ADDRESSING THE INNER BARRIERS HOLDING WOMEN BACK 

The Note we took for you in case you missed the podcast.

Compiled by Joyce Chiamaka Nwezeh 

Ms Ghada Hammouda is a seasoned chief sustainability and marketing officer with over 30 years of experience and a track record of setting ESG corporate strategy. 

She shared the insights that she’s gained over her diverse roles, including at Qala Holdings which means “a citadel”. Qala is the Arabic word for citadel. 

Recording starts…

Ghada Hammouda

I grew up in a household where my parents taught me that men and women are different but equal. But then I went into life in the workplace and I found that there are so many discrepancies and inequalities. 

And it’s been one of my biggest missions as I try to work on developing myself and finding my place in life. To always make time to connect with other women, to work on women’s issues, to advocate for our causes.

There are internal barriers that hold women back from success. The truth of the matter is the journey is very long. But to get through it, we need to understand what is holding us back. 

The workplace is not fair. Women earn less, they’re underrepresented, and they hold fewer leadership positions. There’s so much data out there addressing the lack of female representation from multiple barriers and levels of societal institutional levels, which I want to also touch on.

The Sustainable Development Goal #5: A Blueprint for Gender Equality

I looked at women and how they’re ascending to positions of power and influence. If we deep dive into Sustainable Development Goal number five, which is the key one about SDGs. If we look at the societal and internal hurdles that are stopping women from succeeding, there are the societal barriers, the organizational barriers, and then there are the self barriers. 

Our roles in breaking some of those barriers.

Women have ascended to positions of power and influence. When I was much younger, we didn’t see as many role models around us. 

There are still few, but they’re everywhere. We see women executives who have overcome the challenges. They are in groundbreaking positions and places and they are working.

In the political spheres, we’re looking at every country, African, European and across the board. We have women who are leading in leadership positions. They’re much more represented in politics and political fields than they are in business and in the corporate world. But the truth of the matter is we see more and more women succeeding and making it in every field, in every sector today.

Of the 17 SDG goals, number five focuses on gender equality. SDG five is about empowering all women and girls to finish high school, get a great education and get legal reforms. Get rid of all the barriers that are stopping them. And, if you look at their indicators for that, some reforms are being undertaken.

Every country and government that signed into Vision 2030 is working on undertaking reforms to give women more equal rights, enhancing the use of information technology and communication to help women. Adopting and strengthening their role in politics and the legislation that supports them. And there is a huge recognition globally.

We’re seeing more and more women redefining leadership. And across the border, I mean, Sanda Ojiambo, who is the assistant secretary general, of UN Global Compact, is from Kenya. 

We’re seeing them from various countries breaking different barriers in all sectors and sectors of life, even in the business world. Many of them are starting new jobs and starting new solutions. And on the surface, sub-Saharan Africa boasts the world’s largest rate of women entrepreneurs at 27%. That was 2018. 

Are they getting equal support and opportunity? Are they making equal pay? 

Many questions come underneath when you dissect these figures. 

There is an interconnection between SDG five and empowerment. And, without it, you cannot achieve any of the other sustainable development goals. The 16 remaining ones. 

So, as countries respond and recover from various shocks, including COVID-19 or from wars and effects, there are gender-responsive laws, policies, institutions, programming, and budgeting, that are starting to emerge.

This represents a big opportunity in every aspect and while it has a lot of barriers, it also offers opportunities. 

There’s an opportune time now because every development finance institution is looking at how to support women entrepreneurs, how to give them an opportunity, and how to support them in financing. 

We’re seeing more women represented in politics from 2000 to 2017. As I was saying, more women in national parliamentarians, 23%, 39% of countries have used some form of quota system, which is very controversial. In management, we have less than a third of senior and middle management positions held by women.

47% of world readers are in favour of gender quotas on corporate boards. And we’re seeing more and more of that happening. There are improvements but the challenges are still very high. 

There is still violence against women. And while we’re all advocating and working on more and more laws and rules that can protect women and give them a safer environment, I think at the end of the day, we need to acknowledge FGM as a problem. 

All of these continue to be realities on the ground. Child marriage continues to be an issue. So, yes, there has been progress, but we need to keep our eyes collectively as women form cohorts and support and advocate for the removal of these barriers.

