The catch 22 of working in a male-dominated profession

Men are promoted on potential, women on performance

Despite increasing labor market participation from women, their experience of the workplace can be one of precarity and insecurity. Many millennial women have responded with a ‘positive front’ – saying yes to all work tasks while highlighting their likability and acceptance of the status quo. This is not seen as a permanent strategy, but rather one that gets you into the workplace and ‘liked’ until your work speaks for itself. 

Many women also use tactics to confront intersections of ageism & sexism in the workplace. While some employ conscious strategies to be ‘taken seriously’ through dress, small talk, even taking on stereotypical traits of masculinity to be recognized as competent, others explicitly confront inequality through ‘girlie feminism’ with a pro-femininity work identity that challenges the masculine-coded norms of how a successful workplace operates and what it looks like. 

In jobs of all types, who we are at work are a constantly shifting negotiation between how we are treated and seen by others, the workplace as a social space, our past experiences, and our own expectations. Considering women’s work identities reveal how power and privilege operate in the workplace and the possibilities of our agential challenges to inequitable workplace norms and a precarious labor market. 

The careers for most women follow an expected trajectory: We begin in our 20s, surrounded by young colleagues of both sexes; move into our 30s, when some of us leave entirely or shift to reduced hours to raise families; then throttle on through our 40s, the decade of major career advancement. As the ranks of women professionals thin, those of us who remain and move upward may face unexpected challenges related to the loss of our female coworkers

Just as we move into responsible roles as corporate and institutional leaders, ready to lead and guide both men and women embarking on their own ascent, we suddenly see that there are very few women professionals to manage. Because many have left along the way, we have pushed ahead with our heads down and have little experience managing female colleagues.

For women who have persevered through the corporate competition and finally attained a level of authority over a group of employees, we need to remember a few essentials. Not only is it critical to be genuine and play to our strengths, but we also must understand how societal expectations can sometimes play a role in the way our messages, as managers are received.

Men and women who rise to managerial positions face many similar challenges, but there are unique complexities in the female-to-female workplace dynamic. Studies dating back nearly 20 years examine both the differing communication styles and skills of female and male managers, and how this impacts their employees’ job satisfaction. 

Data suggests that female employees reject women bosses who behave in a “masculine” or traditionally managerial way. Women employees, when surveyed about qualities they desire in their female bosses, react positively to empathy, support, sensitivity, and self-disclosure, which could well be characterized as historic female stereotypes. The attributes generally associated with male leaders — being persuasive, analytical, and action-oriented — are not influential in how women perceive their female superiors.

We might anticipate these stereotypes to change as more women enter organizations at a professional level, but biases change very slowly. More recent studies have made similar observations that “some skills and behaviors, may be considered essential for female managers but not for male managers.” Women expect more qualities, typically labeled “feminine,” from their female superiors and give them lower ratings if found lacking. Women do not hold their male bosses to these same standards when evaluating them. 

Fair bet?

The catch is that to advance in male-dominant organizations, women often must develop the more traditionally male traits. They generally obtain their position through a heavy dose of the traditional male qualities we associate with success — determination, decisiveness, tireless work ethic, and effective use of authority. They repress their feminine qualities, only to find that the women whom they lead demand those more compassionate skills. 

So when we are busy ignoring our homes and constantly overburdening ourselves, we forget to stop and realize that we are women and do not need this to climb the ladder. However, even if this realization comes in time, the nature of our jobs pushes us into getting back in the same rut of acquiring male-oriented work traits.

The female-to-female dynamic is different. The conversation demands that the female boss reacts compassionately to her female subordinate. Some women in organizations are fortunate enough to experience this and some are overshadowed by executive-level complexes.

Women executives might try an approach that combines both feminine and masculine characteristics that include sensitivity, cooperation, accessibility, decision-making, analysis, and persuasiveness. For example, women tend to be naturally better than men at reading facial expressions for clues to a person’s state of mind and opinion. 

Women need to translate that skill into understanding their employees, listening to their ideas and concerns, in order to result in a more satisfied workforce. If these female colleagues feel their boss is concerned about their well-being, they will be more likely to follow the direction and suggestions of that leader.

While traditional stereotypes are often frowned upon, women are now realizing that societal expectations may be the key to finding balance in leading others. All employees — but especially other women — will respond more favorably to a management style from women strong on listening, empathy, and collaboration. The climb up may well require a different approach than what it takes to stay there.

Many advertising agencies in Pakistan with female bosses have made fairness in the workplace a major pillar of their working style. Is this just an SOP to promote female empowerment, or is this addressing a major and widespread problem? Focus groups conducted suggest the latter is true.

For the first time, women are half of the educated labor force and earn the majority of advanced degrees. But while women are doing spectacularly well in universities, in the workplace it’s the opposite picture. Women are stalling out, and the higher they go, the harder it gets. Women are not making the progress they have a right to expect, given their education and early promise. New research tells us that a whole network of land mines is exploding women’s progress as they try to move ahead. 

Her resume may look just like his, but because the name is Saba and not Saquib, recruiters may not give a second look. A review of many studies of C-level decision-makers who hired candidates found that clearly competent men were rated higher than equally competent women. 

Our pay-scale hinders as well – we work the same number of hours, in the same type of job. And yet, as they start their first jobs, a man is making more than a woman. Over a lifetime of work, a woman with a bachelor’s degree will earn a third less than a man with the same degree.

Women start behind and never catch up. This pattern holds true even among graduates from our most elite universities: Female graduates earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts. Sadly true for almost all fields in Pakistan.

Men are promoted on potential, women on performance. Why do so many young male hotshots move up the ladder ahead of their more seasoned female peers? Women are being judged on what they have actually done. For promising men, the potential is enough to win the day.

Women who switched jobs two or more times after earning an MBA received less than women who stayed put at their first job and climbed the ranks. These women had to prove themselves again each time they changed employers. In contrast, men who moved on from their first post-MBA job earned more than those who stayed with their first employer. It seems that they were being paid for a promise.

Another major problem that still plagues women: When they are clearly competent, they are also often judged to be unlikable — by both men and women. In fact, the more accomplished women become, the more they may suffer in the workplace.

Men who are competent are seen as forceful, worthy of promotion, and likely to succeed. It’s all a plus. Women who display competence often pay a price. They are seen by both men and women as unlikable — unfeminine, aggressive, conniving, and untrustworthy. Less competent women are seen as more likable but not very good at their jobs. Another lose-lose for women.

Therefore women work hard and achieve the desired results — however, it is shown that in mixed-sex teams, credit is far more often given to the male than the female team member.

Specifically, female members are rated as being less competent, less influential, and less likely to have played a leadership role in work on the task. 

We’ve heard this same story again and again from women around Pakistan. It is especially ominous because in most cases, it isn’t a matter of conscious discrimination against women. It’s simply that the skewed ideas we all have in our heads about what men and women can or can’t do are incredibly hard to root out. 

Sehar Raothar
Sehar leads strategy for the BL Group Of Companies and can be reached on [email protected]


  1. em totally agree wd ur pov but pl write one more article “how ladies must perform in corporate world, An islamic perspective” this will give gate way to many victims and minorities. A cottage industry can be one option for ladies where they can safely work and female industry can perform can grow, like wise in Bangladesh.

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