I had a great time this weekend talking to senior female executives from various segments of the Nigerian economy on personal branding and maximizing their impact as executives. It was clear that some of the challenges I have gone through resonated with most of them.

It’s not easy being a female in the “Boardroom”. Here boardroom is defined according to Mashawn Evans, the author of S.K.I.R.T.S. in the Boardroom, as a place of power. It stands for any place, opportunity, or forum that is traditionally male dominated. A place where big things happen, decisions are made, deals are done and where you show what you are made of. The boardroom is where the good old boys network also flourishes.

Unfortunately, many women do not have this network and our entrenched cultural values that have bestowed men with leadership halos and put them in charge does not help matters as women are meant to be nurturing, take care of all and be nice. This nurturing expectation I see most times I attend business meetings with men and women in attendance. You see the women cowering waiting to be invited to the table and being the ones to offer tea and coffee despite the fact that some of the ladies are senior to the men in the room.

I have had to tell the ladies to stop serving tea and coffee and told the men to serve themselves, since everybody is meant to be a professional and not a server.
I know this comment is not liked because anything that signals that a woman is not nice, subservient and nurturing creates a negative impression despite the fact that these attributes are not the reasons for employment but competence.

This bring us to the issue of competence. If a woman is competent she is not liked and if she is viewed as being nice she is not respected. You can see the double whammy here. We debated on the need to balance competence and likeability. We concluded that acting in the stereotypical feminine way will not help you reach your career goals and have the same opportunities as men. But, your competence will pave the way for career advancement because a lack of competence and respect is a deal breaker in the first place.

However, this bias indicated above is at the core of why many women are held back. For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way. Many women have to work three times more than men to get positive reviews on their performance and when they do, and excel, it is often negatively viewed by both men and women. Women who excel are called all kinds of negative names – Margaret Thatcher was called “Attila the Hun”, Golder Meir, Isreal’s first female Prime Minister was called “the only man in the cabinet”, Indira Ghandi, “the old witch”, Angela Merkel, the “iron frau”, Hilary Clinton, “ambitious, controlling and dishonest”.

I have been accused of being overly ambitious, arrogant, aggressive, emotional, and sensitive. Other adjectives used by women excelling in their jobs by peers and co-workers across both spectrums are “not liked by her peers”, “not a team player”, “political”, “difficult”. I remember being called difficult once and finding it so unfair, because I was in a job that required me to coordinate my seniors and ensure they achieved results that were strategic and not urgent. It required a lot of tenacity, follow up and doggedness. Though results were achieved, I was still negatively branded, which would not have been the case if I had been a man. A man would have been praised for achieving results. The examples, above reverberated with the Executives because as senior women, we have been in similar positions at one time or the other where the system has been stacked against us because of our gender.

We also talked about the ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ tags that some have been given. Especially, the negatively held bias against being an introvert. The advice here was for every woman to be authentic to who they are and to use this authenticity to achieve their objectives. We all bring a strength and value proposition to the table and these strengths and values should be harnessed and used for progress. Trying to behave like the next person, will not take you far, but researching and being at the top of your game and contributing this value with impact and consistency will elevate you to the next level.

We agreed, that it appeared that as women, many of us will be punished for our success and competence. Irrespective of this, we must dig in, and not begin to doubt ourselves nor our abilities. Personally, my competence and abilities have been questioned many times, but this fact has not deterred me. I have never allowed it to slow me down.

I have observed that in order to protect ourselves from being disliked and held back, many of us have downplayed our achievements and allowed people’s negative vibes hinder our abilities. I remember being invited to speak on CNBC, Africa and having to hide it from a senior female colleague and boss, because I knew she would have felt I was undeserving of such visibility and killed it. Despite the fact that my boss who had jurisdiction over such matters had approved it. Many times, women are their greatest enemies.

Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld makes the case, “we need to look out for one another, work together, and act as a coalition. As individuals, we have relatively low levels of power, working together, we are fifty percent of the population (not sure about Nigeria, but I am sure close) and therefore have real power.
Sisters, let’s start supporting one another and lifting the younger ones up and not feel threatened by them. Together, we can make a real difference!