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It could be interpreted that where you live has a large impact upon your behavioural patterns, or that the challenges you encounter are specific to your background, or the country in which you live – however many of the issues faced by women defy country boundaries and are, in fact, universal. This is reinforced by my own experience with working women from various regions and an international survey I conducted on 300 businesswomen to support my book.

Author Hira Ali

Inspiration for the survey

After training women for 13 years, I had started noticing a trend among the internal obstacles women face in their career path. I initially began my career in Karachi – where I had supported many women in leadership training and events. Here is where I had first started seeing a specific set of issues impacting women but I used to think these challenges were background specific and only specific to women from developing nations in South East Asia. This theory was challenged when I moved to Dubai. I continued to see the same common trends, however I wrongly attributed these trends to the similarities between the Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Yet Dubai is an incredibly multicultural city, made up of 85% expats. I slowly began to realise that even European and American women share many of the same professional issues. Even after I realised this, I still did not make any firm conclusions. When I moved to London, the trend in the challenges faced by women was reaffirmed for the third time! By that time, I had curated a strong online presence and had begun to connect with women across the globe through online coaching and training programmes.

When I came to London, I had thought that there would be many more women defying the odds as opposed to encountering pay gaps and lack of representation and promotions, issues commonly found in the eastern culture but this was not the case and I realised that even western women were running into the same problems as females elsewhere. It was at this point I truly realised the extent of these internal challenges – I figured out that even though the intensity of these challenges varied from place to place, many of these problems are universal! My own experience had made it evident that most of the aforementioned challenges are more gender specific than they are background specific.

I was very keen to test my conclusion so I decided to create an international survey by way of an online social media poll to survey women across the globe including; Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Canada, Australia, Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. More than 300 women answered a simple question: What are the top challenges holding you back in your career? The results were incredibly similar, despite the differences in background and nationality. Not only did this confirm my theory, but the findings were unusually reassuring – sometimes the mere awareness that you are not alone gives you a sense of unimaginable hope and strength.

Imposter Syndrome

Our social conditioning has given birth to FOMO (fear of missing out) and Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome and the confidence gap was universally acknowledged as a challenge for all women with the exception of a few ethnicities. Impostor Syndrome is marked by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that manifest despite evident success. American women reported the highest case of Impostor Syndrome, followed by British women, in fact nearly half of the women said Impostor Syndrome regularly came up at work. It is possible that it did not score as high for some women because they do not know the term, as opposed to not suffering from it because when I explained what it meant to those who did question, many were able to relate immediately!

With a strong patriarchal culture in Asia, it could be expected that Asian women would be more prone to self-doubt and confidence gaps, but this was not the case. Many Asian women are so busy fighting harsh misogynist work environments and given that their struggle is as basic as even earning the right to work, these women have little room left for any feelings of self-doubt. To fight the intense external challenges, they must first learn to master their own internal challenges. Similarly, black women despite extensive discrimination they face, were found to be more confident than their white female counterparts in many surveys. The American Association researchers concluded that black girls drew their apparent self-confidence from their families and communities rather than from the school system after studying the development of girls. However, Asian and black women working outside their home country again, reported a high level of Impostor Syndrome.


FOMO was the number one challenge described by women across all locations, especially for working mothers, many of whom were afraid of missing out on the responsibilities of the different roles they play – wife, mum, working/businesswoman, daughter or friend. Only a few Asian women reported lack of a support system as a prominent issue, this could be because many Asian women live in a set up where children are taken care of by extended members of the family including grandparents, uncles and aunties, so assistance is always on hand. Yet external challenges such as misogynist work environments, sexual harassment, and families discouraging career pursuits were more prominent for Asian women.

Other challenges

Despite women making advancements professionally, they are mostly still expected to do the majority of household work as well as parenting duties, no matter which country they live in. British mums seem be most impacted by planning, organising and timing issues. When this is coupled with the expenses of childcare, it’s no surprise that managing time efficiently become very difficult for the latter. Like FOMO, an unhealthy emphasis on perfectionism and an inability to self-promote were other universal challenges identified.

The survey results clearly reflected that although there are certainly gender-neutral challenges, there are a unique set of gender-specific derailers that are predominantly faced by women alone and perhaps that’s why the global survey results were so similar. These challenges are rarely discussed and are primarily a result of social conditioning.

When I was researching for my book, I read the work of several renowned authors who have explored these important internal challenges. In her international best-seller, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Lois Frankel who has also endorsed my book Her Way To The Top, expertly points out that although both men and women make plenty of mistakes that hold them back, there are unique sets of mistakes predominantly made by women. As Frankel notes: “Whether I am working in Jakarta, Oslo, Prague, Frankfurt, Trinidad or Houston, I am amazed to watch women across cultures make the same mistakes at work. They may be more exaggerated in Hong Kong than in LA, but they are variations on the same theme.”

External challenges need attention too

External challenges such as working in male dominated industries and organisations, workplace harassment and lack of provisions for working mothers were some of the top external challenges described by the women surveyed. Again, these were prevalent across the world. Women expressed their frustration on how many industries and organisations still reek of male misogyny and provide unequal advancement opportunities. The industries which are perceived as the worst in terms of gender equality and support are also those with the lowest female employment. This experience can be alienating for many women who are low in numbers and can take a toll on their self-esteem and performance. Moreover, women are regularly subjected to much harsher standards than men. The world we work in has been predominantly designed by and for men so if we want to achieve true workplace equality we need to work hard on improving the existing infrastructure. To give women the best chance to make it to the top, we need to champion a work environment that supports women and protects them from any instances of sexism, bullying and harassment. These need to addressed alongside internal challenges. When both internal and external challenges are tackled, it is then that the women across the globe will truly be empowered to succeed.

Hira Ali
Author: Her way to the top: the glass ceiling is thicker than it looks

Her Way to the Top: The Glass Ceiling Is Thicker Than It Looks by Hira Ali is available on Amazon

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