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The Scream by Edward Munch (1893)

As women, we are often told that we don’t say yes enough, hence miss out on leadership opportunities. The finding from an internal report by Hewlet Packard served to strengthen this point: “Men apply for a job when they are 60% qualified, and women only apply when they are sure they are 100% qualified. When I first heard of this, it was a mind-blowing moment. Having suffered (and still suffering) from Imposter Syndrome, I tread a difficult balance between being aware of the blind spots in my knowledge and expertise, and self-doubt. Still, while women are told that we lack faith in our abilities and therefore we don’t say yes enough, apparently, we also don’t say no enough and therefore suffer from more stress than men1. At work, we say yes to everything asked of us because we want to appear to be a good team player, but at the risk of looking like a pushover and being taken advantage of2.

To further compound the problem, being an assertive woman at work also does not bode good relationships with both sexes. Saying yes at work makes you look like a teacher-pleaser. As a female leader at work, one suffers from the double-binding bias of being expected to have womanly traits while having leadership traits that are seen to be inherently masculine. Women who are not assertive and fit in with the gender stereotypes have a higher “likeability” score but not considered to be leadership material. Ever heard of the Heidi and Howard experiment?3 Two different people with identical CVs. One branded “difficult, selfish, aggressive”, the other branded “assertive, likeable, good colleague”. I don’t have to tell you which one was branded difficult. This shows that success and likeability to be positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This is a huge problem because women do like to be liked, more so than men. We do care what others think of us, more so than men.

At home, I often apologised if I missed washing the dishes, putting out the garbage, clearing the drying rack, or that I am ordering too many takeaways and not cooking as much (I make a terrible housewife); to be reminded time and time again by my partner: “I am sorry, it is my responsibility too.” It is interesting that subconsciously, I do think that all these household chores are mine to do when it is the responsibility of everyone in the household. This is one of the things that I am trying to unlearn. To prove a point, a colleague of mine said that he prefers to have a girl as the eldest child, a fact that he proudly boasts to show that he is for women and girls, only to disappoint me by saying, “Because girls are more caring and will care for their younger siblings”. This girl is not born yet, and already has a motherly role assigned to her.

It is great to tell women to say yes at work, but we also have to learn to accept the assertive no at work, and especially at home. You cannot do everything, and I feel protective and sympathetic towards my female medical colleagues who wake up at 5 am, prepare the children for school, prepare breakfast and tonight’s dinner, iron their husband’s work shirts, send the children to school, wake the husband, and then attend a crazy 24-hour shift at work. This contrasting dichotomy was well noted in a 2019 report titled “Perception and Realities: The Public and Personal Rights of Muslim Women in Malaysia” by Sisters in Islam4. There are more women in the Malaysian workforce which is great statistics for equality but men still rule the household and therefore many women overwork to death. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant restricted movement and working from home for many and I can tell you in a heartbeat that this means the work performance of working mothers is negatively affected compared to men. Because we do everything, even when we are recovering from cardiac surgery which is why women do badly post-cardiac surgeries compared to men5.

While there are more women in the workforce, are we doing the important jobs? Think about it, who comes to work baking that oh-so-delicious cupcakes? Who was asked to do the coffee? You guess it right; it is the women. Because we do office housework too6. Which CFO gets stereotyped together with pony clubs and “doing good” at the expense of financial growth and for financial loss? Me. Just another example of women not being taken seriously.

Healthy boundaries are different for everyone but learn to say no. Say yes if your heart sings the right tunes, say no if it makes your heart sinks into the depths of depression. Be selective. Stop caring about everything, it is impossible to care about everything, start caring about your own self. Stand up and make your point. Don’t be silent at transgressions. It is self-love, not selfish.

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  1. Kramer, A & Harris, A. Harvard Business Review. Why Women Feel More Stress At Work. Published 2016. Accessed June 19, 2020.
  2. Heilman, ME, & Haynes, MC.  Attributional rationalization of women’s success in mixed-sex teams: No credit where credit is due. Journal of Applied Psychology. 90: 905-916. Published 2005.
  3. Sandberg, S and Scovell, N. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Chapter 7: Don’t Leave Before You Leave.
  4. Sisters in Islam. n.d. Research & Publications | Sisters In Islam. Accessed June 19, 2020.
  5. New Scientist. Educational Access Digital Subscriptions | New Scientist. Published 2016. Accessed June 19, 2020.
  6. Grant, A & Sandberg, S. Opinion | Madam C.E.O., Get Me A Coffee. Published 2015. Accessed June 19, 2020.

About the Author: Hannah Nazri

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5 thoughts on “Maintaining Boundaries as Women in Leadership: Oh it is so difficult to be a career woman!

  1. Thank you for your insight, I think the main point is to be selective in your yes’s and no’s.

    1. Absolutely – and this depends on what YOU value and should NOT depend on what others value. Speaking from personal experience, women tend to value the opinions of others more than themselves and that may or may not be the best course of action.

  2. Incredible insight; this piece details great example of how women can never do right in this patriarchal society.

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