BY CHAMINDI WIJESINGHE
In 1984, the term “glass ceiling” was coined by Nora Frenkiel to address the simmering, yet invisible obstructions blocking women’s advancement to leadership positions beyond mid-management.
Today, a new term has arrived, one that drapes this particularly defeating ideology: the labyrinth.
Indeed, climbing the social and corporate ladder is to women what the Enigma was to Alan Turing: puzzling, difficult and frustrating… because only few believe an alternate is, not only better and more efficient, but possible.
In all fairness, if we look at the corporate world solely, it has become relatively easier (compared to our female counterparts 10-20 years ago) for women to break the glass ceiling and navigate through the labyrinth leading to top management positions.
Recently, KPMG became the second amongst the Big Four accounting firms to elect a female CEO and according to Fortune, 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies employ female CEOs, overwhelmingly underrepresented – but a step forward.
Most argue that a slow turnover ratio diminishes any attempt at bridging the gap towards an egalitarian shift and that a total change is bound to take time.
However, this is not where the problem lies.
The grassroot problem was never about breaking the glass ceiling or navigating the labyrinth.
If women were able to shackle societal views and obtain voting rights, they can easily break through any other challenge.
However, the fragile perception is the black hole that usurps progress.
Objectively and ideally, qualifications allow a person to climb the ladder but it is identity that commands respect and allows someone to become a leader.
This is where women often struggle to keep afloat. A few years ago, P&G Pantene and BBDO Guerrero, Manila made an ad showcasing the stark labeling of women and men.
Both genders will be leading, talking the same way, and a man will be a “boss” while a woman will have an extra letter added to the word – “bossy.”
Authoritative: a woman is reduced to being unlikeable and unworthy of leadership. Emotional: she is too feminine, and unworthy of leadership, a perfect balance and she is still unworthy of leadership.
The Harvard Business Review boasts a line that encompasses one of the many facets of this exasperating problem: “More than 25 years ago, the social psychologist Faye Crosby stumbled on a surprising phenomenon: Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it is objectively true and they see that women in general experience it.”
There is a name for it: second-generation bias. It is a hidden, subtle and often unintentional discrimination arising from gender stereotypes and expectations of masks men and women are respectively asked to wear by society.
Robin Ely, a Harvard Business School professor explains it as such:
“For example, when we think about how leadership is denied, do we tend to think more naturally about men as leaders than women? The answer is yes. These things (dig) into how we interact with people. We have stereotypes about what constitutes leadership, and it is much aligned with our stereotypes about who men are and who women are.”
As such, educating men and women on second-gender bias is a step towards patching the loopholes.
Studies have shown that women are capable of leading as well as men, ironically, several research has proven that women leaders tend to outperform industry averages.
The more people who are aware of signs of second-gender bias, the more they can take actions to counter those effects.
Awareness of second-gender bias allow women to negotiate and empower themselves by speaking out.
In fact, we don’t need to look far back or abroad, during the 2016 elections, a veteran reporter noted that “the story is never what (Hillary Clinton) says, as much as we want it to be.
“The story is always how she looked when she said it.” In fact, Clinton even said that she “doesn’t fight it anymore; (she) just focuses on getting the job done.”
Clinton is not the only female leader to have been subject to this circumstance. Female leaders have faced this, from Queen Elizabeth to Margaret Thatcher to Aung San Suu Kyi.
These are a few amongst a plethora of women who were able to feel empowered and radically change perception– the superwomen.
It is true that leadership styles are unique and each gender has fortes that contribute to accelerating change but to see any positive change, we need to learn to be open and have a fluid mindset.
Over the years, leadership and ambition have been defined by men.
Women were late to the scene and are struggling to redefine it. In fact, when we think of leadership, we automatically assume that it is with a corporate, political and social backdrop – it mostly is, and this article has been about it mostly – because those are the spotlights that act as leverage to any other backdrop.
However, women are also leaders in the domestic scene, because it is the one place where men were seen as “too good for.”
Luckily, it is all changing and there is a shift towards making both genders equally capable and removing gender biases in this instance.
Society has definitely advanced and more of each gender are equally likely to support women’s ascension to leadership positions, viewing and judging on qualifications, abilities and vision rather than uneducated and rigid perceptions, but there is still a lot to do.
So much so that, at times, it is easy for women to feel that every step forward, is equivalent to two steps back … because they are not tough enough, do not satisfy the ridiculously higher standards set by others, are selfish for neglecting their primary purpose of running a family.
These structural issues, prejudices, discrimination, and biased gender and leadership perceptions need to dwindle into an abyss because ultimately, it is a better society that we all want.
In the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “no struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men.”