The cultural barriers and cultural issues 

Women not supporting Women is a big problem

If you were to ask many women in business or those trying to enter the workforce what their biggest problems or fears are. They will respond with a lot of insecurities. But there is the that they’re not getting full support from other women.

Every one of us needs to understand where this is coming from, why it’s happening and what can we do about it historically. 

Playing by the male society

I’ve been through it. Women had to play according to the male society or the men’s rules, the boys club rules. And oftentimes it was very challenging. They struggled. They had to dress like men, they had to do so many things like men to the point where they had to push themselves and they suffered and they struggled to justify it to themselves. The amount of sacrifices they had to make, they had to believe that was the only way to succeed the man’s way.

The rules of the games have changed and are changing. I mean, truly, there is more and more focus on how can we find balance, how can we do what’s right. And we need to be part of changing these rules of the game. We need to stop shaming ourselves. We need to break that cycle of discrimination, and we don’t have to prove ourselves over and over. 

Here’s what happens...

When women in positions of power still believe it is a rite of passage that for other women to succeed, they have to put or get through the same challenges they have gone through. They have to pay the same price they paid. When we have the power to break that cycle.

It should not have to be so hard. It shouldn’t have been so hard for women to make it in the first place, and it should not be hard today. We need to be part of breaking down these barriers. 

As mothers, as grandmothers, as women at work, in the workplace in particular, in every aspect and field.

We should stop carrying the shame and the guilt and passing it on from generation to generation. 

How do you break that cycle? 

How do you stop it so that we can define success in a way that’s more meaningful for a woman? A way that allows her to reach her full potential without having to do it like a man in a man’s way. Sacrificing, being a mom, sacrificing, having time for herself, having time for her family.

Because of the stereotypes and biases that we carry inside us, instead of standing up and saying no, you need to choose a more convenient time. What we do is sacrifice and continue to play by the rules that are not fair to us. 

And if you’re valuable, I’ll tell you the key.

When it comes to boardrooms, you need to make sure that you’re bringing value. If you’re seen as someone who’s adding value, they will make concessions. So. But I don’t want to lose the point. The important point you also raise is that it starts from home.

HOMEWORK

Every woman, old or young. I need you to reflect on what values, stereotypes, and biases you’ve been carrying.

What can you do to reflect and try to stop and break that cycle? Break those barriers? 

  • Do not inflict this on your kids. They need to grow up believing that men and women are equal. They’re different, but they’re equal and they complement each other. Each has a role. Each can reach their full potential. 

We cannot just blame society as we are the result of all of these practices over the years and the cultural barriers. But you cannot just sit here and do nothing about it.

SO DO SOMETHING.

You need to become aware and break it because a lot of this is internalized. 

SOLUTION

I think part of the solution to this intergenerational trauma is building more and more dialogues. 

It should be a two-way dialogue and mentorship between the older generation and the younger generation. 

I mean, the truth of the matter is, that my generation carried and continues to carry a lot of question marks and we have the burden and a lot of experiences so far. But the younger women are braver, have more courage and don’t have the same inhibitions we had. They want to change in ways that are very different from the older generation and how we did things.

We should also foster this in our communities, in our homes

The queen bee syndrome. 

All these women go into the workplace and make everyone else suffer instead of opening the door for other women.

I think I had read the quote once, there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women. As a woman, it is your obligation and duty. Women are seeking to attain and exercise power in leadership, but this is not about the men, it also depends on who you have on the other end. Be it the interviews and other demands.

Society expects you to be a mom, and expects you to do all these other roles, but don’t look at equality nor do they talk about you reaching your full potential. 

So you feel you have to sacrifice and you feel guilty when you’re trying to grow or trying to succeed.

The systemic inequalities and cultural norms perpetuate all of these unequal power dynamics that we have when we deal with men. 

Once I was caught filming, and I did not realize you’re not allowed to. I was at the airport, and that was right before everything erupted there. And I remember sitting and there was a security man. He approached me because I was using my camera. And everyone around me said, just, you need to look down. If you look him in the eye, he feels challenged. 

This whole power dynamic is where you need to just give someone a sense of power for them to let you go so you don’t get in trouble. It just struck me so hard.

This happens in boardrooms, meetings, and negotiation tables. This is the traditional gender roles versus your aspirations. You want to be a mom and you want to be successful. There are all of these conflicts.

