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What would you do if you weren’t afraid? This, merely a chapter in a book I recently started reading took me by a storm. Not like I had never asked this question to myself before, but never in the context of myself unwilling to lean in.
Career progression largely depends on taking risks and advocating oneself-traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting. This explains why even though women perform better than boys academically, their gains are not translated in career progression. As I try to unveil the reason behind lesser women in top working positions I have figured out there are two types of obstacles- internal and external.
The blunt truth is that men still run the world. Women face external obstacles like subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment at workplace but the lesser known obstacle are that very few professional spaces offer flexibility and access to child care, special parking lots reserved for pregnant women and parental leave that are necessary for pursuing a career while raising children. Women are continuously expected to “do it all” without being given the leverage and ease which results in discouraged then-ambitious women.
A dear friend of mine, before her interview at a well reputed company was advised to not mention that she was engaged and soon to be married. It is assumed that women do not work after marriage and hence engaged women are less likely to get a job.
Sheryl Sanberg (COO facebook) stated that being the sole woman at a high working position among men has resulted in multiple awkward situation. She flew to New York for a meeting and asked for something that left her male colleagues speechless. She asked for the restroom. That was the day she realized no woman had ever been in that place before and hence they never felt the need to make restroom for women in that place.
The point is not to criticize, but to acknowledge the barriers within our society that lead to inconsiderate behavior. Of course, no woman ever entered that room before, but what makes one believe no woman ever will?
Apart from the obstacles that married women face, fresh graduates aspiring for career success are also under the societal pressure to keep an eye on marriage. Talking from personal experience, i belonging to a memon family in Karachi have been told since childhood that marriage is our only way out and that we only belong to our homes for a limited amount of time. When I finished high school, as much as my parents emphasized on academic excellence, they emphasized even more on marriage. I wouldn’t say it damaged my ability to think ahead of what was expected of me, but it did waste a considerate amount of time which could’ve helped me think of a better future.
Ambition is expected in women but is only optional while men are continuously applauded for being career driven, powerful and successful. Women who display the same traits are often called “manly”. Safe to say female accomplishments come with a social penalty.
This brings us to the obvious question- how are we going to take down the barriers that stop women from getting to the top?
Internal barriers are barely discussed. In addition to barriers within are society, women are hindered by the barriers among themselves. We hold ourselves back by self doubt, lack of self confidence, by not raising our voice where it’s needed and by pulling back when we should be fighting. We internalize the pressures we get throughout our lives, just like I did. I kept telling myself that marriage definitely is my only way out. I lost my energy when I wasn’t given the chance to outshine. I internalized everything I saw and was told. Statements like its bad to be outspoken, hyperactive and more powerful than men are engraved in us since childhood. We lower our expectations from ourselves, of what we can achieve. We compromise our career goals for partners and children that don’t even exist yet. My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers are essential to gaining success. They need more attention than we think.

While I believe that equal numbers of both genders in professional spaces is a necessary element of true equality, I do not believe there is one definition of success and happiness. Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Some women want neither.
The internal barriers among women are a cherry on top for the already-existing external barriers. They are somehow interlinked and its no argument which barrier should be addressed first, they’re both equally important and need to be eliminated.

By Hafsa Arif.

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