Can Leaders in Heels Heal the Gender bias at Work?

Asma Jan Muhammad

Everyone, regardless of gender, aspires to attain prestigious and influential positions. However, for women to reach the highest echelons of the corporate world, it often requires additional effort, self-confidence, and sometimes specific grooming and training. Before joining the corporate journey, I used to believe that one’s ability to progress and achieve higher roles was solely dependent on their hard work and technical acumen. However, as I advanced in my career, especially in fields like finance where women may be underrepresented, I came to realize that mere knowledge and effort are insufficient to overcome the barriers. Ultimately, it comes down to the beliefs and cultural biases of decision-makers, which can introduce distortions and bias into supposedly gender-neutral practices and theories.

Influence of Beliefs and Cultural Norms

Beliefs play a significant role in shaping our actions and perceptions, often influenced by the social environment we grow up in. Typically, our beliefs are ingrained from childhood through observations of behaviors within our family, and we seldom question their validity due to the trust we place in our family members, particularly our parents. Coming from a family without male offspring, I keenly understood the importance of achieving independence. In societies where male children are traditionally seen as providers for female family members, being the youngest sibling, I witnessed my sisters consistently going above and beyond to prove that there’s no inherent difference between genders in earning a livelihood, even in fields typically dominated by men. These deeply ingrained beliefs pose significant challenges to overcome. I witnessed that women often face disproportionate compensation for their efforts due to the hurdles they encounter: challenging familial and societal norms, entering markets unprepared to offer equal opportunities in non-traditional roles, and being hired at lower rates compared to men.

Balancing Professional and Domestic Roles

The challenges for women don’t end there. Even after overcoming the hurdles mentioned earlier, they are often expected to fulfill domestic responsibilities with unwavering dedication. Any shortcomings in this area are not tolerated and are met with criticism. Continuously, women are reminded of their role in maintaining the household and fulfilling their duties to their children, spouse, and family. This perpetual cycle of responsibility and guilt leaves many women feeling overwhelmed and unhappy, despite their efforts to provide for their families. Interestingly, it’s often other female family members who contribute to perpetuating these expectations, highlighting the complexity of the situation.

I distinctly remember my first job interview, during which the interviewer questioned my motivation for pursuing a career in finance. Without hesitation, I replied, “Because I believe women can excel in this field just as much as men.” Looking back, I admire my audacity to address the biases I had observed in my own life, despite the risk it posed to my chances of securing the position. The male interviewer’s wise counsel, “We’re not here to compete; hard work transcends gender,” has since become a guiding principle for me.

Gender Bias in Workplace Dynamics

Entering my first workplace, I initially viewed the statement as a glimmer of hope, only to realize that success demands more than just technical skills. What truly sets one apart is their ability to manage others’ expectations. However, my background—coming from a Muslim family with limited exposure to men in high school and college—proved to be a significant hurdle beyond simply grasping finance and accounting concepts. My straightforward communication style wasn’t always appreciated by my colleagues, and adhering to restrictions on late hours naturally impacted my ability to fully dedicate myself to work responsibilities. I abstained from participating in social activities like smoking or coffee breaks, which meant I missed out on valuable industry insights and company happenings. While I wasn’t actively excluded, these activities demanded time that I was unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of my work focus.

There were no female managers with whom I could confide about my experiences or seek guidance on navigating interactions with female colleagues differently. Instead, a few senior male peers on my team tried to engage with me, some in a friendly manner to gauge if I was arrogant or emotionally distressed, while others attempted to flirt. However, I was too focused on studying and excelling at work to respond to these overtures in what might be considered a “typically normal” way. Reflecting on it now feels like a burden on my shoulders in my recollections.

The transition from being an apprentice to a full-time position didn’t bring about the significant change I had hoped for. I continued to encounter men who held various assumptions about female employees. Some believed that women worked less than men, were less wise and capable of problem-solving, lacked competence in leading large teams, couldn’t work beyond office hours to meet deadlines, and shouldn’t be counted as full headcount in resource allocation due to perceived limitations. I encountered managers who either embraced these assumptions, assigning less strenuous tasks to women, or rejected them, preferring not to have women on their teams. Regardless of their stance, both types of managers struggled to let go of these presumptions to entertain alternative or new beliefs.

As I progressed in my career, I encountered a different type of colleague: those who expressed concern about the discrimination women face in society and took pride in hiring women to boost their social image and reputation. However, strangely, these individuals often didn’t prioritize hiring women for comparable positions. The corporate hierarchy seemed dominated by men who didn’t actively promote or recruit women for equivalent roles, resulting in diversity and inclusivity efforts feeling like mere box-checking exercises.

Challenges Beyond Gender

Despite facing uncertainty about my future advancement, my qualifications and diligent efforts in mastering audit and accounting enabled me to secure a managerial position within an organization. Throughout my career journey, I held onto the interviewer’s early remark: success is not a competition, and hard work pays off irrespective of gender. I continuously sought out organizations that embodied this principle. However, as I progressed, I noticed the immense challenges women faced in resuming their careers after maternity leave. Despite potential legal protections, there were often reductions in positions, salaries, nature of assignments, and annual leave allowances for returning mothers. Balancing dual roles proved to be exceedingly demanding, leading me to the honest realization that excelling in such circumstances is difficult without the support and understanding of one’s spouse, family, and colleagues.

Continuing my quest for a company that values merit-based progression up the corporate ladder, I encountered several additional intriguing factors. I discovered that factors like race and appearance, particularly attire, also play significant roles in the hiring decision of female employees. Personally, I have always opted to wear my national attire to work for its comfort and cultural significance. However, during one interview with a multinational corporation, I was asked if I intended to wear the same outfit to work. When I affirmed, the interviewer questioned whether it was a requirement from my spouse. I clarified that it was my personal choice. It’s disheartening that many men assume a woman’s choices, especially those who appear conservative through their faith and attire, are dictated by her better half. Despite performing well in the technical interview, my candidacy was rejected for the position.

