When capable women, who are performing well in the business world, drop out of their careers at the mid to senior level, it is time for employers to take notice. It is also time for women to take ownership of the success of their careers, experts say.
These experts, employers and career women from various sectors in the UAE recently met at Hult International Business School's Dubai campus to discuss exactly that.
The institution last week held an event called the Pocket MBA for Women who Aspire to Lead to bring the issue to light. At the event, women leaders from educational, business and governmental organisations helped career women identify the factors that hold them back and devise a plan of action to address them.
"We are not trying to blame anybody for the problem or to act like victims," said Dr Amanda Nimon Peters, who is a faculty member at Hult and also the managing director of talent development agency Sara Black International.
"What we are trying to do is take in people who are in the early- to mid-career stage, who aspire to lead, to go on and have strong careers throughout their life span. We help them look at the sorts of things that hold them back and help them come up with a plan for that," she said.
Peters pointed out that there are many difficulties women face throughout their lives, the biggest one being child care. She cited statistics that show two-thirds of senior male executives having children while only one-third of senior executive women have children.
"We see more and more that large numbers of women have to make a choice between kids and their career."
"Our goal is to let people know that the world is not perfect and there are problems they're going to face but there are things they can do and they are aware of the different choices," said Peters.
She pointed out that there are many successful women exercising a full range of choices and women should be aware of those choices to plan for the path they want to go down.
"But you should not be judging people who make different choices from us. One of the biggest problems I have is that people are so willing to pronounce what women should do!"
Peters said several studies in the field of social psychology demonstrate that there are environmental factors in many situations which cause women to doubt themselves even when their performance level is at the same level as men's.
"In these studies we find that women's performance may be equal to or greater than men's but a man will report higher self-confidence than a woman because of environmental factors."
She gave an example of an experiment in which women were manipulated to perform badly in a mathematics exam. "The women were given the exam but one group had to tick a box that said male or female. Those women who ticked the female box scored worse than the women who were not made to recognise they were female before the exam."
The phenomenon is called stereotype threats and plays out all too often in the work environment. If a person belongs to a group that has a stereotype attached to it, when they are reminded about it, they will perform more in line with that stereotype.
And there are negative stereotypes about women's ability that actually cause them to perform worse when they are reminded about them.
In a frank discussion, Andrea Li-Sai Chimento, Microsoft Gulf services director, shared her experiences of failure and how she overcame them in her career. Chimento also heads the Microsoft Gulf's Female Diversity and Inclusion initiative.
"It's always nice to hear things about how people got to the top of the mountain and stayed there, but from my perspective that's just not true."
Chimento explained that over the past four years at her company she had tremendous success but also failure.
She said the first year was "huge delivery" in the middle of the biggest crisis ever in the past years. In 2009 she still grew revenue and the profit margin to the point where people asked how she achieved the feat. The second year was normal performance and the third was a "deep crisis" and now the fourth year is turning around and getting back on track, she said.
"When I think about that and myself, two things come to mind: nothing fails like success and in 2009 the success was so huge that I associated it with myself, which is wrong."
Chimento advised women not to rely too much on success but also not take it too personally when things go wrong. "Don't go into victim attitude. It's your responsibility so stand up and be able to do that. Accept it, digest it and the quicker you can get up."
Peters echoed Chimento's advice: "Being successful is not about being a winner all the time so when you encounter difficulties, rather than taking the easier option and dropping out, realise that difficulty is part of learning."
Cari Guittard, ex-special adviser to former Secretary of State Colin Powell for public diplomacy and public affairs, spoke to women about having a global mindset and being aware of intellectual capital, psychological capital and social capital.
Intellectual capital is the education that people have and this should be continued as a life-long endeavour but when it comes to psychological and social capital, women sell themselves short, Guittard said. "Psychological capital, which comes from engaging with multiple cultures and learning from them, is an area that women in particular have incredible strengths but they don't recognise or utilise it in the workforce."
Taking control at right time
Decide for yourself that you are going to have a successful career across your whole working life. Making this decision will not guarantee it will happen but without this decision, it likely will not happen. In particular, you should have a plan for managing maternity and child care. This is the number one point when women drop out of highly successful careers.
Recruit for the right partner. If your career is an important part of your life, your husband should understand and support that. Don't leave this unsaid: discuss your career goals regularly with your potential partner. He should go into marriage knowing that it's your goal to keep working all your life.
Be prepared to communicate your achievements regularly to the right senior audience. Research shows that people who communicate what they achieve are better perceived by senior management than people who achieve just as much (or even more), but fail to report.
Develop strong presentation and public speaking skills. Take the opportunities to present and speak to audiences. Few activities build your brand awareness and image across a company as much as powerful presentation skills.
- Perseverance: Don't be discouraged by failure. Failing occasionally is an important stage of being successful eventually.
Source: Dr Amanda Nimon Peters