The societal and organizational barriers we face. (How to tackle them)

We’ve talked about gender discrimination, but it begins with inflexible working conditions, especially in the informal private sector. Even in the formal sector, biases exist. If you’re pregnant during a job interview, you’re at a disadvantage. Often, you wouldn’t even try. It’s seen as a barrier, not just a phase.

I was in an interview where a young woman was expecting. The men at the table said openly, “She’ll be on leave in a few months. I don’t think we can hire her.” I had to stand up and say, “We are appointing her. Pregnancy isn’t a sickness.” It’s still happening.

What they don’t get is that a capable woman, with the right skills, can contribute so much in those months before leaving, even with flexible arrangements. We need to change these misperceptions and stereotypes. Having more women at the table, women with the right mindset who don’t play by the old male rules, that’s how we tackle unequal pay and these biases.

More on organizational barriers

The gender gap undeniably persists, even after my 20 years in the US, where merit often took a backseat to inequality in promotions, wages, and access to leadership. While some progress is being made, countries and companies vary widely in their efforts. 

We need robust governance systems and codes of conduct within companies that expose and rectify disparities, ensuring equal rewards for equal work. It’s a fight we all must undertake.

What we can do as women

As women, we need to champion these changes, advocate for better systems and policies, and demand transparency. The challenges are numerous: limited access to mentorship, restricted decision-making power, and the constant need to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. These hurdles, compounded by the juggling of multiple roles, make it even more difficult for women to thrive.

Within organizations, ineffective hiring practices, negative cultures, and unsupportive team members can create internal barriers. However, when companies commit to gender equity, like by adopting initiatives such as the Women’s Empowerment Principles, we can start aligning with international best practices in hiring, training, and creating supportive environments.

We must also address personal barriers, such as self-doubt, fear, and the impact of unsupportive organizational cultures. The lack of family-friendly policies, cultural biases, microaggressions, and the absence of role models can exacerbate these challenges. We must find our voices, use them loudly, and advocate for changes that benefit everyone.

You don’t have to be masculine

The double standards in performance evaluations, promotions, and opportunities for advancement are glaring. Corporate cultures often prioritize masculine traits, leaving women feeling judged or pressured to conform. We must challenge these norms, create more inclusive environments, and encourage diverse leadership styles.

For women facing intersectional challenges, such as being a migrant or having a disability, these issues are amplified. We must recognize and address these unique experiences to build truly inclusive workplaces. The path to gender equity is long and complex, but by addressing these barriers, supporting each other, and advocating for change, we can create a more equitable future.

What more?

We need to pay attention to the women around us who face various obstacles holding them back and help create a more equal environment, whether through workplace advocacy or legislative action. 

Initiatives promoting women’s representation on boards are valuable resources, and I strongly encourage women to tap into these opportunities. They are seeking diverse candidates from different backgrounds, sectors, and age groups to contribute their experiences.

Compensating women

The discussion about emotional labour and compensating women for their time spent on it is crucial. Although not all countries on our continent have fully embraced this concept, recognizing the value of women’s contributions at home is essential. There are ongoing debates about compensating women for this freely given emotional labour.

Within our organizations, we can advocate for change by implementing strategies like ensuring merit-based hiring of women, reviewing policies for equal opportunity and training, and promoting female role models across all levels. Actively participating in local and international initiatives supporting women is also vital.

However, we need to acknowledge the internal barriers that often hold us back. Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome, doubting our skills and accomplishments even after achieving success. 

We internalize societal messages and stereotypes, leading to self-doubt and reluctance to ask for more. The wage gap is partly due to women settling for less because they don’t negotiate or ask for more.

We must confront the fear of failure and stop waiting for perfection before applying for a job or taking risks. Men don’t hesitate in these situations, and neither should we. It’s essential to challenge the negative voices in our heads and the unrealistic standards we often set for ourselves.

To empower ourselves and others, we must actively work to break these barriers. By supporting each other, embracing our capabilities, and advocating for change, we can create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all women.

We must become better negotiators

Women often shy away from standing out, preferring to blend in with the crowd. This leads to a hesitation in taking charge and voicing their opinions, and we need to break this pattern. The struggle for work-life balance, coupled with societal pressures to succeed, can be overwhelming. To navigate this, women must become better negotiators.

Research from Harvard shows that female MBA graduates earn less than their male peers because they don’t negotiate for higher salaries. This stems from societal expectations and a hesitancy to self-promote. Women often assume their work will speak for itself, but it’s essential to actively ask for what you deserve. This isn’t just about initial compensation, but also promotions and career advancement.

