It was the war-cry of the 1990s. In order to get ahead in the office, you had to not only take the men on at their own power game, you had to beat them at it too. Two decades later and it’s a sentiment that lives on, raised again more recently in New York Times bestseller Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Penned by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the premise of the book is to encourage women to really occupy their seats in the boardroom, making their voices heard.
“A few years ago, I hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook,” Sheryl says. “After the usual milling around, I encouraged everyone to take a seat. Our invited guests, mostly men, sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over publicly so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats. The women had every right to be at this meeting. But because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants.”
So is Sheryl’s observation truly an example of women’s roles within modern companies?
Kerry Bonsall, a Dubai-based sales executive in the oil and gas industry, agrees it is. To be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry, Kerry felt she needed to prove she could roll with the guys. “As a woman in this industry, you definitely need to know your stuff twice as well as your male colleagues,” the 34-year-old university-educated business graduate laments. “I certainly feel as though I was questioned more in the initial stages of my role.” It was through consistently proving her worth, and beating her male colleagues at pitches, that Kerry feels her abilities – and not her gender – became the focus. “Confidence is key. Once I had made that impression, tough as it was, I was respected for my part in the success of the company.”
On the other side of the fence, however, is founder of Toh PR, Sophie Toh. Having built a successful company since its 2009 launch, she’s a pro when it comes to landing accounts, schmoozing tricky characters and competing in an industry that has more PR agencies than you can count. But for Sophie, it’s trading on her strengths as a woman – and not competing with the menfolk – that has been her calling card.
“Power doesn’t have to be loud, and actually, I believe that sometimes being quiet is the most powerful way to get something done, or someone’s attention,” she says. “There are women all over the UAE showing that it is perfectly possible to be feminine in character and super successful. Do we need to be tough as nails, with the energy of 10 teenagers and wisdom of 10 Buddhas? Hell yes. But loud, one-dimensional and obnoxious? We can leave that to the guys.”
Not a pushover
We’re not suggesting you stick your oar in for the heck of it. But we are suggesting that knowing your worth will encourage your bosses to recognise – and respect – it too.
“Being a pushover at work is only going to burn you out and turn you into a scapegoat when the company needs one,” warns social strategist Drew Hendricks. Someone who learned this the hard way is Monique Mass, a marketing executive who has worked for some of the bigger corporates in Dubai.
Having worked through the recession, Monique recalls that it was ingrained in her colleagues and her that they were lucky to have jobs at all, and so, eager to avoid redundancy, they stopped asking for benefits such as pay rises or overtime wages, instead working extra hours without complaint or reward.
“It got to the point where the bosses realised they could take advantage of our fear-induced work ethic and take unprofessional liberties. I was even asked to delay my wedding,” the 33-year-old recalls. “My boss said he felt the timing wasn’t so convenient for the company any more. I can’t imagine that a man would ever have been asked such a thing.”
According to Dubai-based executive coach Louisa Coates, the power of standing up for yourself is in picking your battles. “In general, we need to be confident to raise matters that we believe in,” she says. “But first decide when and if the boat needs rocking. Pick the right issues.”
Fact is that we – womenkind – are just as responsible for the maintenance of the glass-ceiling as men are. If we don’t have confidence in ourselves, how can anyone else have confidence in our abilities? It’s about truly knowing you deserve to be at that meeting, and that your experience and opinions are valid, and not being afraid to speak up.
“As an executive coach working with successful women I often suggest that they take another look at how effectively they are working within the organisational culture,” says Louisa. “As women we often shy away from this dirty word ‘politics’, but in reality it’s just the way to get recognised fully for your talents and gain the level you want, not get hijacked.”
We’re not suggesting muscling in on every bit of office drama, but just talking and getting involved in office debates – throwing your ideas around and having the passion and knowledge to back them up.
Also, don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Bosses aren’t necessarily looking for people who will blindly follow them; they’re looking for employees with enough nerve to throw a curveball that can change the game. “I can pinpoint when I went from being ‘that girl’ to being someone integral to the company,” Kerry recalls. “I disagreed with my boss in a meeting while everyone else was blindly agreeing. But I had my reasons, and I wasn’t arrogant about it. I highlighted what we could do differently. He realised this result would make him look very good indeed. From then on, I was his confidant.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in How to Ask For The Money, Snag The Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve, by Kate White.“I really subscribe to that mantra of ‘Go big or go home’,” says Kate. “Sometimes we think we just have to do our job and nothing more, but it’s so much more than that. You have to solve that problem that no one else can solve, you have to come up with that bold idea, and really not be afraid to go for it. You really have to dazzle your boss, stand out from the pack. If you’ve just got your nose to the grindstone, that’s not how you get noticed.”