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Shattering Ceilings for a Journey to Leadership

In an era where the world values creativity and encourages people to reach their potential, an invisible barrier restricts women who are somewhat confined within the heavy boundaries of societal norms, antiquated stereotypes, and systematic bias. In corporate culture, women are often denied advancement solely because of stereotypes against their gender. The sad reality started to unfold as the world began acknowledging these systematic biases with different terms. Women are still seen as “weaker” and “less competent” in C-suite positions even in this century, where they contribute to growth with paid and unpaid labour.

One such bias is found in the corporate culture in the USA, known as the “bamboo ceiling.” The term encapsulates the stereotypes that Asian Americans lack leadership or communication qualities because of their race. As a result, they are not promoted to executive positions. The term is a derivative of “Glass Ceiling” that is used as a metaphor for certain groups of people, especially women, from being able to reach managerial positions despite being able to see them through the invisible barrier. These terms, coupled with the gender pay gap, make it incredibly difficult for women, including those from seemingly developed Western countries, to reach influential leadership positions. Eastern Asia has the highest number of women in managerial positions, and it’s still at 28%, which is far from equal. Even then, their positions are often tied to some specific ones that don’t include decision-making power or C-suite positions. In South Asian countries, the number is absurdly low. In Bangladesh, only 10% of managerial positions are held by women, whereas in India, the rate is around 15%, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). So what puts women in these heavy shackles they can’t eliminate?
A study on the glass ceiling conducted within the Bangladeshi RMG sector gives us a glimpse of the answer. This sector is mainly run by and heavily dependent on female labourers, yet hasn’t seen any significant women leaders in managerial positions. This scenario itself speaks for the barriers that exist. But the study also reveals the obstacles identified by interviewees:

1. Organisational culture.
2. Social culture.
3. Lack of career encouragers.
These were the top three obstacles that women, regardless of gender and age, have felt during their careers. One woman quote – “I don’t think the organisation is going to ensure work-life balance for us. Since I joined the organisation 14 years ago, I think it is run only for profit rather than worker welfare. It especially neglects the females’ progression into the decision-making or leadership positions.” Another study done by the Economist presents the large-scale scenario across Asia. They introduce two more terms to identify the societal pressure that keeps most women from reaching C-suite leadership. One of them is “Tiger Mom” – tasks that require women with children to be accountable for their children’s success in education. Such one-sided pressure on women restricts them from leadership ambition. As they take career breaks at the critical stages, the pathway to C-suite goes out of reach. This barrier is also known as the “maternal wall.” Another effect of these disproportionate responsibilities is that employers also construct a bias against women that they won’t be able to contribute as much due to familial duties. Women face unprofessional and unexpected questions about their personal life during interviews, whereas men are expected to have a balanced life. Women worldwide face unbearable workloads and unrealistic expectations, whether in the West or the East.

The Way Forward
As we navigate through the depressing situation of systematic barriers, we also find some solutions to pave the way for the next generation of women –
1. Identifying barriers by addressing the knowledge gap: The information is primarily Western-centric. To advance Asian women, we need to address the specific cultural, social, or structural barriers that Asian women go through. There is no alternative to adequate data and studies on this specific issue. Moreover, each country might have different types of barriers. For example, in China, a positive assessment of maternity leave offers junior employees a stretch assignment. But this positive outlook has created an extra layer of barrier to young female workers as employers hire more male members to avoid maternity costs—issues like this need to be identified country-to-country to approach the problem precisely and bring a change quickly.
2. An inclusive work culture: With the available information and cultural knowledge, access to employment hubs, inflexible work culture, and lack of daycare – have been some of the significant issues that indicate the work culture itself isn’t inclusive. Companies genuinely interested in having gender-balanced employees should have flexible work schedules for women at different stages. With COVID-19, everyone has experienced a hybrid work schedule. Implementing a remote-work facility for mothers, a daycare availability, or a daycare fee can encourage mothers to continue their careers. Companies, governments, and NGOs can sponsor mentorship or skill development programs to facilitate ambitious women to reach higher. With all the negative attitudes, women often doubt themselves and lose their confidence to fight a century-old patriarchal society. A mentoring program can boost their confidence and ignite the spark. Some countries are also introducing quota facilities to force a quick change initially.
3. A holistic approach for a cultural shift: Antiquated mindset of Asian countries influences both cultural and social barriers that exist. A transition won’t be easy or quick. But the approach has to be holistic to influence the interlinked obstacles in every step. The mindset that women are just as capable of being influential leaders shouldn’t be confined to the workplace. Family, educational institutes, and society – advocacy needs to be everywhere to uplift capable leaders to reach their deserving positions. A women’s issue shouldn’t only be voiced by women or a company that wants gender-equal goals to be fulfilled. Men should be allies by being educated on the challenges faced by their female counterparts and pave the way as men have better access to opportunities. People in powerful positions or influential companies can advocate, contribute to peer learning, and hold others accountable to be more gender inclusive.

Author- Afrina Asad

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