Workplace biases: A continued milestone to female leadership roles


Only 3% of Indian CEOs and managing directors are women – a figure that has remained constant since 2014. Even though it is now mandatory to have a woman member on every board, attaining leadership roles is still very challenging for women, thereby limiting the options. While a lot needs to change, there is only so much that we can do to change other people’s thought processes. If, however, we introspect into what leadership means to us as women and what it takes to get there, we can perhaps get a little close to get where we aspire to be. Leadership runs much deeper than a corner office or a designation. It is first and foremost, an attitude – a mindset that focuses more on collective progress, wellbeing and sound decision-making. Historically, women have held leadership roles across businesses but when faced with the real and impending challenges of the corporate world, several things hold women back; and they choose to move out of the race. This two-part series will focus on the issues that women commonly face on their journey to leadership, and how we can exercise executive presence to make it to the top.

Let us first look at what holds us back. While coaching women from different corporate sectors, I typically come across three pain areas: the gender stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained in us that we now find them natural (Social Conditioning), the surrender to these stereotypes (Conformation to Norms) and finally, the gnawing feeling of unworthiness that stays even after various achievement and accolades (Imposter Syndrome). This vicious cycle prevents most women from even thinking about assuming leadership roles.

Social Conditioning: 

Take the simplest example of choosing to give up the job why domestic responsibilities so demand from one of the partners. Who do you think gives in? The woman, obviously. Ironically, if a man chooses to do so then society frowns upon him due to the age-old stereotyping that the man is the breadwinner of the family. Even after conversations on gender equality have gained significant momentum, we still seem to be stuck in a certain thought process that’s holding us back. This mindset, propagated by cultural and societal ideas, is ingrained in us since our childhood. No amount of policy making can work, if the mindset doesn’t progress. 

These stereotypes surface even in smaller, subtler ways. For instance, attending a Parent-Teacher Meeting is the mother’s job. If the father does that, then he is considered ‘helpful’. 

Conformation to Norms:

While these age-old practices exist, the challenge becomes bigger due to our conformation to them. We make peace with these norms expecting that people around us will understand our challenges and support us. That’s where the biggest disconnect lies. Everyone, including our spouses, bosses, subordinates and peers, are fighting their own battle. They have no time to understand our expectations. This in turn breeds insecurity, mistrust and frustration, resulting in the extreme step of moving out of the workforce. Early on in my career I was advised, ‘Ask, don’t expect’ and that has truly helped me (more on that in the next article).

The Imposter Syndrome:

Most women ask themselves questions like, “Am I worthy enough to take on this position?” “Did I get this role only because I am a woman and they needed some diversity?” Even after crossing all the barriers and proving their mettle, women often feel that they are unworthy of being leaders. This is nothing but a manifestation of the social conditioning and years of conformation to what is expected from us. Despite being worthy and working more keenly than our male counterparts to get there, reaching the top of the corporate ladder is often a bitter-sweet feeling for a woman. 

Corporate world, opinion makers, diversity experts and many more are working incessantly towards bringing in the gender parity for years and I believe some great progress has been made on that side. Yet, for any of these to actually make a significant impact we have to also bring some attitudinal shifts in ourselves too. This will make us feel more comfortable in our skin as we traverse through the corporate world. Effectiveness of policies and opportunities will multiply when paired with meaningful social and self transformation.