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  • Writer's pictureGladys Agwai


Women leaders often find themselves in a web of systemic barriers and cultural biases presenting unique challenges that can test the resilience, adaptability, and strategic acumen of even the most seasoned professionals. In male dominated industries especially, women find themselves in a ‘double bind’ feeling the need to exhibit traditionally masculine traits to be seen as competent while also adhering to feminine norms to be liked. Women leaders are often scrutinised more harshly than their male counterparts, a phenomenon backed by numerous studies, including the landmark research by Catalyst. This scrutiny unfortunately leads to women modifying their behavior to fit into narrow and often contradictory expectations.

The challenges that make it difficult for women to advance and succeed stem from a variety of factors that create an environment that can be unwelcoming and hostile. Here are key reasons women find it difficult

to thrive:

• Encounter stereotypes that question their competence. These biases influence hiring, promotion, and evaluation processes, leading to fewer opportunities for advancement.

• Lack of role models and mentors for aspiring female professionals exists. This absence of representation affects women's career aspirations and opportunities for mentorship, making it harder to envision and navigate a successful career path.

• Workplace cultures prioritize long hours and high availability conflict with care giving responsibilities that still disproportionately fall on women. This potentially forces them to choose between their career advancement and personal life.

• Hostile work environments, including harassment and discrimination, create psychological and emotional stress driving women out of industries. The lack of strong anti-harassment policies and effective enforcement mechanisms exacerbates this issue.

• Challenges in accessing informal networks and finding sponsors is difficult. This is due to exclusion from social gatherings, lack of visibility to upper management, or the tendency for people to sponsor individuals who are like themselves.

• Women must be tough enough to be respected but feminine enough to be liked. This results in women being unfairly criticised for being too assertive or not assertive enough, making it challenging to navigate leadership roles successfully.

• A regular encounter of negative comments or actions undermine their expertise while questioning their place in the industry.

These experiences, though seemingly minor, accumulate over time, contributing to a feeling of alienation impacting career progression. The cumulative effect of these challenges deters women from entering or staying in fields of their choice. Addressing these issues requires concerted efforts at organisational, cultural, and systemic levels to create inclusive environments where women can thrive equally. Let me underscore the crucial role that men play as allies in supporting women's advancement.

Allies help by amplifying women's voices in meetings, advocating for their ideas and contributions, and supporting policies that promote gender equity. Real change occurs when allies act by not only acknowledging the challenges women face but actively working to dismantle the barriers. You can overcome barriers by:

• Asserting authenticity which involves being true to your values while leveraging personal strengths. It fosters respect and loyalty.

• Building your credibility by showcasing expertise serves as a powerful countermeasure when unjustly questioned. Continuously learn, stay abreast of industry trends, and contribute thought leadership to cement your status as an authority figure.

• Championing diversity and inclusion policies and practices within your organisation drive cultural change for other women to rise through the ranks.

• Leveraging strong professional networks of both men and women’s mentorship, sponsorship, and support systems are crucial for navigating workplace challenges while advocating systemic changes.

• Mastering negotiation skills is critical for securing resources, promotions, and equitable compensation. Adopt confident and assertive negotiation tactics. Numerous Nigerian women have leveraged these strategies and have shattered glass ceilings, offering both inspiration and tangible lessons. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's leadership in global finance, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's contributions to literature and feminism, and Folorunso Alakija's success in business and philanthropy are just a few examples. These women have not only excelled in their respective fields but have also used their platforms to advocate for systemic change, demonstrating the profound impact women can have when given equal opportunities.

The value of embracing women in the workplace is about leveraging the full range of human talent and perspectives to drive innovation, performance, satisfaction, and retention that create more resilient and equitable organisations and societies. These benefits underscore the need for systemic changes to support women's entry, retention, and advancement, transforming challenges into opportunities for growth and progress. Embrace authenticity, build expertise, foster inclusivity, leverage networks, and negotiate with confidence. You are not alone! Who is in your network?

"Our networks are the lifelines that sustain us through storms. They are not just social; they are survival."-Ginni Rometty

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