Author’s Blurb: I hesitated a long time writing this article, because I know that the vast majority of working women do not receive similar pay and treatment even if they bring the same value. However, my stand is this—if we focus on getting EQUAL, we cannot get AHEAD. And women have a lot of natural advantages in leadership that we should focus on growing and honing.
I’m tired of trying to get equal.
When I was in university, my Mechanical Engineering class was 150 men and 10 girls. I worked day and night, even in Year 1 when the grades did not count in the final degree, to graduate top of my class. I wanted to prove that girls were as good as guys in tough, technical engineering subjects. I got my number 1 spot, but I spent 4 years dedicating 14 hours a day to studying something I wasn’t passionate about.
When I graduated and joined consulting, I was one of the few girls hired into the tech team in Accenture. I worked day and night, just to prove that girls could also manage servers. I think I did OK, got promoted early and everything, but I spent 2 years working really hard on projects that weren’t too meaningful to me.
When I started a tech startup (I think I’m seeing a pattern here) back in 2014, I was one of the few female founders around. Definitely one of the few female founders who was also bringing up little humans.
We’re still working hard at growing Recommend Group and making something spectacular of it, and the last year has been amazing, but upon recent reflection I realised that I was still trying to prove something.
That girls can be as good as guys. That women can be as good as men. In anything.
Why was I spending my life trying to prove something I should already be confident of? I mean, the data is clear—companies with women founders, women board-members, or large percentage of employees that are women, ALWAYS do better than others. Even Jack Ma said so.
Maybe it’s because the world keeps telling us that we need to get to equal, which to me always means WE ARE STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
But in the last few years, having had the privilege of meeting and working with so many amazing and powerful women leaders and entrepreneurs, work-from-home moms, and small business owners, another thought is shaping in my head.
Why focus on comparing or benchmarking ourselves to men? Anyone who has ever worked with both men and women in the same room cannot deny one thing—both genders are very different in how they work, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.
Each gender is naturally better at some things, and weaker at some other things. Heck, each human is naturally better at some things, and weaker at some things.
Why not focus on the things that we are naturally great at, and make those things our competitive advantage so that we can get ahead, rather than get to equal?
Here are some areas I think women have a natural edge:
Women have an advantage over men when multi-tasking—we remain more organised when we have to juggle many things.
There are many hypotheses on why this is, but my favourite is the hunter-gatherer—our ancestral cave-women had to juggle picking fruits from different trees, cooking, tending to infants, and keeping the cave warm and welcoming, while our men friends spent many, many hours in a day stalking that one single animal. And so the brain evolved differently.
In today’s world, it really is a challenge keeping up with the speed of change and handling different distractions. Here you are knee-deep in multi-million dollar contracts, when your team member asks you for guidance, your boss wants to know whether you will hit your KPI that month, your colleague messages you with the office gossip, your mum texts you to say that your child is having a temperature, and Zalora sends you a push notification that your favourite shirt is back in stock. Ahhh, so many things happening at once!
Being able to multi-task well is getting more and more important in today’s world. I think this gives women a strong competitive edge in the workplace and in life!
2. Being Comfortable With Emotions
It’s undeniable that women are more closely associated with being emotional, or being more comfortable with their emotional side. This is probably a result of societal shaping since young.
“Little girls are given permission by society to be empathetic, use language that expresses emotions, and place priorities on developing deep and meaningful relationships (starting with dolls). While both girls and boys may develop mental toughness through sports activities, many boys tend to grow into men who rely on harder skills like aggression as their default reaction to stress rather than softer skills like empathy and self-awareness”LaRae Quy, author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders”
It’s also possible that women had to develop higher levels of emotional intelligence when climbing the ranks because face it, we have a tougher climb than men. It’s getting evident in studies that high levels of emotional intelligence were found in work situations where women executives were required to lead by influence rather than direct authority, says the author above.
How many times have you come across a problem where the solution is clear and logical, but people are not implementing it well because of some emotional roadblock? Or situations where the team looks good on paper, but people just don’t get along with one another because emotions are running high?
To me, being able to understand and leverage on emotions when influencing others in the workplace is a strong advantage! It’s yet another tool in the toolbox we can use at the right moment.
3. The Alternative Angle
Women or females constitute half of the global population. In the US, women control 85% of consumer spending, 70% of major financial decisions for themselves and their families, and 60% of personal wealth. Globally, women control USD36 trillion of personal wealth. Ask your male colleague whether he will be buying that expensive thing, and he will probably answer you, “Let me check with my wife”.
Understanding and targeting women is an area that is less understood because face it, most of the business leaders and bigwigs are male.
Here is where having women at the table, bringing varied and unique perspectives, is so very valuable that companies are mandating diversity just for the sake of diversity. As women, we bring value just by contributing our perspectives and those are almost guaranteed to be unique because we usually are the minority at the table.
I think that sometimes women don’t speak up loudly because we are the minority… but because we are the minority, our views are almost guaranteed to be value-adding. I always try to remember this when trying to get my voice heard above the masculine noises around the table.
4. The Female Magic
This one is a really unique skill that I’ve noticed for many years, but have never seen any write-up. Women, or Females, we have this Special Magic.
Have you noticed how well and comfortably women negotiate prices at markets, walking away and then back again, cajoling and joking, changing from strict to friendly, while aiming to get 40% discount? Men, they first have to steel themselves mentally and emotionally, then drag up the courage to tentatively ask for that 15% and then hastily agree to 10%, pay and walk away? Well, I think we bring this Magic to business negotiations.
I was just asking Mil from Mil Design, one of our top Interior Designers, how does she “survive” and be seen as a an “equal”, as a female in the male-dominated construction industry.
She looked at me incredulously and said, “Equal? Why do I want to be equal? It’s so much better being female in construction.”
She then proceeded to tell me how as a female, she can convince the contractors to deliver outcome within scope and within a shorter timeframe than any of her male colleagues can. And she is teaching all her female project managers to be able to do that.
Do people work more or try harder when their woman boss or clients ask them to? I think yes, even though I don’t understand why myself.
So the above reasons are why I always cringe slightly when I hear “Getting to Equal” or “Each for Equal”. I do understand that we have had 50 years of salaries, titles, etc. falling behind men because we simply have more things to do in life and the cards are always stacked against us. Apple for apple, men are always paid higher than women and that’s not fair.
However, I think the way to getting Equal is to see how we can get Ahead.
You never hear fast growing companies say to their shareholders, “This year, we aim to get Equal with the other players in the market.”
Oh no, they understand their target customers, core competencies, differentiation, hire a great team, and craft a strategy to get ahead. Why should our careers be any different?