I used to work as a trader in fund management. Throughout that time, I was the only female in a team of 10 people. On the wider floor and within the broader industry, the ratio was also very similar.
Today, as a coach whose clients are mostly within the financial services sector, I am pleased to see the ratio of females to males has improved – but only marginally. However, the bigger issue isn’t in the statistics, but rather the behavioural pattern towards women in business (particularly in this industry).
While in theory, sexual harassment and blatant sexism have reduced (yet sadly, not been eliminated), attitudes are still as misogynistic as they ever were, especially with the 30+ aged generations. And though millennials are embracing diversity better, deference to men is still ingrained.
Women still fear to tell their bosses (even female ones) that they are pregnant or that they might be getting married. Those who return from maternity leave – often part-time – still deliver full-time standards and volumes of work. And instead of being called strong and ambitious, women are still referred to as ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’ – whereas my male clients are merely described as ‘focused leaders’.
When it comes to self-improvement, that’s when things get really interesting. While my female clients proactively ask for coaching to improve their careers and performance, a few of my male clients (though they generally enjoy it) often start off quite defensive. They assume that learning to be a better leader and developing soft skills is something that is a ‘female thing’ and they don’t really need it to benefit their professional careers or productivity.
Many of my female clients seek coaching to be taken more seriously by their organisations and to be properly recognized by senior leaders. Although lack of confidence is a common theme across the board, women are more open about it, saying that culturally their organisations sap it out of them during their tenure, subconsciously but no less insidiously.
They’re undermined, overlooked for projects and promotions.
They suffer assumptions that once engaged and married, they will no longer contribute.
They endure mansplaining, are patronized or ignored in meetings.
The list goes on. So, what can women do about it?
Focus on your individual personality traits, preferences and strengths. Use your innate and natural gifts, and channel them in a way that produces powerful change – it really makes a difference. In addition, look at the context of what is going on and for ways to make the most of particular situations.
For example, I have female clients who are board members but are treated as a token. A box-ticking presence. Their verbal contribution is literally ‘shushed’. My advice is to review the situation you are in, take note of the players in the room and study them. Understand what makes them tick and how they think.
When you have something to say, make sure it is of value and also that it is backed up by credible data. When they push back, make sure you present arguments that they understand (from you having studied them). And, where appropriate, call people out for inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour. It doesn’t have to be rude, but by addressing it you’re putting your foot down to contempt.
This advice can be used on a daily basis.
Figure out your strengths. Be self-aware, note where you have your Achilles’ heel and where you need to develop. Study the feedback you have been given (as a side note, always ask for feedback on your work). Think strategically, listen to others, take what you can from them and apply it to your professional growth. Get a mentor or a coach.
But, most of all, do not be afraid to speak up and be the best version of yourself. If you don’t fight for yourself and your talents, no one else will.
Author: Karen Kwong, founder of RenOC