Why business women need to support each other to reach the top

Equality, diversity and inclusion should be at the core of the modern workplace, providing everyone with the resources and opportunities they need to reach the top positions (should they want to). Unfortunately, that is not yet the case, and many business women, once they have reached the top, are reluctant to help others do the same. In our webinar – ‘Giving a Voice to all Women in the International Economic Environment, an initiative by Elite Business Women’ – we spoke to Alisa Harewood, Director of We-r-One Diversity Management Consultancy, Caroline Codsi, Founder & Chief Equality Officer of Women in Governance, Thana’a Al Khasawneh, Executive Director and Gender Diversity and Women Inclusion Expert at Business and Professional Women Association, and our own Bianca Tudor, Founder & CEO of Elite Business Women and a WBAF Senator. The panel was moderated by Andreea Groenendijk-Deveau, our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. Find actionable insights below on how to help each other succeed.

How do we keep the door of opportunity open for other women once we have reached the top? A lot of women think, ‘I suffered a lot to get to the top and everybody else should go through the same.’ How do we make sure that once we’ve reached that point, we’re happy to open the door for other women?

Thana’a Al Khasawneh: As humans, we have to help and support each other.  Because of that, I believe that when you are not supporting other people who really need your help or your support, you are actually giving up on your humanity and your empathy. We need to start thinking of all the people who have helped us. I’ll give you an example: there is a bank in Jordan, their CEO is a woman, her deputy is a woman and they increased the bank’s market share by a lot. The reason for her success was the fact that she believed in women, she empowered them but she was tough when she needed to be tough. She’s a goal-orientated person who was able to lead her organisation to success. Remember, as a female, you’re giving an example and you are opening a pathway to other women. When you have that kind of responsibility, you will be able to give more. It’s all about the power of giving.

The second thing to mention is to practice mentoring. Mentorship is a very powerful tool that can help us as female leaders. I don’t know if you’ve read this book, it’s called The Power of Success and it talks about how when you are successful, you have a lot of fear. You fear being alone, being lonely at the top, that your team is not really listening to you and that they’re not confident enough to share some of their fears. This is the time when you really need more people around you. As a female leader, your role is starting now and you have the power to support others, giving more of your time and supporting them.

Bianca Tudor: Education is key; it gives us opportunity and choice. I’m glad to say that I’m the first woman to see higher education in my family. Through education I got my first job in a multinational company, then had the opportunity to study abroad, learn business in an international environment and become an entrepreneur. Of course it was scary, and in Romania we have a lot of young women leaving school because they believe that it’s not important, that it won’t pay off. But education is really important. It made a difference in my life, and you will get to see a lot of benefits in terms of your way of approaching life, of having opportunities, negotiating for your life and going for what you want.

But you’ve touched a nerve there, it’s not that easy for women to work together sometimes and I’m not going to say that it is, because I don’t want to lie.  We set an example, we set the tone, to achieve whatever we want to achieve. Yes, people will tell you that it’s impossible. I resigned at 24 and my boss told me ”you are not going to make it, you want to take like 3 steps in 1, you are going to collapse” and 4 years later, he saw me on TV and he called me and said ”well, I have to apologize” – 4 years later.

I’ve failed a lot but I’ve learned a lot at the same time.  Sometimes we are afraid of failing because of all our other responsibilities. When a man takes a risk he has a different attitude, they say ‘I’m a businessman’ – risk is a natural approach for men. But I would say just try and by trying you can be closer to your objectives. And there are many ways in which to approach your objective. Mentorship is important; go and see people that have been doing this because they have the recipe and it will be good to see the good practices.

Alisa Harewood: For me, I didn’t finish my university degree but I wouldn’t advocate that education is not essential for hard skills, it absolutely is, especially for areas like a doctor or a lawyer, you need education behind you. But I sometimes invariably feel that we often miss the area of the development of soft skills when it comes to education. Having a degree and having as many letters after your name is fantastic and 100% I advocate that, but I think that all too often in universities and the higher education institutes, there’s a lack of an understanding that soft skills – communication, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, adaptability, work ethic – matter. Some Millennials and Generation Y believe they just come out of university and they should just be given jobs on a plate and that’s just not real. I think that there needs to be an equal balance of learning about hard skills as well as the development of soft skills.

Spend time nurturing soft skills and developing them.  When it comes to opening doors for other women, set a good example as a leader when you get into a position to influence and impact change – you will be judged not only by the results that you deliver, but by how you are perceived in that organization, not just by men, not just by women, but by everybody. Even if you are unable at that moment to bring in more females (which is obviously what we want to advocate), for me it was very much about building my organization when I was VP, around diversity. It wasn’t just women I was going to advocate for, it was people of all different shapes and sizes. But it was also about the legacy I would leave when I was no longer in that role. When I left, they replaced me with another female. They then, many months later, brought in the first female COO and now they’ve gone on to have the first female CFO of that organization.

I think that the example that you set is really important, even if you can’t bring women up with you.  It is about how you are perceived in that organization, as well as the results you deliver. It will leave a lasting legacy for other women. I always say to women that I mentor – there are three things that have served me well in my career to date: I am very driven. You have to have a high level of drive and ambition but I’ve never forgotten where I came from – a council estate in South East England. I didn’t finish university, but I read and I made sure I had as much knowledge as I could. I continued to do that but I am very humble about where I started and I never forget where that is.

You should never have to pretend that you are anything but your authentic self. You shouldn’t feel like you have to become like a man, to fit into a man’s world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, a man in a business organization or a senior level will want to see you act and behave like a woman and bring out all your feminine charms, knowledge and soft skills because that’s the skill set that they want you to be able to bring to that environment. Just be driven, be humble and most importantly be yourself!

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