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'Women must remain true to their own leadership style'

March 05, 2013 18:09 IST
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What issues do women face in a leadership role in a male dominated industry? What keeps women away from leadership roles? What should women do to overcome hurdles they face at workplace?

Shanta Martin, CEO for ISC and Middle East, Allcargo Logistics, offers her take as part of a week-long series that dwells on issues women in India face.

There has been a general perception in the business world, much as in the political arena, that women (be they on the top or within the confines of an Indian household) are faced with a force discriminatory enough to challenge her, by sheer virtue of she being a woman. These challenges come not just from within the realms of her profession, but also from the social environs, or must I say that the issue is purely social. Leave aside the biases created much so by the gender divide and one will find that the professional acumen and capabilities of women is much the same as their male counterparts.

My personal opinion may differ much from the views of other female managers I encounter and I firmly believe that much of these biased perceptions have been contributed to by women themselves, for we ourselves seek reservations, we ourselves ask to be looked upon differently. So the first challenge is the challenge of self-perception and with this challenge comes the challenge of how to cope with the way we are perceived by others.

In a Harvard Business Review Jill Flynn and Kathryn Heath propose the six paradoxes women leaders face in 2013. The authors stress, “In order to clear a path for greater advancement and parity in 2013, we need to address the difficult paradoxes that women leaders continue to face -- these are the mixed messages and uncomfortable realities that complicate an arguably positive picture of progress”.

These paradoxes are what translates themselves into challenges nonetheless: be they related to the pay disparity, the skew towards the male preference in terms of promotions and growth, or be it in terms of business networking where it is perceived that men have an edge, the paradox of the start-ups, and the pressures from conflicting priorities as well as the feminine double bind, when it comes to the gravitas in order to advance at work versus a need to retain their "feminine mystique" in order to be liked.

Similarly, a research survey to discover the working public about roles of United States women in leadership positions, Dean Elmuti, Heather Jia and Henry Davis of The Lumpkin College of Business and Applied Sciences found that 50 per cent of women leaders perceived barriers that prevent women from entering management positions and lower advancement rates for women. This study shows that aspiration in women exists whether or not they take action and motivate themselves to advance for top management positions. However, barriers like discrimination, family-life demands, prejudice, and stereotyping result in fruitlessness in many cases. The majority felt that education and training could increase the preparedness of women for leadership roles.

Regardless of the country or the industrial sector where women find themselves working in a male dominated domain and regardless of whether the mitigating factor is discrimination, the leadership pipeline, society, or something altogether different, the extreme disparity of women versus men at the highest levels provides fuel for many of us to push harder. Unfortunately, it also leads many of us wonder if the struggle for career parity is truly worth it. The effect is that the pool of qualified female candidates for top jobs gets smaller when the best women leave to raise families or pursue part-time work or other endeavours.

Borrowing a quote from Jill Flynn and Kathryn Heath, “The world needs the best qualified women to step up to the plate, and women need to be able to weave their way through the most difficult of challenges which often robs them of confidence and squashes their desire to jump into the fray and become leaders.”

To transcend these barriers women must remain true to their own leadership style, the skills that many women bring to business naturally -- a collaborative style, a talent for listening, and a natural ability to manage interpersonal relationships -- are some of the aptitudes that all leaders need now and in the future. Women don't need to imitate men in order to be persuasive and authoritative; they simply need to be authentic. Apart from these women must also hone their own definition of success.

The most positive and effective way to overcome the challenges faced by women in leadership roles especially, is to look inwards rather than outwards, even though these challenges emanate from outside, there are challenges also which have an origin within the woman herself. Leadership demands that you be confident in your ability, understand the person that you are and express that. One must demand and expect the right to be treated fairly. Only then will we be able to clear the path for other women to accomplish, for there is a need to mentor the young woman who aspires to get into a leadership role, and there is no better way than to be an epitome of inspiration for them.

Society will certainly start accepting women as capable to accomplish anything, and it is indeed encouraging to see this social perception begin to change. Success does not see the gender before knocking at the doors of those who keep a positive attitude and for those who dare to explore the avenues out there.

In the end, you can’t fake empowerment -- everything is energy and energy doesn’t lie. Either you feel confident, courageous and capable or you don’t. The quickest path to success is to own where you feel “less than,” and strive to accept and appreciate yourself fully while at the same time taking positive steps to rebuild your confidence and legitimately bolster your sense of self-worth.

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