The need to break the glass ceiling has existed for the past couple of centuries, and women have been fighting long and hard for that big moment. Available statistics suggest that 36% of small businesses worldwide are owned by women. People ask me about what it’s like being a woman in business at my age, and I always have the same answer: “It’s difficult, there are challenges, but you push through.” My challenges, of course, pale in comparison to the million others who don’t have the environment, access, or support that I have had. However, we often hear the words that it’s difficult, but I think it’s important that we take the time to break it down. I am a highly solution-focused person, for better and for worse, and so, I would like to plug in some guidance to all those navigating similar experiences.
Yes, everyone is familiar with the savior complex, but it gets so much worse in the world of business. I want to say this gets better as you get older, but I have seen it happen to my colleagues with 20 and 30 years of experience as well. The assumption that we, as women in business, are naïve, standing like deer-in-the-headlights, is a real stereotype that we find ourselves fighting against more often than not.
Getting advice from those more experienced than you can be useful; however, it is essential that you question the intention of that advice. Is the intention one of protection, fear of your inability to succeed, or for your safety? Here is what I am going to say: you know your work better than anyone. Trust your own instincts and critical analysis. For instance, when we at Mirai Partners were entering Lagos as a new location for our business, most people gave us incredibly discouraging advice. We thought differently, and here we are, three years later, with state-level contracts and further expansion planned over the next three years.
LESSON 2: BREAKING INTO THE BOYS CLUB
Do I feel entirely comfortable going for a meeting or networking at events after work hours or outside a conference? The real answer is no, but I have done it many times, because when you own your own business, you have to. A 2019 survey revealed that out of 600 female entrepreneurs, nearly 56% had experienced some form of discrimination or harassment in their capacity as business owners. As such, the reason many women do not feel comfortable with gatherings associated with work is that we fear that men in those spaces will behave in a way that we don’t expect or want. However, as someone who’s had her own share of such odd experiences, I do have a set of ground rules to prevent such occurrences in the future, which might help you as well:
– If you are not meeting someone in their office, try and pick a neutral and public place.
– If they make you feel uncomfortable, no business opportunity is worth it.
– Personal questions about your relationship status shouldn’t be asked, so don’t be afraid to not answer.
LESSON 3: CHOOSE YOUR LABELS: #GIRLBOSS, OR JUST #BOSS?
Change takes time, and even if we haven’t broken the glass ceiling as we would like to, it’s essential that we celebrate the small wins. I am going to be honest here- I am not the biggest fan of the #girlboss movement, but I can agree that it has had a paramount effect on the rise in women owning their power in the workplace. But here’s the thing though: why can’t we just be seen as a #boss? I always come across female-focused small business sessions or female empowerment initiatives by human resources teams, and my response to them is always that the issues women face at work is not a women’s issue, it’s a gender issue.
As such, for us to push the dial, it’s important that women in breaking the glass ceiling includes men, seeing as it involves them. It can be likened to if all the animals at the zoo broke loose, but the main gate keys were still with the keeper. In the same manner, no matter how many ceremonial awards we may receive, we aren’t getting out of those gates. As an entrepreneur, I want to be known for the work I do- not that somehow me being a woman makes it more special. I love supporting or advocating for people starting businesses, not specifically men or women. The gender of the founder does not and should not have an impact on how you see the quality or value of the business.
LESSON 4/ BE THE ROLE MODELS YOU SEEK
I feel like this is a big ask, because the representation of women in business is already skewed. This isn’t about celebrating leaders because they are women; this is about showcasing more women in halls of fame, business case studies, and lists alongside men- and not separately. In addition to having representation, I think it is also important to ensure we are able to look up to a diverse set of representation. So, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but in terms of personality, industry, and impact. For instance, I wish we saw more women doing incredible work in the public sector, education, healthcare, engineering, agriculture, and so on.
It isn’t all about tech, finance, and retail. It is also important to portray women as they are- as leaders. Not every female boss is a tyrant who lacks empathy, as we also have fearless and compassionate female leaders, shy and intelligent female leaders, and charismatic and artistic female leaders. You can also have leaders that are women that have had multiple failures before they succeeded, but because we are so afraid to make a mistake, we don’t want to be that women in business who failed.
LESSON 5/ BE YOUR OWN CHEERLEADER
You are going to have moments of loneliness or highly stressful moments. These are going to be very trying and testing times, and this is why you need to invest in yourself. In order to build a business that is resilient, you must foster that within yourself. I say that from personal experience and not as a self-help guide. In the moments when I did not listen to what my mind and body needed, my business always landed up suffering. Whether it be chronic pain, strained eyes, or deteriorating mental health, you can only avoid it for so long.
As a woman, you are already up against a million barriers, especially the silent ones you’ve been addressing for years that have created your insecurities. This is why we need to pay attention to the underlying causes of our emotional and physical state of being- it’s not only your business that needs to be stable, you deserve a better quality of life too. I recommend therapy for everyone, but if it’s too expensive, please check out the online portal, BetterHelp. If you just don’t think it’s for you, then try a business coach- at least they will help you manage difficult situations, conversations, or even just time management.
LESSON 6/ TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Cultivating healthy habits will in turn help you deal with the deadlines and other pressures that come with being an entrepreneur. From paying attention to your physical, emotional, and psychological health, all of which are interconnected, you will be able to focus properly and run your business effectively. With reports stating that self-employed women are at a higher risk of having poor mental health due to gender obstacles and isolation, it is important to trumpet the need take the issue seriously.
You don’t need an award, recognition, or anyone to tell you what you are doing is right at work. Your work will speak for itself; however, that, by no way, means that you shouldn’t put yourself out there. It is essential that if you do find yourself doing well, seek out conversations with journalists, media, and potential companies you would like to partner with. At the end of the day though, I’d like you to remember this Mohadesa Najumi quote that someone shared with me, one that I will never forget: “The person to fear most is a woman who needs no validation.”