Climbing the leadership ladder in high heels: Business Times 8 March 2024

This commentary by SHE Chair Stefanie Yuen Thio was published in the Business Times on International Women's Day, 8 March 2024.

The modern woman leader must have it all, and want it all. She must be motivated but cannot come across as ambitious. She has to work hard while achieving work-life balance. She has to hold down a full-time job and yet be a full-time mom. She must excel in a Man’s World but not lose her identity as a woman. She must walk as fast as her male counterpart, but do it in high heels.

Does this sound familiar?

It is the paradox faced by every female leader I know.

Women increasingly enjoy the same opportunities as men in education and employment but there is still a gender gap, including in pay and promotions. In its 2023 report on Women in the Workplace, McKinsey shared that "despite some hard-fought gains, women's representation is not keeping pace. While women have made headway into the C-suite, females in middle manage lag behind and gender parity is still some way off". In Singapore, female participation on boards of the top 100 listed companies was still a weak 22.7 per cent as at June 2023.

Clearly it isn’t a lack of opportunity holding women back. With International Women's Day around the corner, let's unpack some of the stumbling blocks.

It's still a Man's World - Don't be shy

It is an oft-quoted statistic that women will put up their hands for a new role or promotion only when they meet 100 per cent of the criteria, whereas men will do so with only 60 per cent.

Women are shy to self-promote, preferring to let their past work speak for itself.

In Harvard Business School and Wharton School study, researchers found that women are less likely to speak of their achievements even when they have clearly outperformed others. A man is more likely to say he has done an "outstanding" job, while a woman would simply lay the facts on the table and then credit the entire team.

If women want to make it in a world built by and catered for the male, they need to start putting up their hands, and being more prepared to talk about their achievements and capability. This does not come easily for most of us, and even more naturally confident women would probably have been criticised for being too "assertive" in their earlier life. This could have started in kindergarten where they were told not to be "bossy", an adjective hardly ever used to describe a male preschooler taking the lead.

Rather than fade into the wallpaper, women need to prepare for situations where they will be presenting their work and reviewing their performance. Whether it is getting a life coach to train with or a mentor to lob her questions that are likely to come up, women should proactively equip themselves for situations where they are likely to feel uncomfortable self-promoting.

Women need to recognise that there is more at stake than their individual progress. As a junior associate, I would sit in the back and only speak when asked and was confident in my response. A more senior female practitioner told me to take my seat at the table. "Don’t do it for yourself," she said. "Realise that if you take a seat at the back of the room, you set the ceiling for the young women who will come after you."     

Don't let Imposter Syndrome spin you out

Many successful women confess having to constantly fight a quiet voice in their head telling them they're not good enough, and that their underqualification will ultimately be exposed. When they encounter setbacks and failures – even small ones –an internal tailspin of self-doubt and self-recrimination often results. Mind in turmoil, they don't trust their own evaluation of the problem, and cannot craft an effective solution.

Recently an outspoken female director - one of the most confident women leaders I know - confided that she was being gas lighted by a fellow director who blamed her for a corporate misstep she had not caused. Notwithstanding her Western education, she was at heart a respectful Asian woman whose default setting was to give credence to the older male's accusations. Her intellect told her that he was trying to deflect blame, but she was struggling to see the problem in context.

A male friend had told her "don't worry about it". Hands up, women who have had this completely useless but well-meaning piece of advice proffered to you when you faced a crisis of confidence.

We discussed the issue together, clearheadedly examining the factors including whether she had contributed to the problem. We planned how she would respond in future scenarios. Unpacking the problem helped bring it down to size. She walked away with a more balanced and realistic assessment of the situation, and a solid game plan to move forward productively.

Successful women leaders have a circle of advisers – people they trust who will not soft-peddle hard truths but be able to help them assess the damage and strategize a solution – both to the actual problem and to the psychological struggle. But these advisers don't appear by chance. Smart women will actively curate a small circle of women – and even men – whose objectivity and honesty they can rely on when they don't trust their own judgement.  

Build Your Network of Allies

More broadly, women need allies.

We sigh about the Old Boys' Club, where men of a similar background and mindset promoted and supported one another, creating a closed circle with exclusive access to opportunity. But that is changing, thanks in no small part to public awareness of gender diversity issues. Capable women are starting to be actively courted for important positions.

However, the pool of women under consideration is still small. Women wanting to break into this group report that without specific industry expertise, they are often not shortlisted. In addition, women continue to struggle with the unequal burden of child rearing, elder care and managing the home. No matter how equal our opportunities in schooling and entering the job market, women still bear the brunt of these duties.

Solidarity from being part of a network of women facing these same challenges is helpful.

This network can open doors for women to be recommended for new roles. A personal endorsement from a more established individual often makes the difference. But before someone would be prepared to spend their business and reputational capital on your behalf, they need to know and have confidence in you. Being actively engaged in a circle of allies allows that relationship to be built up. Money may make the world go round, but trust is the currency in boardrooms and corner offices.  

A network also reminds women that they are not alone, and that their apparently trivial struggles are legitimate. Hands up again if you know a top woman professional who saves her strongest self-recrimination for not having personally baked muffins for her kid's class party. Many C-suite women would rather face a hostile board than the snide comments from the Stay-at-home Mommy Mafia. They need to find comfort in numbers.

When it comes to gender parity, women probably have it better than at any other time in history. More doors are opening to us but it is often our own emotional and psychological factors that stumble us. We need to equip ourselves and be surrounded with the right mentors and supporters to truly to create a gender equal world. Happy International Women's Day.