Women are scared to smash through the glass ceiling to reach the top, fearing they don’t have enough experience or are under-qualified, say experts who spoke at the recent Women in Leadership Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi.

While men are happy to leapfrog their way to the top even when they don’t have any of the skills to do the job, women are reluctant to push themselves forward.

Sophie Le Ray, co-founder and CEO of Naseba, a global business information company that organised the forum, knows this situation all too well.

‘I wanted to promote an extremely capable young woman to take a senior position as a sales manager in our office in Bengaluru, India,’ she says. ‘I thought she’d be thrilled. Instead, she turned me down, saying she wasn’t ready yet.’

Sophie tried to persuade her. ‘Obviously, I felt she was ready to take on the responsibility,’ says Sophie. ‘But she wanted another six months to prepare. I told her if I had made the same offer to any of the men in her team they would have grabbed it irrespective of whether they were qualified or not, and figure out how they would handle it afterwards.’ 

However, the woman didn’t have enough confidence to believe she could do the job.

‘This was the biggest fear holding women back from access to positions of power,’ adds Sophie as she talks to Friday on the sidelines of the conference.

Statistics support the observation. A 2015 survey of 2,000 women found almost 50 per cent believe they would be further in their career if they had more self-belief. A whopping 92 per cent admitted having career hang-ups. Almost a quarter believed they would be at a more senior level if they were freed of their fears.

And while this particular research was conducted in Britain, there is no reason to suggest things are any better in the region.

‘I think women in the UAE – and the world over – are wired to think like that,’ says Emirati mobile app entrepreneur Farah Al Qaissieh. ‘It’s usually the exception where women openly take risks even when they are not sure of themselves.

‘I recently read a statistic that says men ask for a promotion when they are 40 per cent ready for it. Women do it only when they are 60 to 80 per cent ready for it.’

The 23-year-old herself has no such confidence issues. She entered a government-led entrepreneurship competition two years ago and won a grant and support from the Tourism and Cultural Authority to develop an app called Discover AE, which promotes the best places to visit in the UAE.

‘Women are perfectionists,’ she continues. ‘They want to make sure what they do is perfect rather than finish it quickly. That slows their progress up the corporate ladder, which feeds into the confidence issues.

‘I believe the issue lies within. We are given opportunities, but we choose not to take any because we feel that we need 
a little more time before taking up a 
new challenge.’

Studies on this subject bear her out. Journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay in their book The Confidence Code, based on interviews with hundreds of women, state that perfectionism is not only a confidence killer, it is largely a female issue – and one that extends through women’s entire lives.

‘We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer; we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required,’ they write. ‘We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. We fixate on our performance at home, at school, at work, at yoga class, even on vacation. We obsess as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as friends, as cooks, as athletes.’

The authors say that compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

How powerful this societal conditioning is can be gauged from something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told a newspaper in 2012: ‘There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’

This may also explain the gender discrepancy in salary negotiations. Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, and the author of Women Don’t Ask, has found that men initiate salary negotiations four times more often than women, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 
30 per cent less money than men. 

Back at the Women in Leadership Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi, Sophie is discussing another factor that may stop women from pushing hard: the maternal instinct.

‘Children change the game totally,’ says the mother-of-two. ‘It can’t be about you anymore, it has to be about them.

‘Maternal instincts surely come into play while moving up the corporate ladder. No matter which culture you come from, the mother is always the one who wants to care for everyone; not just our children but also their parents and siblings.’

Yet that’s not to say that being a mother has to be the end of a career. The consensus is that children can actually be a positive, inspiring force. ‘Yes, it complicates things, but you have to find a median, work your way around it,’ says Sophie.

‘It makes you stronger as well, good at multitasking. Emotionally stronger, too. For a CEO it is very useful. You need empathy, but you also need to be pragmatic and multitask. That’s why 
women who become CEOs are often 
so good at it.’

Rania Habiby Anderson agrees – and, as founder of The 
Way Women Work, the first online career guidance platform for women in developing economies, she should know.

Speaking at the forum, she said that if the correct work-life balance can be achieved, there is no reason women shouldn’t lose those fears and smash through that ceiling.

‘Having to juggle a million things is hard and it’s OK to admit that,’ she says. ‘So, we should all free ourselves from the burden of guilt if we have to sometimes sacrifice a bit of family time in order to immerse ourselves in the demands of work. Ultimately, someone will be there to help hold the fort.’

Rania says that when people address women, they often start off by talking about their lack of confidence. So what can be done to help women overcome that?

‘You need to build a support system around yourself,’ suggests Sophie.

‘It starts with your family and friends, finding places with other women who have managed both things. It’s accepting that everything’s not going to be perfect. It is about removing some of the very inherent feminine traits – like wanting things to always be perfect, waiting for things to be ready. You have to get there and figure out what works for you.’

Rania feels that women need to find sponsors – as opposed to a mentor – to 
be able to get ahead. ‘A mentor speaks to you privately and advises you on what to 
do. A sponsor advocates you in public and most importantly, opens the doors of opportunity for you.

‘The key thing is that you will earn a sponsor often by what you have delivered; always be conscious of that. That’s why you should show your value.

‘And you should therefore be a sponsor and advocate for others too.’

Sophie agrees. She cites the case of her staffer in India who refused to take a promotion because she was not ready for it.

‘I let her be because I didn’t want to force her into something she didn’t feel right for,’ she says. ‘Now we are putting in place a step-by-step transition for her. But I told her, trust me, you are ready right now. That’s sponsorship – identifying talent and bringing it to maturity. When she feels ready she can have the post.’

Sophie feels the confidence gap that women experience now will be bridged over time. ‘If you survey women in an organisation, 60 per cent will prefer working under a man than a woman. That’s because they still don’t trust each other – not enough networking, or sponsorship like men do. But things are beginning to change. In time women will fit in naturally at the workplace – at the top as well.’