Women and the corner office – no longer an urban legend

How many members of your company’s senior leadership are women? The disparity is significant and the troubling thing is that this trend is everywhere around you. What should we be doing differently then?

Call me old-school, but there isn’t a show that has given me more laughs and lesser productive hours than Friends. What’s incredible is how, even 25 years later, the show continues to be so relevant; entertaining of course, but periodically making some pertinent points as well.

Joey’s idiocy, Phoebe’s neurosis, and Jennifer’s ability to defy age – the show held a whole generation’s attention so effortlessly. Among the many episodes that I’ve loved, there’s one that hit me like a train – it’s from Season 2 with Monica reading Be Your Own Windkeeper.

The book tells us how women subconsciously keep neglecting their inner goddesses. And that got me thinking – today, so many women I know neglect their inner goddesses, and often the road to the corner office is limited only by their own imagination. Sounds presumptuous, right? That’s exactly the problem. 

Chances are you’re reading this article at office while taking a quick break from a document that seems just absurdly verbose or from the infinite universe that is Excel rows and columns. Take a second to look up and around you – how many of your team members are women? Quite a few, is what you’re likely to respond. Fair point.

Then, I’ll ask, how many of your managers are women? A little less, but still, there are women. All right, I accept that.

Now, how many members of your company’s senior most leadership are women? That’s when the furrow in your forehead will appear – that’s right: the disparity is significant. The troubling thing is that this trend is everywhere around you.

As recent as 2018, numbers for women in the Asia Pacific region read as:

  • 32.4 percent of senior managers
  • 29 percent of executives
  • 29 percent of key management personnel
  • 16.8 percent of CEOs/heads of business

It’s all very impressive until you reach the last statistic, when suddenly the pipeline drastically narrows – women don’t even account for 20 percent for the topmost rung of leadership? Let’s be frank, we as an entire sex cannot possibly be so deeply flawed that this is a result of lack of ability, skill, or knowledge.

The issue is twofold: one, a collective of socioeconomic mindsets that hold women back; two, we as women discourage ourselves from doing what it takes to reach that corporate apex, and that is the real pressing concern – fortunately, my many years of being obsessively observant will come to some use now when I tell you about how we can consciously work on re-conditioning ourselves.

Women come in many shapes and sizes – God knows, we’re pretty well aware of that – but beneath the different layers that make us seem so very distinct from each other is the same combination of confidence and self-doubt.

It is this composite blend that makes us feel all kinds of fierce and invincible one day, and a bundle of nerves the next. I’ve spent many years turning this thought over and over in my head (with two books to boot), and I’ve come away with what I call the five cardinal sins of the female kind:

Thou shalt not cower

Primitive man had one job – to hunt for prey or fight for land. The role demanded him to create the perception of strength – loud noises, puffed up chests, feathered headdresses… you get the drift. Women stayed back in caves to rear and nurture children who would then join the same fight – and harmony was their chief job.

Praising herself or creating any illusions of overt strength was counterproductive then. And the division of labour worked well – both did their jobs and look how far we’ve come. Today, in 2019, women are as much hunters as men. And the rules that applied then couldn’t be any less relevant now.

But we can’t seem to kick this habit of always being tentative, apologetic of our achievements, and downplaying what should be highlighted. 

Thou shalt not cop out

In our rich arsenal of strengths is a critical one that most men lack: self-awareness – which means we know what we’re inherently good at as well as able to accept our weaknesses. The problem is that we misuse this entirely - we tend to minimise our strengths and maximise our weaknesses.

We get so caught up in worrying or being apologetic about what we don’t have that we forget to optimise what we do have. It is imperative that we focus on these strengths and leverage them to create not only self-confidence but also respect in the eyes of all around, be it investors, leadership or colleagues. In turn, their support is sure to follow.

Thou shalt not second guess

It is time to drop the first natural reaction we have when something great happens to us – gratitude to our luck. Many of us suffer from something that Kets de Vries calls 'the imposter syndrome'. This convinces us that we’re not good enough to have reached where we are and it is just happenstance that aided our progress, versus hard work, experience, or skills.

This makes us reluctant to fully own the success that we’ve earned and so we’re unlikely to use it to breed subsequent success. Constant self-assurance is not being over-confident: it is the trick to chase out the imposter from within.

Thou shalt not settle

We see the levels of success that women around us achieve and deem that as 'good enough' and settle down once we’ve reached there. Along the way, somewhere, we forget to ask ourselves where we actually want to reach.

A modicum of success is not representative of what we are capable of achieving – we need to train ourselves to realise that there is no need to set limits for success. This sets in especially when senior women look around the boardroom and see themselves as the lone representative of their sex.

This sense of self-satisfaction and unwillingness to strive further is one of the several reasons why women reach the CXO level but don’t grow beyond it. If you are genuinely happy with where you’ve reached and now want to relax, you’re perfectly justified in your decision. But if there is even a small part of you that believes you can achieve more, don’t suppress that voice. It is saying something important. 

Thou shalt go on

On the road to the corner office at each stop, people who look like you and think like you might continually disembark – you have to transform from seeing that as a sign that you should follow suit to a resolve to being steadfastly committed to your seat, putting up with the speed bumps with tenacity and enjoying the view with smile.

And you’ll find that with every stop that you don’t get off at, someone else, just like you, will be encouraged to hang on there. And at the end, when you get off to walk to that corner office, you will turn around and see behind you are confident, happy faces of women who are glad you gave them the courage to sit tight. 

The road to the top can be a genuinely lonely one and that’s okay – intimidating as it might be, you’ll find that success makes for a great companion.

(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)