Women across the globe have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Making up the lost ground, much less permanently leveling the playing field, will take time.
Yet waiting for time alone to dismantle the systemic barriers that make women more vulnerable in crisis and their leadership climb steeper is not really an option. Not when the World Economic Forum estimates it will take at least 250 years to achieve parity. And not when we know that when more women are seated at decision-making tables, better decisions are made for the benefit of all stakeholders, men included.
Clearly, it will require much more than time. It will take a concentrated effort on the part of policymakers and corporate decision-makers.
And it will take courage… on the part of women and the men who champion them.
The good news: each of us can play our part.
Given the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, here are three ways we can do just that.
#1 Challenge the doubts that fuel a sense of inadequacy
The oft-cited study from Hewlett-Packard which found that where men are comfortable applying for a job with only 6 or the 10 ‘ideal candidate’ attributes compared to women who want to have a fat tick in all ten boxes is testament to how women judge themselves more harshly and are more reticent to put themselves ‘out there.’
Many factors contribute to why women tend to doubt themselves more and back themselves less. These include:
- A lack of strong and visible role models (particularly in STEM fields)
- Fewer mentors, sponsors and career champions
- Risking the ‘backlash effect’ for acting outside traditional female caretaker role prescriptions
Add to this the unconscious internalization of misogynist ‘think manager, think male’ gender norms and it’s hardly surprising that many women struggle to embrace their unique feminine leadership strengths and underestimate the value they bring. Little wonder so many incredibly accomplished and talented women struggle with imposter syndrome.
Yet only when we women dare to challenge the negative noises in our head, those critical voices urging us to think small and play safe, can we ever discover how little reason we had to believe them.
As I have written before, don’t wait for confidence!
#2 Challenge the limiting labels and beliefs of others
Growing up on a small farm in rural Australia, my father – who left school at 16 and milked dairy cows for 50 years – would tell me that he saw great things for me… like one day becoming a nun, ‘Sister Margaret Mary’ in charge of a convent. By the time I was in my early teens, he’d raised sights as I still remember him telling me, with great pride, “Actually I think you could do even bigger things, you could be Mother Margaret Mary, in charge of a whole order of convents.”
Alas, I never felt the calling.
I share that story, amusing as it is because my parent’s limited vision for me was confined by the horizons of their own lives.
Little wonder that the word ‘ambition’ is negatively correlated for women (but not for men.) Or that women can be labeled bossy for acting with equal assertiveness to the men beside them. Or that women who are perceived as kind, nice and communal can be judged as less ‘leaderlike’ than men. Yet when they behave competitively, they’re considered less likable.
Clearly, women face many double-binds and must contend with more limiting labels and lower expectations than men. Even well-meaning parents, like my own, can hem in how their daughters see themselves. For instance, parents of boys are more likely to see their sons being successful tech entrepreneurs than their daughters who are more likely to be praised for being ‘sweet’ or ‘nice.’ Gender bias starts early and runs deep, permeating into our psyche in profound yet invisible ways.
Power has no gender, yet our mental template for power is intrinsically male.
It goes to reason then that the only way we will ever reconstruct the gendered mental maps that constrict what we see as possible for ourselves is by challenging them… and daring to defy the doubts they fuel.
As Vice President Harris said last November upon being elected the first-ever Madam Vice President’ of the United States:
Dream with ambition. Lead with conviction. And see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.
#3 Challenge more women to back themselves, more often
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women. Here, here. But I think we need to raise the bar higher. We need to proactively go out of our way to lift other women up – to challenge how they see themselves, how they speak about themselves, and what they see as possible for themselves.
After negatively comparing my own media platform with Oprah’s after following a podcast interview I did with Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson, she looked me square in the eye and said something that’s stuck:
There is nothing holy in diminishing yourself.
Words hold power. What we say about ourselves, and others, is generative as well as descriptive.
So next time you hear a woman talking herself, focusing on what she hasn’t done, minimizing all that she has, or simply deflecting a compliment, even sarcastically, draw her attention to it. (This probably won’t take long since most women I know struggle to accept a compliment.)
Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” So own your power as someone who can effect meaningful change in your workplace and the world around you, and challenge other women when they disempower themselves.
As I have written many times, when women rise, we all rise. It is not a zero-sum game. Advancing more women to top tables will require valuing caregiving as highly and breadwinning and embracing feminine leadership strengths – empathy, compassion, and the affiliative use of power – as every bit as valuable as traditional male strengths. This begins by challenging ourselves to own our value more fully, to defy our doubts more often, and to dare to make the difference our difference makes.
How will you choose to challenge?
Be brave! Make a bet on yourself.