Image credits: WOW360 – Dr. Ayesha Mian Founder & CEO Synapse, Pakistan Neuroscience Centre
Working towards women in leadership is crucial for building a more equitable and sustainable future. Women have historically been underrepresented in leadership positions, both in the public and private sectors with far-reaching consequences, including perpetuating gender disparities in pay, education, healthcare, and political representation.
WOW360 spoke one-on-one with Dr. Ayesha Mian, a renowned adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist trained in the United States and the Founder and CEO Synapse, Pakistan Neuroscience Centre.
She is a trailblazer who established Pakistan’s first child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship training program and is a strong advocate of women leading change, gender equity and building the capacity of women in academia.
Women in Leadership – A Staggering Number
We asked Dr. Mian about her thoughts on the limited number of women in leadership roles, and the possible reason behind this. In response, she shared that this issue is not just in Pakistan, but is global.
“It’s a worldwide phenomenon which is important to understand that there might be different reasons in different places, in different parts of the world.”
However, Pakistanis are influenced by their own sort of patriarchal culture which has been widely promoted. Men are encouraged to go to work while women are traditionally expected to stay home and take care of the family.
Understanding Internalized Patriarchy with Dr. Ayesha Mian
Ayesha Mian added that there is also a lot written about a phenomenon called ‘internalized patriarchy’ which refers to how women think about patriarchy and how they internalize it.
So it is not just men who create barriers and restrictions for their counterparts, women also restrict themselves and others by thinking that they are incapable or not meant for a particular space. Women, therefore, don’t seek leadership opportunities.
Leadership: Opinion or Mindset?
According to Dr. Mian, a vast majority of people consider ‘leadership’ as something that you either have or don’t or that you are born with it.
It’s actually a moving quality like a verb, which you can work on, which you can acquire. It’s not based on a position or a title, but on the work that you do, your actions, and qualities or that skill set that come with leadership”
Importance of Self-Awareness in Leadership Development
Dr. Ayesha Mian shares that self-awareness is essential and one must ask themselves, What is it that you’re bringing to the table? What are my cultural roots? What is my ancestry? How connected do I feel with them?
“All of those things are important for us to understand as we think about leading or being a leader. Because if you don’t have an awareness of self, then you are just being a puppet to a manual that’s passed on to you that this is what leadership looks like.”
Adaptability is Key
The biggest skillset you need to have today is flexibility and adaptability because every 10 years you may need to change your profession. The world is changing so rapidly, the kind of skills you need to have as a leader is also evolving rapidly. Covid has shown us that skills that were deemed to be great in the 80s and 90s on strategic thinking and authoritarian leadership are not relevant. Now compassion, collaboration, kindness and a focus on climate change have become important.
Understanding Unconscious Bias & its Impact
When we asked Dr. Ayesha Mian about her take on collaborating with organisations to increase female representation in leadership spaces, she shared that the first step is to understand ‘unconscious bias’.
“I think one unconscious bias that we unconsciously think is that women will not do the job right or, are not able enough, or their CV wasn’t enough to be compared to a man. She explains further
If for example, I refer a patient of mine to a female surgeon, and if an error occurs during the surgery, then I’m unlikely to refer another patient to that female surgeon. But, if the same thing happens with a male surgeon, I will say, ‘Oh, it was just an error, that happens all the time’ and will end up referring another patient to that surgeon.”
Making Institutes Women-Friendly
“If we need to see women actually do well in organizations and come up to leadership positions, then we have to put that into the design of that institution.
“In order to stop unconscious bias, you need to know, and for any organization to increase women, to leadership positions, the thing that works the best is having a woman leader at the top. That role modelling. Having a female role model is very heartening for other women and encouraging, they will look at her and say ‘I want to be there one day’, which is key.”
Dr. Mian shares that for any organisation’s tables to turn, they need at least 30% representation of women in the organisation, to begin with.
Importance of Focusing on Well-Being & Mental Health
Statistics have revealed that in Pakistan 1 in 4 people suffer from some sort of mental health issues. This is quite a high number, from a leadership perspective, how important is it to focus on mental health awareness?
“People come to me and ask; how do you manage work-life balance? I don’t. I don’t think that you can ever balance it.
“It’s very hard to justify to yourself that I need time as well because culturally women are not raised like that. Women are raised to kind of help out in the household. So, the idea that I have to take care of myself, it’s just it’s something that they put on the back burner for themselves all of their lives.
“If you are not well and by well, I mean psychologically, mentally, emotionally and physically well, then you’re not able to make your own mark.
“There’s a cost to mental illnesses, which is why it’s so incredibly important for people in leading positions to be thinking about mental wellness and mental fitness. A mentally fit and emotionally fit boss is an asset and vice versa.”
Essential Skills for Women in Leadership According to Ayesha Mian
Authenticity is very important, to first know and understand what she can bring to the table. Secondly, she needs to understand that she doesn’t need to be a man to help run or drive things, there is no need to replicate those behaviours, don’t look at male bosses thinking this is what I need to bring.
Another very important thing is integrity, be who you are, there is no need to lie, or put up a face or front to hide vulnerability. Data has shown that women leaders let their people feel and allow their employees to talk about their vulnerabilities in order to function successfully because a psychologically safe space is then created.
“Jacinda Ardern for example talked about her vulnerability, she’s brought her child to work, she comes with her partner, she’s actually talked to her own nation from the couch, from her living room, because that is her authentic self. She didn’t want to lie and kind of put on a suit and say this is what I’m working on right now, this is what I’m going to show.
“I think that motherhood is a very major essence of a woman, whether she has children or not. It’s important to embrace motherhood as a quality, so everything that was shamed, saying that you’re fragile, emotional, or a nurturer or you cry easily, are qualities that can be honed and re-wrapped as strengths and are brought to work.
“Being a team player is important, women do work better in collaborations and know that it is not a zero-sum game, so how can we bring it to the workplace without getting into that whole competitive and capitalistic place that leadership is generally been about.
Effect of Developing Leadership Skills on Women, Family, and Society
Women make up 50% of the population, says Dr. Ayesha Mian, so if you are a part of 50% of the population then there should be 50% of women in leadership, so it automatically means that at any given place, women need to be in positions where they can talk about the issues other women have because they’ve gone through it.
She continues to share that she has seen countless pictures of all-men panels, like 20 men at a conference for family planning, or mensuration, or puberty, or things like that. Men don’t understand those things like women do, we go through these things so why is it that men are taking decisions for women?
“It’s like organising an all-women’s conference on prostate cancer, it’s as ridiculous as that. When you don’t know what the other person goes through, who can you talk to about that?”
At the end of the day, you need to have representation in order to be able to give awareness and bring change and help put things in place for future women leaders with the help of the right voices, which will lead to improvement for women, their families, and society in a nutshell.
This article is produced in a strategic partnership with SEED Ventures for the British Council’s Women in Leadership (WIL) Programme based on the Clore Social Modules.
It is a comprehensive training and development initiative aimed at empowering and equipping women to reach their full potential as leaders in their respective fields.
The WIL Programme was designed to address the ongoing issue of gender inequality in the workplace and at home and to provide women with the tools and skills necessary to succeed as leaders in a rapidly changing world.