Gender inequality at work is more complex than previously believed, an international survey suggests. Traditional external challenges, such as old-school male attitudes, are overshadowed by a damaging cocktail of interrelated problems linked to self-perception. Of these the most common is FOMO (fear of missing out), according to an online poll of 300 women by author and career coach Hira Ali.
Ali found that FOMO affects more than half those who responded. Many women supplied additional details leading Ali to believe that FOMO now has a broader meaning than it once did. FOMO once simply meant the fear of missing out on an event, such as a party. Now it also involves work-life balance and the fear of not meeting expectations, whether at work, at home or both. Ali suggests that women around the world, from the Middle East to Australia, experience a set of eight interrelated issues. In response, she and her US business partner have launched an international training website specifically set up with these problems in mind.
At her home in north London, Ali explains that she initially worked in Pakistan, her country of origin, where she believed gender inequality was simply a feature of developing nations in South Asia. In 2018, the World Economic Forum found that Pakistan had the worst gender equality record of any country except Yemen. When she moved to Dubai and then later to London, Ali found there was more to inequality than geography. In her role training career professionals, she found that the same issues surrounding inequality emerged in each location and she set out to discover the nature and extent of the problem.
Ali launched an online social media poll, under the title Primary Challenges Holding Women Back. She received responses from women in Asia (including the Middle East), Europe, Canada, Australia, Africa, the UK and America. Some women supplied detailed written comments, others spoke directly to Ali online. All respondents were allowed to cite as many issues as they wished. Ali’s results in detail:
Ali suggests that, other than external challenges, many gender inequality problems are related to a bundle of damaging self-perceptions. For example, someone prone to self-doubt may worry about their track record at work. This can lead to Imposter Syndrome, the poll’s second most common answer. This is the incorrect belief that your performance at work is less than what is expected and that you may be fired at any moment. Ironically this feeling of a lack of success, Ali suggests, particularly affects successful people.
It may be that Imposter Syndrome shares a correlation with traditional ‘female attitudes’ towards work, for example modesty and a reluctance to self-promote. Being reluctant to self-promote may stem from the desire to avoid seeming arrogant, aggressive even. But by avoiding these unattractive attitudes, other things are lost along the way – among them a self-assured confirmation of ability. Instead there’s a feeling of inability, that you’re just some imposter who could be discovered at any moment. And to compensate for this, some people then develop Perfectionism, making up for the supposed gap in performance. Others may feel there is no gap, their work is not sub-standard – it’s just that they need to work hard, continuously, to remind everyone of the standard they’re capable of, just in case it’s forgotten from one day to the next.
Perfectionism is driven by FOMO. For some, there is the fearful prospect of failing to do something, for example a task expected of them. Failing to do the right thing is scary. The fear can be kept at bay by making sure that everything is dealt with as perfectly as possible, which takes time….leading to the fear that something else (whether at work or at home) might be missed. In trying to deliver perfect results at work, women can find themselves fearful of missing out on spending proper time elsewhere, with their family for example, (though Ali is quick to suggest FOMO isn’t a feeling confined to mums struggling to do their best both at work and at home).
“Perfectionism is exhausting”, laughs Ali, “but it’s not the only solution to managing feelings of vulnerability.” She suggests that women can learn to effectively squeeze out negative self-perceptions by re-framing them, taming them by ‘owning the moment’. For many people, reframing perceptions is easier said than done. In response to this, Ali wrote Her Way to the Top, a book on inequality in which she sets out some of the problems and offers a range of solutions.
Ali explains, with undisguised delight, that there is no more emphatic way of owning the moment than joyfully rejecting FOMO. Abandoning the fear, and everything that goes with it, is a joyful thing she suggests. JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out – was a term coined in 2012 by software CEO Anil Dash in an article in which he described the joy of turning down invitations. For Dash, “Being the one in control of what moves me, what I feel obligated by, and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede…”. The point here is being in control, which for Ali includes the rejection of false perceptions of failure.
It’s a powerful argument. The book and her blogs have caught the eye of Cherie Blair, Arianna Huffington and Ziauddin Yousafzai – father of Malala. Now Ali has taken her work a step further, in conjunction with her business partner and fellow career coach Jennifer Willey, who is based in New Jersey. Together they set up Career Excel, a new website specifically aimed at helping women tackle the issues cited in Ali’s research. Skills taught over a 12-week program include a combined approach towards managing Imposter Syndrome, FOMO and Perfectionism.
The intention is to help women fend off negative self-perceptions and develop a more robust self- image. According to Ali, it’s an idea that “demonstrates that women are all in this together, and together they can make a difference for each other.” By helping women address internal challenges, Ali hopes she can empower them to better address, or at least learn to cope with, some of the external issues. Individuals can subscribe to the Career Excel website, as can companies looking to empower their female staff.
In talking to Ali, it becomes clear that empowering women globally is a key motivating factor for her. Companies buying into Career Excel will be contributing, in part, to another of Ali’s projects. Ten per cent of a company’s Career Excel fee will support the International Women Empowerment Events, the first of which begins in July. Taking place in the Maldives, the conference will offer guidance and support to women across Asia, addressing their concerns and offering solutions, from setting up a business to managing it online. In many places these things are not easy for women who are every day confronted by traditional forms of inequality and prejudice. But Ali believes that ‘owning the moment’ is relevant to women everywhere. Gender inequality is not easy to manage when inflicted on women by men. But by isolating self-doubt and misperception, Ali is keen to show that owning the moment is within reach for anyone willing to give it a go.
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