Representation of women in leadership is improving, but they still lag behind their male counterparts. Despite invisible, ‘the glass ceiling’ is very real. With organisations are still largely and exclusively lead by men, only a few women can reach positions in the upper levels of management.
What are actually significant barriers to female leadership – and what can women do about it? HR in Asia invites Yeo Chuen Chuen, Founder of ACESENCE who is a multi-award-winning leadership development coach, and celebrated author, to share her insights on this issue.
Ready to get inspired? Read on..
Question: Chuen Chuen, societal stigma and family expectations are seen as the root of gender inequality. Do you have any challenging experiences related to this issue? How do you overcome it?
Answer: Over the course of my entrepreneurial journey into a relatively unknown profession at the time, the challenges were two-fold. Having left a stable job, my calling required me to negotiate family expectations, my roles and responsibilities, because ultimately, I’m a mother of three young boys and family support was crucial for my success.
Given the lack of understanding and many misconceptions about professional coaching and what it does, there was a lot of explaining to do when actually, none was due. At the same time, there were also certain impressions about who an executive coach should be (referring to my ‘incorrect’ skin colour), and how an executive coach should look like (referring to my relatively young age). I faced questions, curiosity and honestly, even criticisms from both prospective clients and fellow coaches alike. And yet, as an Asian female, I had to justify my choice and articulate the value I could offer to businesses and global enterprises twice as hard, just to drive my point across and not only be seen as credible but also an authority in this field.
Mastering myself was an instrumental part of my process of beating the odds. I did that by clarifying why, with what and how I could help leaders from nearly 40 countries achieve success and committed myself to be a strong communicator. Having thorough clarity and belief in what I brought to the table made me resilient to grueling questions by authoritative figures. As I improved my clarity of thought and communicated strategically and empathetically, I was able to increase my presence (or in executive’s terms – executive presence) and with it, charisma to win my clients over.
Question: Based on your observation as a talent and leadership coach, what are the most common mental barriers that are often faced by female leaders?
Answer: A common mental barrier that I have noticed in female leaders is the tendency to censor themselves and hold themselves back before even beginning. When something is out of their comfort zone, some leaders run the risk of not believing wholeheartedly in their ability to be successful. In turn, this translates into less effort being put into standing out and excelling. Despite being leaders in their own right, there tends to be an ongoing belief that their role is to stand in the background and merely be supportive. This is reinforced when their attempts to deviate from the norm is met with resistance or unhelpful comments.
Guilt is another common mental barrier. Often, they are stricken with guilt if they have to de-prioritize family responsibilities temporarily. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I definitely did and it was an internal struggle more than an outward pressure.
Another common mental barrier is believing that it is not their place to do or say something when they should be voicing their opinions and comments confidently. More than that, I have noticed that there are still female leaders accepting unfair, non-civil behaviour, inappropriate remarks made to them in the workplace by fellow peers or other senior stakeholders. Another limitation that I have noticed is when female leaders refrain from pointing out unconscious bias about how they should be as female leaders and this actually worsens the bias and reinforces the stereotypes.
Question: Despite years of women’s struggle to break the glass ceiling, why do female leaders still find it taxing to achieve their goals or get to where they want to be?
Answer: I believe that this is because the overall system is not yet as conducive as we envision it to be for female leaders. Tension is caused by two aspects- internal mindset barriers and external ones.
Another reason is that there is still a lack of female role models as there’s a leaky pipeline of female leaders to inspire more women to step up. I believe that there needs to be greater consistency. Thirdly, culture eats strategy for breakfast – culture on the larger level is a great influencing factor.
In all fairness, however, the receptiveness to females who dare to rise above the norm and shatter glass ceiling has been better in the past few years but we can definitely have more parity.
Question: The Minister for Social and Family Development, Masagos Zulkifli, has declared 2021 to be the Year for Celebrating SG Women. What are your thoughts about this campaign?
Answer: I think it’s great!
Both the inner physique of women and external environment interact with each other. Sometimes the interaction is negative and it feeds into each other, preventing women from aspiring upwards or getting the respect they deserve. For example, a woman who aspires to be in leadership positions within an organisation might be disadvantaged by the system where the panel of decision makers has a certain impression about how and who the leader should look like. What we can do here is to have a systematic change where certain ratios and practices are legislated and then regulated. This will begin to turn the wheel on that.
