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On the importance of openly discussing your challenges as a female leader

January 31, 2020 By: Alexandra Tavasoli

This post is also available in: Français (French)

I was recently told that airing my past career challenges in a public blog post wasn’t “putting my best foot forward”. This is something I wholeheartedly have to disagree with… publicly, in a blog.

In a program predicated on systemic change, I find it funny that challenging the social status quo is seen as detrimental, and highlights the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” nature of being a female while also being a working professional.

As we try to inspire more women to enter leadership roles, whether as entrepreneurs, technical leaders, or management in an established organization, we need to reduce both the internal and external barrier of entry into these positions.

Internal barriers are mostly related to the “gender confidence gap” has been widely reported on[1], and states basically that academic achievement has been shown not to be related to innate ability, but rather depends on the subject’s belief that they can carry out the task. Women have been found to lack the confidence to persevere in STEM fields, even though they have been shown to be better communicators of technical information, and to go above and beyond what is required of them in the workplace (see the issue of “unpromotable work” below).

Fighting these internal barriers is why I think openly talking about our challenges as female leaders is important. Young women often feel like they have to do everything perfectly in order to be taken seriously, and it is often the case that women need to outperform their male counterparts in order to be seen as equals. The ability for young women to see women who have bounced back from adversity in leadership positions will empower them to think that they can persevere despite setbacks, and hearing about these challenges in the wider context of a lifelong career helps put the magnitude of setbacks into context.

External barriers run rampant in society. They mostly have to do with systemic biases that turn themselves into internal barriers when women encounter these biases and inevitably blame themselves for a problem and try to find a solution. These external barriers exist because the expected public identity, expected behaviour, and expected values of female leaders have been defined for us by society rather than put forward by women themselves.

In 2017, I happened upon a review of the movie Hidden Figures entitled “Why I don’t want to see Hidden Figures nominated [for an Oscar]”, in which author Radheyan Simonpillai, a 30-something male film critic with degrees in English and Cinema studies, writes “In Hidden Figures, three mathematicians who work for NASA get up and start dancing together in a living room. It’s a scene you wouldn’t see had the mathematicians been white,” and later, “The dancing nags at me the most because I can’t figure out why it was lumped awkwardly into the moment. I can only guess it’s because they researched the works of Tyler Perry and Malcolm D. Lee and assumed that’s what Black audiences want.”[2]

Not only does this play in to the wider issue of propagating the “myth of the scientist”, a personality trope that says all scientists need to fit into the socially inept and unfeeling Big Bang Theory -like caricatures, it indicates that we as a society find it acceptable for men who are not in STEM fields to define the proper behaviour and conduct of highly technical women. What is worse, given Radheyan’s career background, I can only assume that he gained this impression of technical women from watching movies. He had this platform at NOW Magazine for 11 years.

Another external barrier is the idea of “unpromotable work”[3]. Women are often seen as caregivers, and are expected to do the “extra” work of organizing office parties, doing logistics for conferences and events, and other extraneous business tasks. An excuse a professor once gave to me for this was, “Women like to take care of things, that’s why we have biomedical engineering now.”

The message from this article seems to be “community building doesn’t get you promoted, so don’t do it,” whereas I think the message here should be that men should start pitching in to the community building activities that enable companies to be productive in a more friendly work environment.

At the end of the day, the lesson to aspirational female leaders needs to be more than “do it the way men have always done it, and try to feel less insecure about it while you’re at it.” As female leaders, we need to be able to define our own values and priorities, whether this extends to how we choose to communicate these values, or dancing in our kitchen.


[1] Ross, J. A., Scott, G. and Bruce, C. D. (2012), The Gender Confidence Gap in Fractions Knowledge: Gender Differences in Student Belief–Achievement Relationships. School Science and Mathematics, 112: 278-288. doi:10.1111/j.1949-8594.2012.00144.x



Alexandra Tavasoli