positions often leads women to decline being promoted. This could also be attributed to how our Malaysian society still is very much - patriarchal.

There have been many stories from my friends who more often than not fear of being seen as more successful than their partners, or to take a more demanding role - they fear that husbands will be emasculated and leave or that their ego will not be able to handle how much power their wives actually wield in the workplace.

Of course this would be another topic I would dive in future articles, but I think you get the drift.

The important point is, to be successful in any career as Penny also shared, women need to advocate for themselves in the manner that men do.

They can do this by speaking up in meetings, negotiating their salaries and asking for promotions or assignments that align with their career goals. For example, a project manager can advocate for herself by requesting to lead a high-profile project to demonstrate her leadership skills.

To conclude, the main point for anyone to advance in their careers is to always set clear goals and objectives as boring and straightforward that might sound.

Setting clear goals and objectives is an essential step to maintain momentum in any of your chosen careers. Goals and structure will aid you in focusing your efforts towards achieving your desired outcome.

Women should identify what they want to accomplish in their careers and create a roadmap to achieve those goals. For instance, if a woman wants to move up the corporate ladder, she should identify the skills and experiences required for the desired position and work towards developing those skills.

In today's world, the glass ceiling is slowly coming apart, yet in certain places there is tape trying to hold it together. Women nowadays are ambitious, loyal and grounded but at times distracted.

I do fully believe that women are taking strides to light up the future. As women, we are the thread that holds society together and we also bring a unique perspective to every field that we are in. The need for more women leaders has never been more critical. When you consider this and the never-ending catalogue of data that supports this claim, it simply doesn’t seem right that there are so few women in leadership.

Organisations have a responsibility to create better policies and opportunities for women. Still, at the same time, women also need support to step forward and overcome the habits holding them back.

Anyhow, let's celebrate - Happy International Women's Day to all the women around the world!

She Leads is a curated networking series organised by Sinar Daily.

Upcoming events include She Leads 2: Dressing Right & Feeling Good with make-up Nabilah Nordin (@Warnabilla) and fashion stylist Andrea Wong on May 7; She Leads 3: Workforce Wellness & Toxic Cleansing with fitness coach Kevin Zahari and Nana Mohd (Nana Al-Haleq) on June 25 and She Leads 3: Don't Go Broke in Your Golden Years with financial wealth planner Erin Adlina Adnan on Aug 27.

Visit the She Leads website now for more information and purchase your tickets!