We are really looking at making bold changes so that the inner physique of women interacts positively with the external environment, encouraging more women to stand out and push themselves to do and be the best that they can.
Question: Female leaders are fighting against a sense of self-doubt. Do you have any advice on how we can beat this feeling and in turn, gain an agile mindset?
Answer: In my experience, both male and female leaders struggle with the sense of self-doubt although I would say it manifests more commonly in female leaders – as in the self-doubt impedes actual performance.
In a recent webinar I delivered on this very topic, I offered three suggestions. Firstly, it is important to recognize that the playing field has been somewhat leveled due to the pandemic. No one really knows what the best or right answers are anymore. Everyone is figuring out the pathways to success and we are really talking about ‘multiple pathways to success.’ Just look at the companies that have evolved and turned an ‘impossible business model into a viable one.’ For example, Grab is a e-hailing company without owning a single vehicle and now venturing into digital banking in Singapore. So, my advice here is to be open to change because tides can turn in one way or another very quickly and without warning.
Second, female leaders need to be cautious about their thoughts. What they think, they become. Poor thoughts influence the subconscious mind and this affects their behaviour and that has a direct impact on the outcomes. Often when outcomes are poor, leaders think it is their ability/capacity that is inadequate but in my experience, the behaviour stems from a poor mindset which limits their outcomes.
Third, female leaders need to find a supportive tribe. People in the tribe could be a professional coach, a mentor in the workplace or a supportive team who are willing to give constructive feedback. All leaders need to improve themselves and seeking feedback from a group of people who want them to succeed makes a lot of difference.
Question: How can mentorship networks and coaching initiatives be beneficial in guiding women to strengthen their confidence?
Answer: This is related to the supportive tribe I mentioned above. Similar to coaching (be it company-sponsored or personal ones), having a safe space to talk about concerns that are on a a female leader’s mind without fear of being judged, or creating a negative corporate image helps a lot. Mentorship networks are helpful when women who have ‘been there, done that’ share practical advice with other women because they will feel inspired knowing that someone else has overcome similar challenges. The benefits of coaching initiatives cannot be undermined. Working with an executive coach is one effective way to explore personal branding, personal leadership beliefs and leadership skills customized to an individual – all very beneficial in strengthening confidence in women.
Question: Lastly, despite being minority in the leadership role, how do female leaders discover their unique leadership style and voice to become trailblazers and inspirations to their organisations?
Answer: Indra Nooyi said, “We need to form a sisterhood.” Her purpose behind advocating for sisterhood is so that women leaders can band together and call out unconscious biases that are disadvantaging women. Sisterhood is powerful. It is a chance for all women to show the variations and permutations of highly effective leadership styles that are different from the male stereotypes – and the more women who stand out and be trailblazers, the more women globally will inspire their organisations.
Coming to the crux of the issue, how do female leaders discover their unique voice? Personally, I believe that executive coaching is the answer to that. 1-to-1 coaching itself is a tailor-made solution and it serves that purpose. If executive coaching is not accessible, female leaders can begin with a values exploration followed by strengths discovery.
Essentially, discovering what ‘makes you tick’ is crucial because everyone is unique and once you discover what makes you stand out, you will be able to achieve a sense of clarity to become an effective leader.
Yeo Chuen Chuen is a multi-award-winning executive coach based in Singapore working with clients in both government and private sectors. She has served clients from more than 30 countries across 5 continents since 2013. Chuen Chuen has extensive experience working with a wide range of business leaders from various industries, coaching them to develop an agile mindset. This increases their ability to navigate the complexities of today’s workplace and lead effectively.
Chuen Chuen uses her Re4 Coaching Model to help clients create behaviours that drive towards desired outcomes. Her approach promotes the strong alignment and congruence between values, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. This allows leaders to generate deep insights and Chuen Chuen facilitates the translation of these into powerful motivation. She blends the many approaches and techniques which are well-grounded in research seamlessly and brings clients through a tailor-made experience to best meet their needs.
Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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