Self-Confidence Boost: Find Your Way to the Top

The author of “Her Way to the Top”, Hira Ali, talks about gender-inequality, FOMO, Impostor Syndrome, self-confidence. She advises how to overcome obstacles that women are facing in their work environment and how to find your way to the top

You noticed challenges and obstacles that women have to face during their careers, you also explore those problems in the book, such as Impostor Syndrome or FOMO. What motivated you to perform your survey about what career challenges are holding women back and, essentially, to write this book?

Each time I worked and interacted with professional women in a different country, I began to notice a trend in the internal roadblocks they face in their careers. 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. I think one factor which underpinned everything was fear: fear of your own internal self-worth, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of judgement, fear of vulnerability, fear of self-promotion and the biggest of all – fear of missing out. All these fears lead to a number of intertwined internal challenges. This similarity across all regions motivated me to test this discovery through a survey I conducted on 300 women, globally.

 So would you say that this gender-related factors are more crucial than cultural background?

It is generally believed that your background and culture can have a significant impact on your behavioural patterns and that any challenges you face are distinct to your environment. But subsequently my experiences, followed by this survey, confirmed my theory that the internal roadblocks impeding a woman’s climb to the top exist regardless of her culture or localisation.

You mentioned that women’s problems are global and that women experience, more or less, similar disadvantages in their work places, no matter which post code they have. Would you, however, say that the change is happening?

Yes, the change is certainly happening. Due to a rise in activism and global campaigns to increase awareness, the situation is comparably much better than what it used to be, even a decade ago. However, we still have a long way to go, particularly in terms of political and economic leadership. At the current progress rate, the global gender gap will take 108 years to close and economic gender parity will take 202 years to reach, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2018.

Are those changes happening everywhere equally or in some places they are less evident than in others?

The results vary from country to country. Though some European countries such as Iceland   are better off in some areas, for example political roles, but there is still a 33% gap. Laos, in south-east Asia is the closest to achieving parity, with women earning 91% of what men are paid. However, in other Middle Eastern and Asian countries, the gap is higher than 97%. According to WEF’s report, the overall picture is that gender equality has stalled. There is not a single country where women are paid as much as men. UK ranks 50th out of 149 countries for gender pay, with women collecting 70% of what is paid to men.

“For too long, women at the top have been adopting male qualities sacrificing their own well-being”

In your book you say: “Set of gender-specific derailers predominantly faced by women alone. Often these female-specific challenges are internal obstacles that are rarely discussed”. Would you say that dividing problems by gender or to recognize “gender-specific” issues isn’t going to further deepen the division? Or, on the contrary, will it help with women empowerment?

That’s a very good question. I think it is important to note here that we aren’t really dividing problems by gender, but we are acknowledging that there are some specific traits which are distinct to both men and women respectively.

This specific quote above from my book has been taken from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. There is a school of thought which believes that women don’t need to be fixed and we need to stop fussing over self-proclaimed confidence issues. But this shortage of female confidence is not a myth, it’s quantified, researched and documented.

Some people also believe in gender neutral leadership trainings and say that to get to the top you need the same kind of interventions for both men and women. But it’s overlooking the fact that men and women have different leadership styles and it’s about time we acknowledge those differences. Dr Daniel Amen, the author of “Unleash the Power of Female Brain” has found differences in female and male brains. He discovered that female brains are more active in almost all areas. One study suggests that women have 30% more neurons firing at any given time than men. This indicates strengths, including empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control, but also makes women more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain and being unable to turn off their thoughts.

How can this problem be solved?

I think it is important to acknowledge that there are gender specific strengths as well. In fact, many of these so-called “weaknesses” can be converted into strengths if used in the right way. For too long, women at the top have been adopting male qualities sacrificing their own well-being. A recent Stanford Business School study shows, that women who can combine male and female qualities do better than everyone else, even men, whereas male qualities are defined as aggression, assertiveness and confidence. The feminine qualities are defined as collaboration, process orientation, persuasion and humility. The research followed 132 business school graduates for eight years and found that women who had so-called “masculine traits”, but who tempered them with feminine traits, were promoted 1.5 times faster.

