What Holds Women Back

By Lily Cheah|28-04-2014 | 1 Min Read

Pun Tian-Pouw, principal at global provider of talent management solutions, and executive search firm Korn Ferry is no stranger to the women and careers discussion. With more than two decades of experience in leadership search and talent management, Pun connects the brightest of senior female talent to roles in large organisations.

I first met Pun, or “TP” as he prefers to be known as, at TalentCorp’s career comeback networking event earlier in March where he wow-ed attendees with his humour, insights and stories.

I couldn’t resist picking TP’s thoughts for our diversity themed leaderonomics.com issue, and asked him the following two questions on women and career success:

1. TP, in your opinion, what are the four biggest things that hold women back from pursuing leadership positions?

• Fiery ambition and self-motivation that, for many different reasons, have dwindled over the years.

In most cultures, men are expected to be the bread winner in the family, so most women tend to take a back seat when it comes to pursuing their ambitions and dreams. The desire to be the leader of the pack and earn big bucks doesn’t excite them much, because for most married women, they see that as the role of their husbands.

• Not having a sense of themselves as leaders reinforced by lack of supportive surroundings.

I sense that women need to gain a sense of who they are as leaders. Some women need to believe in their ability to move up. But it will be mind-boggling for women to do this alone. Their immediate family and in-laws need to visibly support them.

There may be gender barriers at work as well, and companies need to support and recognise women as leaders to increase their chances to succeed. If more companies help affirm the ability of women as leaders and if we see and read about more successful women leaders, I believe more women will be more confident in their pursuit of leadership positions.

• The added traditional gender roles and social pressure imposed by the complexity of priorities as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, or an in-law.

For most married women, family comes first. If there is a choice between spending more time at work or with their family, I sense that most women would naturally gravitate towards their families. This priority for family, which is indeed noble, has played a significant role in why some women may not pursue leadership roles.

• Personal fears and insecurities.

I believe some women mentally beat themselves to a pulp before they start on anything. Made worse by past failures or negative experiences, many doubt their abilities to follow their dreams.

Sometimes, more than anything else, their fears and insecurities are the things that hold them back. I believe if women can mentally psyche themselves up and believe “nothing is impossible”, then the world is for them to conquer.

2. For women who have taken a break from work and want to make a career comeback, what are four pieces of advice you would give to them?

• Network, network, network to be seen and heard. Be bold and thick-skinned. Reach out and leverage on relationships and friends.

• Tone up your corporate presence and offerings. Beef up your curriculum vitae and all related skills (interview, assessment, dress sense, etc).

• Be mentally resilient, have the “Just Do It” and “Never Say Die” attitude. Stormy waves of challenges and failures will hit you hard, but if you keep your head up and fine tune your survival and coping skills, you will someday be all right.

• Understand and internalise your personal values (what’s important for you, what you stand for, etc). Then develop a sense of purpose by pursuing career goals that align with your personal values.

The last thing you want is to get disillusioned about making the career comeback or get sorely disappointed with the outcome, or feel depressed with the choices you made. You need to know what you want and what’s important for you, and then pursue it religiously, despite challenges or failures along the way.

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of www.leaderonomics.com (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.
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