Women need to help themselves to keep aspirations alive

What women need to do to take charge of their careers, so that they can be the leaders of tomorrow

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Over the past two weeks, I have written about why it is important to have women leaders, and what CEOs and board members should do to develop their female talent. In this article, I would like to discuss my thoughts on what women themselves need to do, so that they can be the leaders of tomorrow.

Two weeks ago, at Egon Zehnder, we hosted a “Leaders and Daughters” event, where we invited some very inspiring young women and their parents, to share their career journeys with us. Although these young professionals had only been in the workplace for a very short time, they were making an amazing impact and were very upbeat about their career prospects.

Their ambition and drive took me back to my days at the Wharton School, when I was extremely ambitious and convinced that I would change the world. I contrasted that with the situation at a recent class reunion, 25 years later. Many of the bright and ambitious women I had gone to business school with had now dropped out of their careers. I was surprised that these highly educated women had stopped working in their 30s, just as they were getting really good at what they were doing, and were contributing both to their organizations and society at large.

This made me think about why we don’t have enough women leaders, and how we can make sure that the bright and ambitious young women I met two weeks ago will still be at the top of their game 20 years later.

The ‘leaky pipeline’

A recently published report by Bain and Co. found that when women start their first job, their aspirations and ambitions are bigger and bolder than those of their male peers. However, after just two years in the workplace, women’s confidence and aspirations fall dramatically. Two out of the three previously ambitious women say that they no longer have these leadership aspirations—while the young men remain just as ambitious as they were to begin with.

This happens for various reasons, but one very important factor is that women’s identities change. Some of us get our identity from our work, others from religion or family. However, identities are dynamic and evolve as we go through life. Among the women that Bain studied, identities changed a mere two years after they started work, from feeling like aspiring leaders to no longer being capable of holding a top position. Their identity altered from the enthusiastic “I can do it all” to “let’s settle for less”.

I was the youngest of three daughters in my family, and my father often referred to me as “his son”. Since I was a little girl, it was always assumed that I would educate myself and have a career. However, when I had children, my own identity needed to evolve. I wanted to take time out to be with my children, but did not want to stay at home as a full-time mom. When my children were little, being a mother did affect my aspirations and ambitions, but eventually I realized I needed to bounce back and take control of my career.

Taking control

Women need to keep seeing themselves as leaders and retain their aspiration, whatever happens in their personal lives. A large part of leadership is believing that you can be a leader. Women often question themselves and doubt whether they can do the job or whether their surroundings will accept someone like them. We often hear discussions about “glass ceilings”; however, it would be more accurate to talk about a “sticky floor”. Women start doubting their own abilities, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my experience, when men are asked to take on a larger role that they may not be completely ready for, they enthusiastically embrace the challenge and rise to the occasion. Women, on the other hand, often demur, as they believe they are not fully ready. My advice to young women is that it is important to be bold and say yes to what scares you and take every opportunity to realize your full potential. To achieve success, women need to “lean in” and take some risks. More often than not, they will succeed.

One of the factors that often prevent women from taking leadership roles is that their family responsibilities often don’t allow them to take all the opportunities that come their way, especially when it involves relocating. If this applies to you, be proactive in getting involved in cross-functional or cross-geography teams, which will give you some extra experiences in lieu of relocation.

A supportive environment

Finding a mentor or a coach who will understand your ambitions can help you gain the confidence and drive that you need to succeed. All aspiring female leaders should look for role models; if there aren’t any within your company, look outside and find an external mentor that you admire. Allow yourself to be inspired and borrow the best of what you see, whilst still being true to yourself. Mentors can play a critical role in helping women to understand their ambitions and also to create plans to achieve them.

There are also increasing numbers of development groups for women who aspire to hold leadership positions, which can provide valuable support and advice. For a long time in my career, I often felt lonely as I was the only woman in my peer group. I found building a network with other working women was very helpful as I navigated life’s challenges.

However, sources of support don’t have to be in the workplace. If you are a working mother, having a supportive parents’ group in your children’s school is also crucial. Working mothers often feel guilty about missing out on time with their child, so the support of other mothers with children can be invaluable. I don’t think I would have been able to build a successful career without the support of my women friends at my school group.

Looking forward

The World Economic Forum reported that the global gender parity gap would only be fully closed in the year 2133. It is true that society definitely needs to change its attitudes towards working women and female leaders, and that companies need to nurture their female employees. However, to make this change happen sooner, as I said earlier, young ambitious women need to help themselves and take charge of their own careers.

Through building and retaining confidence, and surrounding themselves with a supportive environment, women can make sure that they avoid the precarious “aspiration cliff”. By learning from the stories of other successful women, tomorrow’s female leaders can create a better future, for their businesses and for themselves.

The author is co-head of Asia financial services practice at executive search firm Egon Zehnder.