The bottom-line is to recognize these traits (which are often gender specific whether we like it or not) and leverage them to succeed.

“Society continues to reward girls for being ‘good’ rather than ambitious, so it’s not surprising that so many choose to just play by the existing rules”

 It’s important to start changes within yourself and to empower yourself first. Do you think that it’s possible in the gendered, unequal society and if so – how?

Yes, why not? Most of us are products of social and cultural conditioning. These gender specific derailers or internal challenges arise as a result of how we have been raised and the messages send out by family, society and media – all this gender stereotyping has affected our thought process negatively. Even today, society continues to reward girls for being ‘good’ rather than ambitious, so it’s not surprising that so many choose to just play by the existing rules. We 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.

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. It’s time to change the narrative! With coaching, mentoring, effective coping strategies and the presence of right role models and sponsors, it’s not too late to start making changes within ourselves and start questioning our limiting beliefs. We also need to start mentoring girls and boys from a young age to think and act differently.

I strongly believe that by conquering our internal challenges we will be better equipped to deal with the external ones. Because whatever the challenge is, change begins with you.

 You started working in a male-dominated environment. Did it work in your favour and taught you to be more confident?

I guess it did. Working in male-dominated environment made me realise that men and women have very different communication styles and this helped me in the long run. For example, I often found myself launching into long-winded explanations for projects when working with previous bosses, but I learned to adapt my communication style. Instead of rattling off a lengthy task list, I learned to focus my conversation by asking relevant questions that matter.

Mentoring styles also differ between men and women. While women are eager to give and receive feedback and advice, men follow an experiential approach. Learning to spot these differences earlier on helped me. This also taught me to be more flexible and adaptable to deal with different situations, which in turn gave me confidence.

For self-confidence, what kind of working environment would you say is the best for women?

An environment which is free from misogyny, harassment and bullying, where women are allowed to take risks, be vulnerable; where they are listened to, trusted, and not talked over; where they are given equal credit and equal opportunities. An environment which is supportive and conducive for women with care responsibilities. I know, sounds perfect – doesn’t it? And definitely not an easy find either. So how about we say, any environment would be okay if women muster enough courage to speak against inequality. I always tell the women I coach and mentor that once you have mastered your internal road blocks and also used appropriate strategies to call all the external ones and yet, you still find no improvement in your situation, then it’s perhaps time to leave and move to an environment where your efforts will be better valued.

“Be compassionate to others, but be compassionate to your own self first”

 Nowadays, one of the biggest issues for women, which holds them back, is judgement and expectations forced by society. How should women get out of their “comfort-zone” and free themselves of this judgement and the feeling of failure if they “don’t fit” within the norms?

I think if I attribute my success to one thing in the past few years, it would be not being afraid to fail and caring less about society judgement and expectations. Yes, there are certain boundaries I don’t cross and my cultural values are important to me as well but whereas achieving my goals are concerned I am ambitious, I am assertive, I self-promote and most importantly, I am not scared of being vulnerable and admitting my mistakes. These are the qualities which women are scared to exhibit in case they are judged.

In my book I offer a lot of strategies to address these fears, but here is my advice for now: Yes, be compassionate to others, but be compassionate to your own self first. We, as women, depend too much on what other people think and say. Self-compassion is that safety net that enables one to try more. It motivates you because it’s what cushions your failure. We need to stop paralysing ourselves with self-loathing. Failure is actually good for you and nothing but a temporary hurdle on your journey – it’s not the end result!

 What are your plans for the upcoming years?

We recently launched International Women Empowerment Events in Maldives and we have more conferences lined up in other parts of Asia and Middle East. Career Excel-a women leadership program I launched with my partner Jennifer Willey will continue to globally target professional women, who are experiencing the messy middle. I have also recently launched The Grey Area with another partner Cherron Inko-Tariah. This survey aims to capture the working experience of ethnic minority employees working in the public and private sector.

If you are interested in reading Hira’s book, you can get it here.

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