Fairness: Missing in the Corporate Equation

In my experience in the corporate world, I’ve encountered individuals with varying attitudes towards women’s roles in the workplace. However, what often seemed lacking was fairness in approach. The reasons behind this lack of fairness differed based on individuals’ backgrounds, cultural norms, and social conditioning. What was notably absent was a sense of egalitarianism or social equality, stemming from early beliefs ingrained in immature minds about what is deemed “right” or “wrong.” People tend to judge and base their future actions on perceived imagery, further perpetuating biases and inequalities.

Even when men attempted to make unpopular decisions, they often did so reluctantly. There’s a noticeable contrast in how men and women approach various endeavors, including their differing levels of risk tolerance. In the corporate world, there’s a prevailing expectation for professionals to align with the image traditionally set by men. Men are typically viewed as the primary breadwinners and are not typically held responsible for childcare or domestic duties. This allows them to dedicate all their time, energy, and focus to their careers without the distraction of domestic responsibilities. Conversely, women who pursue careers are expected to balance both professional and domestic duties with equal commitment and concentration, without exemption from any role. Furthermore, they must continually prove themselves deserving of advancement within organizations, often shouldering additional responsibilities and accountability. Without ensuring a fair and equitable environment, it’s unrealistic to expect fair outcomes from such a system. Women who manage to break through the glass ceiling often demonstrate exceptional resilience in overcoming biases while maintaining professionalism. If we persist in comparing women to traditional standards of work performance, we will struggle to change our attitudes and achieve true equality.

One might question why, despite a woman’s talent, dedication, requisite skill set, and knowledge devoted to her work, career advancement, fair performance evaluations, and growth aren’t standard aspects of the process. What factors are influencing these decisions? I contend that a primary factor contributing to the prevalence of workplace misconduct is the reluctance of female employees to speak up to their employers.

Addressing Bias and Misconduct

Discussing workplace misconduct involving female employees poses challenges for both employers and employees. Executives often deny the existence of problems within their organization due to fears of damaging their reputation. They may also lack transparent reporting methods for misconduct and their responses to complaints may be inadequate in preventing future occurrences. Similarly, female employees who are victims of misconduct may settle for less, fail to recognize their true value, and hesitate to speak out for fear of not being taken seriously. This “trust gap” between the two parties often results in higher costs for companies, including those associated with corporate scandals and disasters such as production delays, absenteeism, rehiring, and legal fees. True change will only occur when companies globally embark on a transformative journey of ethics and integrity, which includes revamping their culture around speaking up and empowering their employees. Otherwise, gender equality and fairness will remain elusive goals.

The Path to Equality

Women possess innate leadership qualities, including multitasking abilities, attention to detail, and leading by example in their everyday lives, which give them a unique advantage in decision-making. Empirical evidence shows that companies with more women in senior management tend to outperform those with fewer women, boasting a 35% higher return on equity (ROE) and a 34% higher total shareholder return. Today’s business leaders recognize the value of diversity in teams and experiences, acknowledging its positive impact on both reputation and financial performance, as evidenced by data. Inclusiveness and diversity offer clear advantages for a company’s advancement. However, addressing biases related to gender theory requires collective effort and systemic change; it cannot be solely achieved by women alone.

While I acknowledge the importance of women’s participation in the workforce and the strides made towards gender equality, I also recognize the toll it takes on women’s well-being. The constant battle against biases and discrimination can erode one’s spirit and sense of worth, leading many women to question if the pursuit of career advancement is truly worth it.

Resilience and Determination

Amid the challenges and complexities highlighted in this journey, there are several positive messages that emerge out of this journey, reflecting resilience, determination, and the potential for positive change. Women must have an unwavering belief in their ability to excel in any field, regardless of societal norms or biases. This confidence serves as a beacon of hope amidst adversity. Further, the resilience and determination displayed consistently serve as an inspiration to women facing similar challenges. Despite encountering numerous obstacles and biases, I endeavored to remain steadfast in my pursuit of merit-based progression and a more equitable corporate landscape.

As I continue my journey, I remain hopeful that with continued advocacy and collective action, the corporate world will become more equitable for women. Until then, women will continue to navigate through the challenges, drawing strength from their resilience and determination to pave the way for a more inclusive future.

This is a contributor’s content and solely represents views of the contributor.

About the Author:

Asma Jan Muhammad MBA | B-Com | FCA | ACA Dubai, United Arab Emirates
LinkedIn Profile: Asma Jan Muhammad

Asma Jan Muhammad is a highly accomplished Chartered Accountant and a best-selling author. She holds dual accountancy charters from Pakistan/England & Wales along with a master’s in general management from the Swiss Business School, Zurich. Her academic excellence is marked by gold medals in her studies. With over two decades of leadership experience in prestigious local and international organizations, Asma has earned recognition as one of the Top 10 Women C.F.O.s in the U.A.E. with “Leadership Excellence” and “CA Woman of the Year” awards, as a testament to her career success. She is currently heading the finance function of a group of companies in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Shaped by her multicultural experiences in Pakistan and the UAE, Asma is driven to inspire others. Her published works include the Kindle best-seller “S.H.O.R.E.: The Ultimate Descent” (Amazon), “Reflections” (Partridge Publications Singapore), and collaborative projects “She Dares” and “She is Remarkable” with MENA Speakers UAE. Additionally, she serves as the editor of the Pakistan Association Dubai newsletter, “Pehchaan”.