Mette Johansson
Apr 5, 2024

Narratives: The stories holding women back at work

It's time women stopped being subjected to narratives that both harm and hinder their progress and peace in the workplace, gender equality advocate and author Mette Johansson opines.

Narratives: The stories holding women back at work

Whilst several countries across Asia are settling targets for '30% by 2030', referring to female representation on boards or executive positions, several countries will struggle to meet these targets.

In the realm of work, a peculiar collection of tales weaves through the cubicles and boardrooms all over Asia, spinning stories about the roles and behaviours of women in professional environments. These tales, often accepted without question, shape perceptions and, inadvertently, careers. They hold women back at work.

In my book, ‘Narratives: The Stories That Hold Women Back at Work’ I peel back the layers of these myths to reveal the truth beneath. Let's embark on a journey through these narratives with a dash of humour, a pinch of sarcasm, and a healthy dose of reality. My hope is that we can shatter these narratives together and bring equality to Asia’s executive echelons faster.

Women at work: An emotional quagmire?

Have you heard people say, "Women are too emotional to be leaders"? A statement so casually thrown around, it's almost as if emotions are a novel concept exclusive to women. If you’re a woman anywhere in Asia—regardless of the extent to which your culture allows you to express emotions— you are very likely to have heard "Don’t be so emotional" when you are challenging a perspective.

But let's pause and ponder. During my research for the book, I interviewed a chief human resource officer from India whose words struck a chord: "Women too emotional? You should see the boys in the boardroom. When they don’t get their ways, they will slam their fists on the table, jump up, shout."

It seems emotions run high in the workplace, transcending gender. Yet, while women's expressions of emotion through tears or frustration are often frowned upon, anger—an emotion that decidedly has more negative impact—gets a free pass.

What’s more, enthusiasm, excitement, and passion are frequently frowned upon as emotions, and even described as “hysteria” when expressed by a woman. There is even a 2015 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article— written by women—that recommends women tone down how they express emotions.

Why the double standard? Expressions of anger, which usually have negative effects on others, are often accepted in the workplace. Yet, emotions stemming from frustration or personal challenges, which do not inherently harm others (unless there is a lack of emotional intelligence to manage others' feelings), are not accepted. Positive emotions like passion, enthusiasm, and excitement, which can in fact fuel motivation, are often discouraged.

It's time we embrace the full spectrum of human emotions, recognising that passion, excitement, and enthusiasm are assets, not liabilities, and dispel the myth that women are too emotional. We are ALL emotional beings, and spreading positive sentiment should be rewarded, not discouraged.

The myth of incompatibility: Women working together

On a recent panel discussion in Singapore on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), a female CEO shared that in her quest to empower women, she hired an all-female leadership team, only to very quickly discover that they were working against each other. Like so many others, her deduction is “Women can’t work together.” And she further added oil to this—false—narrative that puts women on lesser footing than men because it is ‘proof’ that we can’t have too many women in the room.

Shall we dissect this narrative?

First, I know many women leadership teams who have worked wonderfully together. I’ve led such teams myself. Anecdotal evidence by this female CEO—undoubtedly without harmful intentions— unfortunately feeds further into the myth that the X chromosome somehow genetically possesses a professional anti-compatibility with other X chromosomes. When we see two women not working together, we further feed into the narrative—our bias has been confirmed. We should really study research in addition to looking at anecdotal data.

Second, if you get individuals to work together who do not have the required collaboration skills and mindset, they are not likely to work well together. In my role as an external facilitator, I have done many leadership team interventions for APAC leadership teams whose productivity suffers from infighting. And they have always been entirely gender-unspecific.

Saying that “Women can’t work together” glosses over the critical elements that underpin successful teams according to various studies: diversity, trust, and psychological safety, clarity, and accountability toward a shared meaningful vision. To attribute team dysfunction to gender is as absurd as blaming the outcome of a recipe on the colour of the pot used. It’s a simplification that ignores the richness of dynamics and the essence of teamwork.

The truth is—it is difficult for people to work together.

And that is the response that we should all give when we witness someone saying that women can’t work together. It is difficult for people to work together.

I must add that the notion that women are inherently competitive with each other is given some truth by tokenistic policies that pit them against one another for scarce positions of power. If you have only one or two positions for women, the only way to secure your spot is to work against the other women in the room. Voilà, women can’t work together. 

The bare reality is that men, too, fight and struggle to work together. The focus should not be on women not being able to work together, but on fostering environments where cooperation flourishes, irrespective of the participants' gender.

The verbal volley: The myth of female verbosity

Women talk too much? Let's tackle the narrative.

Contrary to the popular belief propped up by what seems to be an old hypothesis rather than scientific research, recent research indicates that men and women share approximately the same daily word count: around 16,000 words. The variance in chattiness is not between genders but within them—or rather within men, in this particular study. Furthermore, mainly US-based research suggests that in professional settings, women are not the ones monopolising conversations. They speak less in meetings, are interrupted more frequently, and are often overshadowed in discussions, including earnings calls. It may be exacerbated in the parts of Asia where culture dictates juniors to be quiet—when women, on average, are the more junior people in the room.

This narrative not only misrepresents reality but also undermines efforts to encourage equitable participation in workplace dialogues.

Research also shows that when a woman is the first to speak up in a meeting, it inspires other women to participate as well. I advocate for including women-only leadership development programs, which empower women to express themselves and develop their authentic leadership styles, free from the influence of traditional, male-dominated leadership behaviours.

Beyond bossiness, meritocracy, and other narratives

As we navigate through the corporate landscape, we encounter various other narratives—like the critique of women being too bossy or the illusion of meritocracy. These stories, often told to justify the status quo or explain away disparities in leadership and opportunities, fail to account for the complex factors that influence career trajectories. The truth is, leadership styles vary, and the best person for the job is not always the one we think it is. Our measuring stick is male, the system is geared toward men, and women have less of an equal opportunity. Acknowledging these realities is the first step toward creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

The journey through these narratives reveals a workplace riddled with outdated stereotypes and biases that hinder not just women but all professionals. By challenging these myths, we open the door to a more inclusive environment where diversity of thought, emotion, and leadership is not just accepted but celebrated.

It's not about erasing emotions, silencing voices, or enforcing arbitrary norms but about recognising and valuing the unique contributions of each individual. As we dismantle these outdated narratives, we pave the way for a new story of the workplace—one where everyone, regardless of gender, can thrive.

Mette Johansson is a notable advocate for gender equality and the author of "Narratives: The Stories That Hold Women Back at Work." Johansson has served in leadership roles at multinational corporations across Asia and Europe over nearly two decades and is the founder of MetaMind Pte Ltd., a consultancy specialising in leadership skills development, with clients including Citibank, Microsoft, and UPS.


Campaign Asia

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