Sheela Jeevam believed her job was more important than anything else, so she worked hard, stayed late at the office, and tackled any task she was assigned — but it took her more than a year to realise something was wrong.
Her direct supervisor was taking credit for her work and she was not getting ahead.
"Women work, work, and work but they don't get noticed because they don't speak up and talk about what they've been doing," said Jeevam, a Dubai-based graphic designer.
She was being too modest about her achievements, making them seem effortless when they in fact required great effort.
Some working women unconsciously behave or react at work in self-defeating ways that hold them back from achieving their potential. This undermines their credibility and sabotages their careers, experts say.
To change these behaviours to more constructive ones, women need to become more pro-active at work, focus on their own self-development rather than rely on management to push them ahead, and seek out political allies, networks, and mentors to leverage their careers, HR consultants say.
A common behaviour is the tendency to act modestly about work accomplishments which projects a lack of self-confidence, making them seem unprepared to take on new challenges or major projects in the workplace, said Gaj Ravichandra, psychologist and General Manager of HR Solutions in Middle East and Africa.
Getting tearful at work as a vent for anger leaves senior management, often typically male, confused about how to react.
"These are not mistakes, they are just preferred ways of behaving. They fall into a pattern and have to break out of it," said Ravichandra. "It's a development lesson. Calling it a mistake implies there's something wrong with her, which is not necessarily the case."
Although there is no shortage of smart, capable and hard working women, the problem is that many are stuck in the "marzipan layer," the level just below top management, Dr Laura Sherbin, Senior Vice-President of the US-based Center for Work Life Policy, told Gulf News by e-mail.
This is not a lack of ambition or talent among professional women. In the UAE, 90 per cent of women want to hold a top position and 92 per cent consider themselves very ambitious — a number comparable to their male peers and 2.5 times higher than their American counterparts, she said, based on a study by the centre.
The problem is a "lack of push," she said.
"Many women find it difficult to foster the relationships necessary to create momentum in their careers," Sherbin noted.
Many highly qualified women do not have the political allies — or sponsors — that propel, inspire and help them navigate the tricky inroads of upper management, according to a Harvard Business Review research report.
Sponsors are usually in a top position. They advocate and facilitate critical career moves, go out on a limb for their protégées, providing stretch opportunities, forming critical connections, and promoting visibility.
Despite these advantages, many women see cultivating relationships and mobilising them on their behalf as an occasional necessity rather than an exercise of leadership, said Sherbin.
They are less pro-active and comfortable than men in seeking political allies and the workplace often does not articulate where to get that information, Ravichandra said.
They also network less often than men, although they are naturally creative and bring fresh perspectives to work, and they are less likely to seek mentors and role models, he added.
Finding a female mentor outside the organisation is helpful because she can share her own experiences, how she reached the top and overcame hurdles, he said.
But even if women identify and change some self-defeating behaviour that reins their career development, gender bias in the workplace remains a reality to contend with.
Sarah Attick, a bank officer at a local bank, hit the glass ceiling repeatedly in efforts to compete for a senior position.
Working hard, networking, and training courses were useless to her when management blatantly denied her a promotion because she is a woman, she said.
"They're stereotyping women, so they say ‘It's no use, she's just a woman in the end.' It's a threat to them if a woman is promoted, you know men, they say ‘how can a woman be my superior?'" Attick said.
The trend is to avoid recruiting married women because they have to take care of family and the house and ask for permission to leave early sometimes, she said.
"It's gender bias, it doesn't make a difference if you become more empowered."
Finding the internal behaviours that delay a woman's career progress and identifying the external factors imposed on her at work strikes the right balance, says Amanda Davis, a junior associate at Bin Shabib and Associates law firm.
"Some women are put into roles and believe this is their full potential because other people told them so," she said.
Refusing to heed this social conditioning, she turned down female stereotypical roles in legal support roles until she found a better suited job.
"Women as individuals decide what their fate is. Of they listen to their conditioning that their choice to fit into stereotypical roles. But they must break barriers and make changes within themselves," she said.
Seeking self-empowerment is one way to overcome social conditioning that holds women back from achieving their full potential.
Experts recommend identifying their strengths as individual women and capitalising on those.
Finding the right fit
"It's not about fitting a mould. They have to understand what comes naturally to them. We don't want to develop future female leaders who feel fraudulent, that they are not acting like themselves, they have to find the right cultural fit," said Ravichandra.
Sometimes modifying work behaviour boils down to cultural norms.
Dima Malibary, an advertising and creative manager at a Sharjah government body found that she gained more respect from her colleagues and courage in decision-making when she donned the abaya in her local-dominated government workplace, she said.
Dubai In the book, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office 101: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage their Careers, Lois P. Frankel, an executive coach, takes a no-nonsense approach to stop women from career-sabotaging behaviour like asking permission, avoiding office politics, and being too modest at work.
"Quit being a girl" are the words she repeated to women of all ages and stages in their careers for 25 years.
Girls are taught that their well-being and success depends on acting in certain stereotypical ways such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant and relationship-oriented, she writes in her best-seller.
Frankel identifies 101 common mistakes that women make at work as a direct result of their upbringing.
She offers good advice on how to handle office politics and how to capitalise on relationships to open opportunities.
It uses real women's experiences to highlight the mistakes followed by practical coaching tips. Frankel tackles difficult debates such as whether women should act like men to get ahead.
However, the book has an ethnocentric bias and may be less helpful to women in the Middle East because of cultural differences and different corporate expectations. It assumes that women are at fault and not the fact that they work in male-dominated workplaces that have may have less appreciation or patience for female attributes.
Tips: Changing your behaviour
Once aware of when and how self-defeating behaviours are damaging their careers, women can:
1. Become more pro-active. Network with the right people in the organization. Establishing your presence, finding a comfortable space and start with closer contacts. Create a list of people you should be liaising with.
2. Develop a reputation as a problem solver.
3. Gain a sense of how you are perceived in the work place for self-awareness. Get feedback from people, ask colleagues after a meeting "Did I get my point across?"
4. Take credit for your achievements and push the boundaries of your confidence.
5. Understand your strengths, identify your long-term goals and work backwards from those: Find out what skills, knowledge and behaviour you need to succeed. Work with your manager and HR to create a development plan.
6. Take more risks. Identify the pros and cons of each decision and consult the stakeholders impacted by it.
7. Getting to the top takes perseverance, determination and truthfulness to yourself
8. Befriend political allies at work who will leverage your career like upper management, project or technical managers, sales personnel. Ask HR whom to contact.
9. Dress in a way that reflects your professionalism
10. Interact with leaders in your field.
— Sources: Gaj Ravichandra, Psychologist and General Manager of HR Solutions in Middle East and Africa, Amanda Davis, Junior Associate with Bin Shabib and Associates law firm, Sarah Attick, officer at a local bank, Dr Laura Sherbin, Senior Vice President, The Centre for Work Life Policy.