Eighty percent of my coaching practice is comprised of women leaders and trailblazers. We face a unique set of challenges and expectations imposed upon us via social media, our families, our cultures, and our religions.
We continue to break those molds, rewrite the rules, redefine ourselves, achieve great things, and change our worlds. But, there is one key place I still see women getting stuck. It's on the internal limitations we impose upon ourselves. These are far more discreet. Thus, harder to identify. I want to introduce you to the top three ways I see women holding themselves back at work. Regardless if you're an entrepreneur, CEO, or employee, understanding the ways you hold yourself back and getting rid of those roadblocks will not only catapult you to new heights in your career—it can inspire other women to follow.
1. Erase The Brilliance Margin
I write a lot about The Brilliance Margin, which is a self-perceived measure of difference between your brilliance and capabilities to that of someone else. We often think there's a huge margin between our own abilities, knowledge, and talents as compared to:
- Our parents
- Our bosses
- Our colleagues
- Our partners
- Our friends
At some point, we come to the realization that the people we look up to and the ones we compare ourselves with don't have the answers. We do. Our brilliance exists in the unique sets of skills, capabilities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes that are intrinsically ours. We need to start owning our stories instead of constantly comparing our journeys of success and failure to someone else. When we do that, we learn that:
- Our parents are fallible humans who have been “faking it until they make it" through the unknowns for decades.
- Our bosses aren't really that much smarter than us, and yet they hired us to complement their shortcomings.
- Our partners want what's best for us but may not really know what that is (because only we do).
- Our friends don't have it all figured out because if we really listen, they're telling us so (and thank goodness, because who else would we commiserate with)?
- Celebrities either inherit or stumble into their celebritydom by chance. If you don't think there are hundreds or more Angelina Jolie's and Denzel Washingtons out there waiting to be discovered, think again!
If you've created a Brilliance Margin (and chances are you have), many things can happen.
- You don't speak up because you think someone probably has a better idea than you do.
- You don't speak up because you are afraid the person will think you're an idiot.
- You don't act on your vision or idea until you can run it by them.
- You don't create your own vision because you play the role of activating their vision or ideas.
- You don't advocate on your own behalf because you don't deserve “it" yet (it = promotion, money, love, acknowledgment).
Notice that the result of a Brilliance Margin is inaction. Don't speak. Don't act. Don't create. Don't own your greatness.
Don't believe that nonsense.
If you do want to harness and leverage your own power, there are just three rules to follow:
- Be the master of your internal dialogue. How do you speak to yourself? What stories do you tell yourself about your own power or potential?
- Trust that by knowing and being yourself, you will “show up" well in the world (which encompasses how you talk, the actions you take, and how they make you feel).
- Know that not all people are your people, so it's okay if not everyone is a member of your fan club. Remember that people who are not yet awakened to their own power will sometimes find yours threatening.
Lastly, examine your key relationships: parents, boss, partner, friends. Who do you look to for approval and permission? How would it feel to give yourself permission to speak up or take action? Where in your life have you already narrowed a Brilliance Margin? What strengths and lessons can you carry from that experience into another that needs attention?
If you're ready to start narrowing a Brilliance Margin in your life, action is key, because action is the only remedy for fear.
2. Soothe the Imposter Syndrome.
The Imposter Syndrome is one of the most common disguises fear wears (and very common among high-achieving women). Introduced in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a paper entitled, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, it's a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
The best way to soothe your Imposter Syndrome is to find a safe place to talk about it. You'll be astounded how many women have this in common. Talking about it deflates its power over you. Replace your imposter thoughts with positive affirmations and start rewiring your brain, yes, own who you are in your journey, right now. You're not an imposter. You're growing, evolving, and becoming a better version of yourself. Remember that your opinion is the real one that matters.
3. Recruit your cheering section.
Who are your biggest supporters? Where are there gaps in your cheering section? Home? Career? Health? Spiritual life? Family?
Feeling supported by the right people is mandatory in business. If you only rely on your digital audience, you will feel sorely disappointed when you share news and don't get a million likes. Creating an authentic cheering section sets the stage for you to be yourself.
Here are some of the reasons women don't ask for support:
- Fear of rejection/being told “no"
- We don't want to be a burden
- Fear of judgment
One of the greatest gifts from years of working inside of organizations are the beautiful friendships and professional relationships that resulted. When I started my own business, a former colleague and friend were kind enough to review all of my original sales presentations, program ideas, proposals, and pricing.
I then hired an executive coach to support me, who also held me accountable for the internal work of creating a business while I created the parts of the business the world could see. Working through your fears and having a partner to remind you of your gifts, your “why," and generally hold space for you to work through your internal and external challenges is nothing short of a game changer.
While so many people make promises to buy your services or share their contacts, here's the truth: only a fraction of them will actually show up for you. Here's another truth: the ones who do will support you in ways you cannot even imagine. Support is about quality, not volume.
Hire support where you need to. Otherwise, from your place of power, formally invite key people to your support team: colleagues, mentors, spouses, and partners. Be specific about the kind of support you need and ask if they are willing to sign up. It is heartwarming to watch the women I coach make these requests of the people in their lives because, let me tell you, they will say yes and sign up for you in droves! You'll wish you had done it sooner.
Wherever you are in your professional life, stop waiting for permission to be great or do great things. There's no right time. No perfect boss. No “dream" work scenario where you feel on top of your game five days per week.
Be honest with yourself, remove the barriers, and get to work.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.