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Challenges that women still face in the workplace, and how we can level the playing field

Written by Chuen Chuen Published on 

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Unconscious bias and a lack of sponsorship for women at senior levels are still causing many female talents in leadership positions to question their full potential in the workplace.

Chuen Chuen is a multi-award-winning executive coach based in Singapore working with clients in both government and private sectors. She has served clients from nearly 40 countries across 5 continents since 2013. She is the founder of ACESENCE, an official member of Forbes Coaches Council and multi-award-winning agile leadership coach.

Shiseido Asia-Pacific and ExxonMobil Asia-Pacific recently appointed its first female president and CEO; and chairman and managing director, respectively. Furthermore, this April, OCBC Bank will welcome its first female group CEO — the first woman to head a Singaporean bank. With these recent strides towards women snagging top positions, 2021 is certainly shaping up to be an empowering year for females.

Ironically, despite this and years of breaking one glass ceiling after another, female leaders, particularly those in the Asia Pacific region, are still very much the minority at the leadership level. With a 28% proportional ratio of female to male senior leaders in Asia Pacific, women in leadership often risk being overlooked when it comes to bigger and better opportunities in the workplace. Many continue to experience gender inequality often stemming from unconscious bias on women leadership capabilities and gender roles, as well as a lack of sponsorship for women at the senior levels, leading to a ‘broken rung’.The Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, might have declared 2021 to be the Year for Celebrating SG Women, but are we really there yet?

Common Barriers In A 21st Century Workplace 

As mentioned above, even in this day and age, unconscious bias and a lack of sponsorship for women at senior levels are still causing many female talents in leadership positions to question their full potential in the workplace. This commonly leads to doubts when asking for higher salaries or promotions, talking about their achievements openly, and even negotiating for work practices and policies that allow them to balance between raising a family and leading a team.

More than external pressures and systemic issues, many women leaders face the larger battles internally – self-limiting beliefs that prevent them to leverage opportunities to show up as thought leaders. For instance, multi-award-winning agile leadership coach and founder of ACESENCE, Yeo Chuen Chuen discovered that she was more successful in getting male business leaders to share their views on agile leadership as guest speakers on her vlogcast and podcast compared to females.

When asked what their concerns were regarding their aversion to sharing their views and experiences, these female leaders cited reasons such as uncertainties about company and employee perception, and the effects it might have on their colleagues’ opinions of them. Currently, the ratio of men to women leaders willing to share their leadership perspective on her vlogcast stands at 16:3. That is less than a 20% representation of female leaders.

Why These Barriers Still Exist Today

Perceptions of gender roles are often the result of what we were taught during our formative years. To this day, school-going children are still exposed to learning material that stereotypes gender roles. For example, some school textbooks still feature mothers being in charge of the household while fathers are portrayed as breadwinners who are often tired and busy with work while earning a living for the family. This is an age-old issue but one that still persists in our society today, despite how much we have progressed in the last few years. In turn, this leads to female leaders, self-limiting due to their subconscious observation of gender-biased expectations. This is further exacerbated when they are chastised by others as “not conforming to preconceived gender roles.” We need to do more by introducing variations of gender roles for both men and women.

If these barriers are not addressed, then female leaders will continue to struggle internally with emotions like guilt when they do not conform to the norm, and externally with systems that disadvantage them. Chuen Chuen believes that we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity and for businesses and organisations, breaking the vicious cycle must be top on the agenda because diversity makes companies profitable, innovative and respected. We need to actively change mindsets and create a supportive ecosystem for women, among others.

Levelling the Playing Field Once and For All

Aiming to solve the problem once and for all, Chuen Chuen encourages female leaders who are impeded by the glass ceiling to look deep within themselves to address the fundamentals of their true aspirations and to examine their values, strengths and motivations. By examining each aspect, leaders will gain a sense of clarity as to what is meaningful and purposeful to them. From there, leaders can identify factors that are holding them back – be it external pressures, preconceived notions of gender roles, or potential internal conflict pertaining to stereotypical leadership. After that, leaders need only direct their innate talents and unique skills towards unlimited growth opportunities and potential, while continuously challenging, questioning and overcoming each limiting factor.

More than that, Chuen Chuen urges all female leaders to practise being more aware of their personal reactions and responses when faced with workplace challenges — this would help them identify bias, prejudices and overgeneralizations that no longer serve them. Only with deep personal mastery and recognition of their own bias – turning them from unconscious to conscious – can leaders reshape their thinking and restructure their mindsets to address challenges with fresh perspectives. This is the most important part of her Re4 Coaching Model – to refresh the lens by reshaping the way people think (about themselves, the context and of others) in order to achieve something that is seemingly impossible because more often than not, internal limitations are much more difficult to overcome than external ones.

With a more empowering and liberating mindset, it is then important to take small, consistent actions. Break each problem down into manageable parts so that they be solved one at a time. When faced with a complex problem without certainty to success, it is easy to hold ourselves back prematurely due to overwhelming thoughts of failure, fear of aggravating an already-poor situation or feeling that the effort to change anything is futile. Very often, especially because of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), all it takes is the courage to take the immediate one step forward. For example, if women leaders are pressured by gender stereotypes at their workplace, the immediate first step that they can take is to ensure that all stakeholder interests are aligned. Then, they will be able to propose the change they desire and more easily negotiate a win-win situation with all parties involved. To truly move the needle, call out unconscious bias that is limiting women in the workplace. One way is for all female leaders to engage in courageous conversations where they explicitly describe the workplace they want, call out systemic hindrances and set new norms so more women will step up.

Lastly, external support is paramount to ensure successful leadership. This is especially for women trailblazers because they are beating a path that has never been travelled. Her advice here is for senior women leaders to be active advocates and sponsors for upcoming and younger female leaders. Within a professional setting, young women must seek out sponsors and mentorship opportunities actively. With strong role models, the younger generation, both male and female, can conceive a new norm together that is more equal and fairer for all genders.

The mindset is a leader’s greatest asset because an empowering one unlocks all possibilities. It will allow leaders to tackle the challenges more creatively and with much more resilience and tenacity. With that, the possibility of female leaders settling for less will decrease exponentially. Instead, they will experience limitless success and growth, both professionally and personally.

WRITTEN BY

Chuen Chuen

Chuen Chuen is a multi-award-winning executive coach based in Singapore working with clients in both government and private sectors. She is the founder of ACESENCE and an official member of Forbes Coaches Council.

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