x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Women don't have to 'lean in' to get on

A focus on how women should act in the workplace ignores the question of whether the workplace is structured the wrong way

There's a special place in hell for those women who don't help other women, says former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. It is the heart of one of the great female debates: what exactly is the role of women in power when it comes to other women (and men)?

Just this week Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published a book about her own experiences as a woman in the corporate space. Her words carry weight: she's a graduate of Harvard, and has worked at the US Treasury, the World Bank, McKinsey, and Google before moving to her current role. Her soundbite for women is to "lean in".

"Women internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives," she says. "The messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men, and pull back when we should lean in."

Studies are clear that women undersell themselves and their achievements. And so while it is important to address structural issues in the workplace, women themselves must be more confident and state their qualifications and achievements openly. Her words have been interpreted as a dictat that women should be more assertive, almost more masculine. We should have moved past the point where the only successful way to be a woman is to be a man, is the collective feminist argument.

But to focus on how women should or shouldn't act in the workplace, begs a bigger, more basic question, one which I think women who have reached powerful positions can influence: Is the workplace structured the wrong way, and what would be a better shape for it?

It's a relevant question as our traditional corporate culture is already under scrutiny given the global economic crisis.

Fundamentally, I believe that as a society we need to remodel our attitudes to understand - as many women already do and some men are starting to realise - that the boardroom is not the only place where success can exist.

One of my hopes for the outcome of the debate on what success looks like for women is that men too will benefit from having closer bonds with their families. I hope they can be liberated from the sense that their "manliness" depends on their corporate title and salary, rather than on the way they integrate their personal and professional lives. Indeed, in a recent book about the top five regrets of the dying, every male patient said, "I worked too hard". They regretted lost time with their families.

This is all very personal for me because last week I won an award from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising as one of the UK's Women of Tomorrow, "a future leader of the British Advertising industry". In my selection interview I was asked if I was encouraging more women into the advertising industry. My response was simply: "I'm just working hard to get women into industry as a whole!"

The judges looked shocked, but we forget the challenges at the beginning of careers and the inhibiting negative social and cultural attitudes that can hinder women's engagement.

I've been fortunate in the flexibility I've had in my work, and the recognition I've received, so I can progress in my career as well as look after my little one. There is never a minute's rest between work and motherhood. But I don't resent it at all. Instead, although you'll find me exhausted most of the time, it is exhilarating. It makes me feel incredibly fulfilled, in all aspects of my life, personal and professional. For me, this is the shape of success.


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk