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On March 8th the world celebrated the International Women’s Day. Social media was rife with quotes about mothers, sisters and colleagues who are doing their part in society, plus the usual trolling by others. Most men posed the philosophical question “how come men don’t have a day?” which of course they do, November 19th in case you didn’t know. Mihad Kashif started a thread on twitter, and in several tweets mentioned notable Sudanese women who were once beacons of advancement; lawyers, judges, politicians, journalists etc. The pictures were nostalgic renditions of beautiful toubs, perfectly coiffed hair and confident smiles. They were also mostly in black and white.

A few days before Women’s Day, my co-founding partner Salma Amin picked up “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg, which some of you may know as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer. Sheryl’s resume is impressive; she went to Harvard for her BA and MBA then did stints at McKinsey, the World Bank and Google before Mark Zuckerberg convinced her to join Facebook.I don’t particularly like self-help books, especially from the Western hemisphere; because different contexts are difficult to overlap onto Sudan’s reality when it comes to practical advice. Yet something drew me anyway, and I began reading, needless to say I was captivated. Moreover, it was like a steam engine jolted in my head; everything she said was applicable to Sudan – I know, shocking. We are light years behind the United States and having a corporate environment as progressive as Facebook; but this book managed to provide universal anecdotes applicable anywhere. In this piece, I’ll share my thoughts on the book as I superimposed it on the Sudanese context.

Where we Stand – 2016“Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional – or worse, sometimes even a negative – for women. “She is very ambitious” is not a compliment in our culture.” Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

Education in Sudan has made great strides in including women over the last few decades. The demand for advanced degrees has shot up and so has the number of institutions; colleges and universities now dot many of the capital neighborhoods, as well as various states across the country. When one enters a campus, the sheer number of female students is pleasantly surprising.

Try walking into a work environment however; be it public or private; the number of women is still large, but if you look closer, they’re the janitors, administrative and support staff, populating entry level positions across institutions. There is a clear glass ceiling that no ministerial quotas could ever solve. The glass ceiling isn’t man made, women take responsibility as well, but their share is led by intrinsic barriers, while the men build the physical ceiling per se. The ambition monster; being ambitious and moving up the ladder requires being persistent, risk-taking, proactive and opportunistic & Sudanese women have not had a solid record with that.

“The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t.” Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

There is a massive bottle neck at entry and support staff positions. Humor me, if all these jobs are filled by women in their 40s and older, then if these are the only positions open for women, what happens to the droves of new college graduates looking for entry jobs? Women have a responsibility to move up the ladder so younger women (and men) can fill those entry level jobs as more graduates enter the job market. However, being seen as “ambitious” or striving for leadership is regarded as “too much” or faux-pas in Sudanese society. Hence, words of discouragement heard throughout our development instill self-made intrinsic barriers that hold us back.

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Source: The Atlantic

“Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family.” Chapter 7: Don’t Leave Before You LeavePerhaps as women, the most prominent advice since puberty is “prepare for marriage”. And some of us actually do start planning for it way ahead of when the actual event takes place. While women stumble upon life and its happenings with that message in the back of their heads (being drilled by everyone, all the time) they make small academic and professional sacrifices and decisions (such as passing up a promotion or turning down an out-of-town position) so when someone finally proposes, the woman’s career is accommodating if not completely unnecessary to continue. 

“As for all the progress, there is still societal pressure for women to keep an eye on marriage from a young age.” Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

Related to the above quote, since college education has become prevalent in Sudan, the barrier has gone from “school” to “college degree”; after which a woman is supposed to stop moving along the academic ladder, lest the man is threatened by her Master’s or worse yet, doctorate degree.

Marriage is not the problem here; pitting it against academic advancement and professional growth is. How many of us have or had working parents? How many of us are definitely going to continue working after marriage? Why is the idea of men’s insecurity being tied down to women’s escalation on the professional ladder so prevalent? What costs more? His ego, or her professional growth, financial stability and freedom and personal satisfaction from serving her community? 

“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers. The current negative images may make us laugh, but they also make women unnecessarily fearful by presenting life’s challenges are insurmountable. Our culture remains baffled: I don’t know how she does it.” Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? 

So there is little room for girls to get inspired by role models, let alone shape their own professional and personal growth path and achieve it. Many women accomplished both professional goals and family goals. The problem is that we scare girls from attempting to do both, and carve their ultimate fate of motherhood to the extent that less and less are attempting to attain work-life balance in this day and age. The sad thing is, our mothers’ generation owned that game – my own mother worked well into her 40s and her children never blamed her for that. Something doesn’t have to give after all, but the monster myth lives on.The need to de-couple work and life balance is necessary to give women a chance to shine in the workplace. As long as they are haunted by the “failure” monster they will be inclined to choose “life” over work – who would choose work with all the pressures of being a negligent mother, affording and hiring a nanny…the list continues? The juggling of work-life balance is an act women are already innately doing, we are built for it. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world, but women do it every day, most are doing it out of the absolute need to make ends meet, while some do it for personal and professional fulfillment and serving their communities. Regardless of the reason, the choice between having a home and having a job must be made by her, not society (or her husband, friends, parents, in-laws, etc.). When women are not given the agency to live up to their capability, they battle insurmountable levels of self-doubt and fear that cripple and cut off all roads to success.

On Children and Men

So married and happily striding along your career path? There are more battles to be won.

We are too easy on our girls who take societal expectations for face value. Parents spend a ton of money educating their children and then the minute a woman decide to focus on building a family- and let that drag on for 15 years- parents and the society at large are supportive. Having the option of working is a huge privilege, but there is an important layer that no one talks about: social responsibility. Getting an education is only worthwhile if one invests it back into society; otherwise that place at university could have been given to someone who would have actually re-invested their education for 40-50 years as expected. The society’s expectations of women’s potential must evolve dramatically and so should the institutions and policies regarding working mothers (options include flexible hours, working from home, nurseries at the office and more).“Are there characteristics inherent in sex differences that make women more nurturing and men more assertive? Quite possibly. Still, in today’s world, where we no longer have to hunt in the wild for our food, our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait. How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.” Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

It all comes down to cultural norms. If we begin to see women as an equal participant in the society, then we’ll place an equal burden on their shoulders and level that with her partner and the institution she is employed at. Simply, husbands and employers alike need to actively push women who desire to work and be moms to do so with comfort and confidence.

I say push because we’ve internalized decades of messages that tell us to sit at the back of the room, not raise our hands, not be or act smart, not talk loudly, not have opinions, not drive change, not aspire, not inspire, not participate and not stick out like a sore thumb in a room full of men.

“There may be an evolutionary basis for one parent knowing better what to put in a child’s lunch. Women who breast-feed are arguably the baby’s first lunch box. But even if mothers are naturally inclined toward nurturing, fathers can match that skill with knowledge and effort.” Chapter 8: Make Your Partner a Real Partner

A working woman will not let the ball drop – the guilt is too immense. However, a little help from her partner will go a long way. Nothing mothers do can’t be taught, hence babies glide smoothly between mothers, grandmothers and nannies without noticing the difference. If a man is interested in sharing the responsibility, he can learn the ropes of fatherhood.

It makes sense that men will have to actively help in pulling us from the shadows whether at the office or at home; encouraging us to speak up at meetings, accept a promotion, lead the team project, or skip making lunch for an important conference call, and travel out of town for work a few times a year.

How to Move Forward

This is a self-help book after all, so here are some lessons for those stuck in the ruts outlined above.

Push yourself out of the shadows

“Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.” Chapter 11: Working Together Toward Equality

Once a woman starts to sit in the front seat of the board meetings, or volunteer to lead a project or take an out-of-town position, she’ll face resistance from everyone around her including herself. Once we establish our credibility, support and opportunities will come, but nothing, nothing at all, will ever come to those in the shadows. Realizing that encouragement will have to start from within is important, but it does not cancel out that we need to hear it from others. This is where it’s important to seek and surround ourselves with like-minded women and men who support women’s advancement.

Get a mentor 

“The fact that humans feel obligated to return favors has been documented in virtually all societies and underpins all kinds of social relationships. The mentor/mentee relationship is no exception. When done right, everybody flourishes.” Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?

Mentoring and sponsorship are the equivalent of getting a “wasta” but done right. Based on your skills and professional growth a mentor will choose you, or you can ask to be mentored for a certain skill set. Sponsoring works when you need someone to vouch for you for a promotion or for a different job position (externally or internally). In both you must demonstrate convincing professional ability. A mentor can be you your strongest supporter.

The concept of having someone who is well rounded on a certain topic that you deem important for your advancement should always be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. One notable initiative introducing this concept to young Sudanese girls specifically is AlSudaniya Mentoring. Women must be proactive about finding a mentor at work or a peer; setting goals, timelines and following up with them is a great way to move forward towards senior leadership.

“Junior women and senior men often avoid engaging in mentoring or sponsoring relationships out of fear of what others might think….This evasiveness must end. Personal connections lead to assignments and promotions, so it needs to be okay for men and women to spend informal time together the same way men can.” Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?

This is a problem, a really uncomfortable problem. Men are in most leadership positions in Sudan, thus if a women needs mentorship from someone in the upper echelons, she’ll need to reach out to a man. My advice is avoid dinners, try electronic communication – such as e-mails and skype/phone calls and be very vocal about your new relationship with the mentor – tell everyone you have this amazing mentorship opportunity with

Mr. Manager so they don’t start hypothesizing on their own. Most importantly, set goals and a strict timeline and make sure the person is in it for the same reasons you are.

Fortunately, just as much as we can practically find anything through asking around, finding a female mentor can also be done in the same way. Be clear about your goals and what kind of mentor experience you’re looking for and ask everyone you know to recommend someone- then do the part of interviewing people whom you don’t know but could end up being excellent mentors.

Make peace with hate 

“Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, believes that learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women.” Chapter 3: Success and Likability

One of the most important traits for going against the current is resilience. The first step is to accept that there are stereotypes and resistance from within the work environment and society at large. Support and encouragement will come in small doses so one must build their own stock of small achievements and wins. Criticism, on the other hand, will be plenty and frequent.

“Less than six months after I started at Facebook, Mark and I sat down for my first formal review. One of the things he told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back.” Chapter 3: Success and Likability

We are all humans, men and women are affected by what others say and ultimately, we all want to be liked. Thus, women must prepare themselves for perfecting the nice-but-adamant-hardworking-professional combination and build themselves to cope with the torrent of pressure to succumb to society standards – which practically force us to choose between work and life. There is nothing wrong with failing to balance once one tries to juggle more than a few balls; and sometimes we’ll face a fork-in-the-road kind of decision, but hopefully it will not be about our gender, but about circumstances and events.

Pull women up with you

“When people talk about a female pilot, a female engineer, or a female race car driver, the word “female” implies a bit of surprise. Men in the professional world are rarely seen through this same gender lens. A Google search for “Facebook’s male CEO” returns this message: ‘No results found’.” Chapter 10: Let’s Start Talking About It

So you’ve made it; accomplished plenty, satisfied your parents with grandchildren, juggled a few deals and you are firmly at the top rank of your firm? Pull women up with you.

Mentor them, bring them to the front of the meeting room, encourage them to apply for an out-of-town opening, vouch for them for a promotion and always be sensitive to the centuries old adages that instill doubt and fear in their hearts, so help them navigate things with grace and confidence. This is your responsibility and that of every enlightened man, woman, mother, father & employer. 


Omnia Shawkat

Omnia is an outdoors creature, a traveler and avid reader. She’s interested in technological solutions for everyday problems and strives to bring people together to create things; meaningful artful things.  She can be reached on Twitter @OmniaShawkat