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The Long Road to Leadership

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Supporting the precarious Middle years.

Supporting the precarious Middle years
The long road to leadership

Why is Women’s Leadership even a topic of discussion? A leader is a leader, no matter what the gender. Right? Perhaps the answer is not that simple.

Women as leaders are doing better than they have ever done before. While there is an Angela Merkel, there is also a Jacinda Ardern. A Indra Nooyi, a Mary Barra, a Ho Ching and a Sheryl Sandberg. A Lucy Peng and a Tan Hooi Ling. And then there is Elizabeth Holmes and Chanda Kochchar. Women leaders who exhibit the entire spectrum of leadership behaviours.

We are at a unique inflexion point in history where women are scaling new heights and setting new standards. At the same time, the work force participation levels for women thin out in the middle years. This one statistic has not seen much improvement. The women who seem to be able to overcome the pressures of maintaining balance in the middle years, or have opted to stay away from marriage and motherhood, are then able to take their career to top positions later. One wonders what really happens in the middle years.

In Singapore, the labour force participation rate of males and females in 2018 is comparable for the younger age group 25–29. At 91% and 89%, for men and women respectively. However, for the age group 40–44, it stands at 97.2% and 81% respectively. The gender gap in the local labour force only emerges when women enter their 30s. This mirrors the global trend of workforce thinning out in the middle years for women.

In spite of several policy measures to encourage women finding flexible work during those middle years, only 47% of firms in Singapore offer full-time flexible work arrangements. Also, in 2018, the gap between male and female earnings was the highest in a decade. The median wage for women working full-time was only 87.5% of that for men[1].

The State also calls for paternity leave as a way of supporting women of today. However, the Ministry of Social and Family Development released a statistic recently reported in The Sunday Times, Singapore, to say that 6 out 10 did not take paternity leave last year. Experts say that it could be because of company culture or societal attitudes on gender norms to self-policing at work. Whatever be the reason, it points to the fact, that we are far away from embedding a culture of support from the father gender[2].

My engagement with women incorporates has thrown up revealing insights over the past year. At the beginning of their careers, men and women start at an equal footing. Same work scope and the same pay. Around ten years into work, many of them are now married with young children and dependents to mind at home. Other than the pressures of work, there is the undeniable pressure of running a family. The reserves of energy needed to manage both work and home run low around these years, especially with the lack of support. Not everyone has access to a supportive home environment or an understanding boss. The demands of high performance can mean long hours and grueling travel schedules. Not to mention high levels of stress. Add to that dealing with children, their schedules, and the ever-increasing demands for attention of the modern education system. Sometimes toxic spouses and unhelpful superiors.

Much of this role-playing is cultural. One explanation offered by Hofstede’s Culture in the Workplace study is by the cultural dimension of Achievement. This measures the extent to which men and women play separate roles in different cultures. Competitiveness, assertiveness, and ambition are valued as virtues in the place of work. Naturally, if women work in high “achievement orientation” cultures, they can only get their work done if they show the same values at work. This adaptation in style is critical for their survival and the women who are able to adapt this, do thrive and set examples for other women to follow. Some countries where the Achievement score (from Hofsede’s study) is high are United States, China, Taiwan, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and Australia. Women leaders in these countries must demonstrate competitiveness, assertiveness, and ambition at work in order to be successful.

The need to be recognized at work compels them to play a “masculine” role at work where they have to be the “equal colleague” to their men team members. However, when they reach home, the expectation of the gender role of being a nurturer and mother immediately takes over. This kind of a divided behavior, over years, creates immense emotional fatigue.

During the time that responsibility is piling up at home and at work, is also the one when women need huge support from their peers, colleagues, bosses, and subordinates. However, the real stories do not sound like fairy tales.

There are other biases as well. Some of it is deeply ingrained in the way people view men and women as leaders. As per research conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2014, in the United States, an overwhelming 62% felt that if women needed to get to the top, they must have their children later in their careers or not at all. Even though women were rated higher than men for honesty, ethics, compassion, interpersonal skills, creativity, they lost out to men for perception with respect to risk-taking ability and negotiation[3].

Women are made differently from men. Does that have something to do with the way they engage at work, with people, and as leaders? Intuitively, yes. But what are they and who will unravel these differences?

A working woman
Women and leadership

There seem to be too many mental constructs working against women in the workforce. Their own roles as nurturers, the perception that they have of themselves, and the projected roles they are supposed to play in society in general. Do men have to battle so many perceptions? How easy is it to fight on? By only asking for women in their “male-like” contributions, are we not creating a society in denial of what really goes on? Who can explain why, in spite of years of support, women still drop out in the middle years?

Perhaps the time has come to look at a vast majority of women workers who are dealing with the ‘middle years’ or ‘roles’, not in judgment but in compassion and support. As Leadership Development professionals, if we create awareness and suitable support, we may help more of us to emerge on the other side. And in time, be effective leaders and mentors for those following.

Being aware of our own leadership essence and styles, strengths, and inner conflicts can unleash a more effective self-leadership mindset which is cornerstone of managing leadership roles, responsibilities, and people as we grow into our professional lives.

Leadership is a practice that involves continuous reflection and interest in leading teams and people to achieve something for organizations and the community. Leadership for women need not be a single template to be followed, a linear path. Whatever she does, she actually always leads. The need is to remind her of her own wholeness at all times, and she can do the rest!

Woman and the society

[1]Source: A Cultural and Economic Challenge: Increasing Female Participation in Singapore’s Workforce. ASEAN Today. April 8, 2019. Maegan Liew

[2]Source: Parenting is a Dad’s job too: The Sunday Times, August 11, 2019,

[3]Source: Women and Leadership, The Pew Research Centre. January 14, 2015. Parker, Horowitz and Rohal.

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