~ Nadia Sayeh
I have met and been working with hundreds of professional Muslim women in both personal relationships as well as group settings for workshops and presentations. The information that Muslim women share with me is invaluable. It helps me to recognize their ongoing challenges and design programs to assist them to realize their ambitions and goals. It gives me the knowledge to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s currently happening for Muslim women in the workplace.
For the most part, Muslim women enter the workforce with ambition and optimism. We are better educated than our male counterparts yet do not achieve equal compensation or leadership positions. The Muslim women I speak with are frustrated with the lack of recognition for their hard work and talent. They understand the importance of “leaning in” but still face gender bias. They also admit to holding themselves back in many ways from realizing their full leadership potential.
Here is what I have learned from listening to Muslim women.
1. We don’t understand how we contribute to the success of our organizations. We don’t know our value proposition. This lack of understanding about our unique talent and how we achieve results holds us back from leaning in, speaking up, and offering our opinions. It impacts our ability to self-promote authentically. It affects how others perceive us in the workplace, our executive presence, which is essential for leadership. Because we don’t understand how our work positively impacts business outcomes, we hesitate to ask for more compensation; more responsibility and the resources we need to be successful.
2. We still don’t know what we want to do when we grow up. The absence of a career goal is a barrier to our success. Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” To move our careers forward, we need to think more strategically. The workplace today requires that we be proactive and intentional in order to navigate the workplace, make decisions, and evaluate opportunities.
3. We still believe our hard work and talent will get us ahead. We have a distaste for workplace politics, and can’t see how political skill and savvy can benefit our advancement. We ignore the politics and, therefore, we don’t understand the way decisions are made and who in our organization has the power and influence. As a result, we don’t have the information necessary, to better position ourselves for advancement, and we are still surprised when we are passed over for promotions.
4. For the most part, we are great at building relationships, yet we don’t network strategically for our professional development. We like to stay in our comfort zone and network with people we like rather than identify who we need to know to move our careers forward. We find it challenging to approach new people. As a consequence, we lack the visibility and credibility we need across the organization.
5. We don’t leverage our relationships. We are quick to offer help but don’t ask for anything in return. We feel uncomfortable cashing in our chips (quid pro quo), and therefore, we give up our power and influence. We miss out on opportunities to get the assistance we need to reach our goals.
6. We are told we can do anything. We can make it to the top, but the path to the top is not clear. The glass ceiling may be shattered but unconscious bias still exists. It is subtle and therefore more challenging today for us to navigate the realities of the workplace. It’s not a career ladder but more of a labyrinth with unexpected twists and turns, and lateral moves are often necessary.
I still hear from Muslim women that once we are mothers, it is assumed that we no longer have ambition. Lots of assumptions are often made about our ability to travel and take on new assignments.
We are also told that we can work virtually, which is a good thing, but then when we are not in the office working it is assumed that we are not working as hard despite our performance. Bias still exists against those of us who are assertive and leaning in. We are viewed unfavourably as aggressive and difficult to work with.
7. We are asking more of our spouses and learning to delegate some of the responsibility of parenthood and domestic chores. I see more and more Muslim women who are the primary breadwinners and whose husbands are stay-at-home dads. I hear from more Muslim women that they have agreements with their spouses to split the responsibilities. This still doesn’t come without guilt for most Muslim women, but they realize this is necessary for their survival. That being said, many of us still hesitate to carve out time for ourselves to exercise, spend time with friends, to reflect and think strategically.
We have trouble putting ourselves first. We are too busy being the “doers” and on a constant treadmill that stresses us out and leaves us without any balance in our lives. It puts stress on our relationships and affects our well-being.
I have worked with many talented Muslim women who deserve to reach their full leadership potential. As I listen to them talk about their challenges and opportunities, it is clear that Muslim women today have many more opportunities to advance than ever before. What’s also clear is that the path to success is not without its frustrations, landmines, and bumps in the road.
Those of us who embrace our ambition, set well-defined goals and realistic timelines, and enlist the help of others are much more likely to be successful.