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Women in Leadership: Raise your Hand

Source | LinkedIn : By Tiffany See

Earlier this year, I attended our top talent incentive trip, an annual retreat where we take our top 1% of team members who delivered great performance in our last financial year, along with their spouses, overseas for 5 days. This year we took 143 winners with their partners to the vibrant city of Barcelona, Spain. During the final gala dinner, there was an activity where each table was asked to appoint a team captain to participate in a fun activity on stage to win prizes. There were around 25 tables in total, and we had a pretty good gender representation amongst the entire group. As I was watching the activity unfold, I suddenly realized there was only 1 woman being represented on stage – out of 25 tables, only one female had been either selected by the table group or had raised their hand to be leader!

Whilst on the surface this may seem like any other fun corporate team building event, witnessing this happening under such circumstance got me wondering: Why do so few women get selected to be the leader or raise their hand when the opportunity presents itself? Is it because we don’t like being the centre of attention, prompting us to think of all the reasons why “someone” else would be better when these opportunities arise; or is it that we lack the confidence to stand in front of our peers and leaders as we worry about  what others may think of us? Perhaps it’s a combination of these factors ; or that we simply aren’t interested in or don’t have the ambition to be in leadership roles.

A recent Women in Workplace 2015 study in the U.S. by McKinsey & Co and LeanIn.Org found that the leadership “ambition gap” widens in more senior roles within an organization. The research showed that across all career levels, women were less interested in taking on senior leadership roles as compared to their male colleagues. Women are more likely to cite “stress/pressure” as the key reasons for why they are not interested. There has been a perception that this stress has been driven by the demands of juggling work and family responsibilities, however this recent research dispels this myth as “stress/pressure” was the number one reason cited by both women who had children and those who did not.

From my own experience, it takes a lot of effort to say “yes”, and therefore it’s always easier and less stressful to say “No”. I look at my own daughter who lacks self-confidence and her default answer is always “no” whenever we’re encouraging her to try anything new or push her outside her comfort zone. It takes a lot of time, and even bribery, to convince her that “yes, you can!” In a leadership context, women are similar – we “perceive” a more senior role will be more stressful because we lack the self-confidence – we often think to ourselves “What if I don’t know the answer? What if I look silly? What if people don’t like what they see?” As a result, the convenient way out of this is to not raise your hand.

Research shows that women will tell you all the reasons why they are not qualified or why someone else is a better candidate for the role. As we think about this in the leadership context, we need to be less focused on the reasons why someone else should raise their hand over you and more about what how to build our confidence while worrying less about how others will judge you.

Some people would argue that the dynamics I was witnessing on the stage during our Gala Dinner was immaterial – it was just a game afterall. But it does matter, as what we witness in our everyday lives reinforce what is a norm in our minds.

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