Never be the first to name your desired salary; instead, focus on researching your worth in the market and having a clear minimum in mind. While negotiation can be daunting, remember that it’s a skill that can be developed. There are many strategies and tips to learn that can help you achieve fair compensation. When employers state salaries are negotiable, the gender pay gap often closes, emphasizing the importance of recognizing this opportunity.

Challenge the Norms

Challenging stereotypes and breaking barriers requires us to dismantle traditional gender roles and promote diverse representations of women in society. This involves joining professional networks, forming alliances, and amplifying women’s voices. On a national level, organizations like the National Council for Women in Egypt are pushing for legislation and advocating for women’s rights. This is about creating a supportive pack, lobbying for quotas, and changing the narrative around women in media.

Crucially, we need to cultivate self-awareness. Understanding our strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs empowers us to make informed decisions and challenge internalized biases. This is the foundation for personal and professional growth. By working on ourselves and supporting one another, we can dismantle the barriers holding us back and create a more equitable future.

My key to success

When I first arrived in New York, my formal evaluation process started with self-reflection. This self-awareness exercise was about understanding my strengths, weaknesses, and triggers, and developing a growth plan. It’s about honestly facing who you are, without fear, and identifying areas for improvement. This introspection helps you realize your full potential and set a path forward.

To avoid going through life on autopilot, engage in activities for self-reflection. These can include prompts to uncover your core values, passions, and triggers. There are also exercises to enhance communication and manage reactions, as well as trigger worksheets to understand why certain things affect you and how to react constructively.

Peter Drucker’s five questions, originally designed for management, can be adapted for personal growth: 

  • What is my mission? 
  • Who is my customer (or audience)? 
  • What do they value? 
  • What results do I seek? 
  • What is my plan? 

By answering these questions, you can gain clarity on your purpose and goals. Additionally, writing down your most important tasks each night helps maintain focus.

Seek out mentors/Be role models

Breaking through barriers requires us to become role models ourselves and seek out mentors who have succeeded in areas we aspire to. Building a supportive network of both women and male allies is crucial. Don’t be afraid to negotiate and advocate for yourself, and never settle for less than you deserve. Cultivate confidence in your abilities and learn to delegate effectively. Celebrate your achievements and maintain a passion for learning and growth.

In uncertain times, passion will keep you moving forward. Define a clear purpose, as it will help you stay focused amidst the many demands of life. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity, and be resilient in the face of setbacks. Resist self-doubt and imposter syndrome. If an opportunity presents itself, seize it, and strive to excel.

Be positive

Find the energy to pursue your dreams, even when juggling work and personal life feels overwhelming. Maintain a positive attitude, invest in self-care, and make time for yourself. Remember, if you’re not well, you can’t be your best for others.

By focusing on self-awareness, building a strong network, embracing your passion, and developing resilience, you can break through barriers and create a fulfilling life, both personally and professionally.

Read the right books

We need more books sharing our diverse experiences and challenges as women. Much research on societal norms was initially designed from a male perspective, so we must challenge existing narratives. While I don’t have one specific recommendation, I read articles, blogs, and both new and old books.

Identify our best traits

A simple exercise is to identify your three best traits – these can be your strengths in job applications and leadership roles. Look to new role models like Christine Lagarde and other emerging women leaders. Read their stories instead of traditional leadership books.

Self-reflection is key. We often focus on our weaknesses, but we should leverage our strengths instead. We tend to second-guess ourselves and hesitate if we can’t meet every requirement. Men often confidently apply even if they only meet some criteria. We need to change our mindset and know our worth.

The last piece of the bunch…

Elevate your platform to lift others as you rise. Embrace who you are and become a role model. 

Consciously appreciate successful women so that your model of success isn’t solely centred around men. Learn from everyone, but write your own story and narrative.

This is about self-branding, self-promotion, owning your narrative, and understanding what makes you strong. 

Celebrate your successes and be there for each other. We need to elevate each other so that more of us succeed. Power is in numbers, quality, and quantity.

My key takeaways are to arise, find your voice, and use it. This model of women coming together can be replicated across Africa and beyond. It’s about working together to develop an agenda and advocate for change.

Change happens at both the individual and collective levels. Sharing these success stories is crucial. We need to belong to groups that support women and rise together.

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