Being the only woman in the boardroom: How women executives break the glass ceiling


It is March 8th, 2020, which many may know to be the day that International Women’s Day is commemorated. While women have been fighting for equal rights and opportunities for decades, with many strides being especially made in the last decade, major inequalities still exist which impede women from fully participating in the world’s economy.

According to a newly released report dubbed the “Gender Social Norms” index by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), more than 90% of the world’s men and women were found to be biased against women.

The report’s data was gathered from 75 countries which comprised over 80% of the world’s population, and revealed that 40% of respondents believed that men made better business executives and had more right to a job during times of job scarcity.

On the sidelines of the 2020 Women Economic Forum held in Cairo (the first time in an Arab country), Business Forward spoke to two inspiring women executives on their experiences of being in male-dominated industries and how they fought against sexist bias to reach their success.

Speaking to Business Forward were Liudmila Prozorova, a senior project procurement manager at a major oil and gas company based in the Gulf; and Dr. Jeannice Fairrer Samani, chief executive officer of Nextogen, a global technology products and services company, and CEO of her own company, Fairrer Samani Group.

What are the main personal obstacles and challenges facing women in the workplace today?

Prozorova highlighted the obstacles that women make for themselves to excel in the workplace. “The most important I think that women hold themselves back,” she said. “We do not believe in ourselves. We always think we are not enough so that is why you can find many women with great qualifications but they still think they are not enough. They [are] still trying to achieve more to reach but they [are] actually enough.”

She added that men are also more likely to push for promotion, whereas women tend to shy away. “Women do not ask for themselves to be promoted which quite often men do. Men’s mentality is ‘I deserve it. I know how to do it.’”

What about the structural challenges women face?

However, despite the alleged behaviors of women that apparently hinder their own success, they still face a number of structural obstacles which men do not.

“It is always the equity issue,” Samani said. “And truly being heard and your value being measured equally along with your other colleagues and standing out when you have the opportunity to stand out and being acknowledged as well.”

Prozorova conceded that the odds are stacked against women. The further one looks towards the top of a company, the less women one will find. “There is definitely obstacles in organizations. If you look in the pipeline of the women and men, the percentages starting from the lower positions and going up, there is less and less women. Men [are] most likely to get promotions compared to women.”

She added that men and women are not assessed equally and do not compete on a level playing field for promotions, forcing women to go above and beyond for recognition. “To get promoted, women need to prove themselves, twice or maybe three times or maybe even more, than men. At the same time, when you have male managers, it is very often that he [will] promote another male the same as him rather than to have something different with a female colleague.”

What do Samani and Prozorova advise women should do to fight sexist bias in their organizations to realize their full potential in the workplace?

Both touched on common themes of honesty and self-belief. “Number one, be your authentic self,” Samani said. “Bring all your giftings and talents, Never undermine your skills and your contributions to the company.”

Having worked in the male-dominated oil and gas industry for years, Prozorova said that she learnt how to navigate through sexism in the workplace. To cut through such an obstacle, she said: “First of all, women need to believe in themselves. Believe that they are capable, not always think that ‘I am not enough, I need to acquire these skills, I am not ready’ and so on. No, you are ready now as you are. Believe in yourself that you can do it.”

She also suggested that women be honest with themselves but to always take any shortfalls in their skills as opportunities to learn. “If sometimes you cannot do it, [admitting to it] is the easiest way to figure it out on the way.”

On how to get around the issue of bias or lack of recognition in the workplace, Samani added “know who you are and know your actual talents and that you actually can contribute to a project, run a project or run the organization.”

Prozorova and Samani also strongly advised women to take a more bullish attitude to their work in the fight for recognition. Prozorova said: “Be ready before. Do it before you are ready because you can always wait until you are ready and this [will] never happen.”

Samani went as far as to say that women get more involved in their companies than what is expected of them. “It is important when you are not invited, to actually invite yourself. To make sure that you include something of interest that will advance your career or can actually bring value to the organization or to the team. Definitely be that person to make that position and make your position known within that context,” she said.

Being competent and competitive? Or disruptive?

Undoubtedly, women struggle with striking a balance between making their voices heard and their achievements recognized on the one hand, but remaining favorable employees on the other hand to preserve their jobs and careers. To speak up and push back against sexist bias, whether conscious or unconscious, could potentially cause knockbacks. How can this dilemma be navigated?

“It is tremendous work, I must say. I had this experience. I still have this experience. It is very difficult,” Prozorova said.  “What helped me to overcome this, I advise the same to other women, be yourself. Do not try to copy somebody. Do not try to copy male managers [and] male leaders. Be yourself because very often your strength, your power, is within you and by copying somebody, you are losing your power, you are losing your strength. That is why [you should] be authentic, be yourself because the best way you can figure out any obstacles is your own way, not somebody else’s way.”

“It is a difficult balance,” Samani added. “I call it integrated opportunities whereby when you have your skill set and your knowledge and you want to really achieve something with the company, you present it as though you would be an equal partner as anyone else in the organization. That is where you would shine being able to demonstrate your capabilities and implementing those capabilities to move the project forward.”

How should leaders check their own biases?

Many executives and business leaders may not necessarily be literally sexist but still hold unconscious biases that impede their female employees from fully contributing their organizations. Even worse, these unconscious biases may cause them to overlook a promotion they ought to have given. So how can leaders become aware of something as abstract as unconscious bias to ensure they are running their organizations as meritocratically as possible? Samani believes that communication is the key.

“Have an open communication with those employees. Really get to know them. There is a fine line between personal and business but in the context of communication, you really get to know the individual, have a better understanding of how to communicate with them. How to optimize their skill set. Understand where their talents are. It may be in a different position. It may be contributing more than they are to the actual organization and that is where the organizations can actually take off. Having that equal opportunity of inclusion and being invited to the table which is very critical.”

Main photo: Getty Images 

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