It is no secret that women tend to face particular challenges in their pursuit for success in their business or career. It is likewise well recognised that, despite the obstacles, many women do reach the upper echelons of their chosen field.

But what are the factors that contribute to this success? And what are the particular elements that allow certain women to overcome the same problems that make many others falter and quit?

Recent academic research conducted locally sheds light on the elements that can contribute to women’s success in the workplace, with Master’s dissertations written by Bernice Bonnici, (2021), Theresa Kuymizakis (2022) and Katrina Vella (2023).

Although working in different departments and on different topics (including entrepreneurship, career advancement and gender perceptions in audit firms), all three found striking similarities in the ingredients that can contribute to female success in any of these fields.

The research makes it abundantly clear that despite significant leaps forward when it comes to equality on the job, women still suffer from gender roles that pigeonhole them into doing specific work that is not expected of men, with the lion’s share of the issues ultimately being the most obvious: child-rearing.

All three researchers, who spoke to everyone from highly successful women to male and female partners in leading firms, identified home-making duties as the most significant obstacle to women’s long-term success in their career.

In fact, in one study, of the four women holding top decision-making roles in their respective organisations who were interviewed, two had actually quit by the time the research was published, with one – working in hospitality – bluntly admitting that she was forced to decide between her family and her work.

In the same study, by Ms Kuymizakis, all four female interviewees indicated that their male partners provided little to no assistance with childcare.

And though it might be difficult to believe, in the third decade of the 21st century, that women are still pigeonholed into particular jobs and tasks, the research shows that stereotypes are alive and well.

One woman, an ambassador, was about to have her posting abroad terminated prematurely as another official – ironically, another woman – assumed that she was not capable of carrying on with ther work responsibilities while raising a child. In that case, it took the direct intervention of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to overturn that decision.

Another woman, leading a company alongside her husband, found that clients often preferred to discuss business matters with her spouse, even though she was more experienced and knowledgeable about the business. And yet another faced discrimination with the assumption that, as a woman, she is not knowledgeable about information technology and therefore incapable of supervising the IT team on important projects.

Despite all these challenges, these women, like many others, did succeed. The main reasons behind this success, as emerges from these studies, can be boiled down to a few key factors.

Family-friendly policies

Chief among them are family-friendly policies and attitudes inside and outside the workplace, in the home and within the broader social context. Stereotypical though it may be to focus on the impact childbearing has on women’s working lives, the reality is that this often emerges as the single biggest challenge they face. In her study, Ms Kuymizakis finds that even among women in leading roles, the household duties fall disproportionately on their shoulders. While Ms Vella notes that although flexible working measures increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a long way to go to inspire women to pursue their careers even after having children.

Support

Whether it is because women do actually need more support or are just more likely to acknowledge it than men, respondents across the studies highy valued the assistance they were able to access. In Ms Bonnici’s study, all participants – 11 out of 11 – admitted that the support they received was vital to their current success.

Some of this support came from their own family and friends, but a lot of it is also provided by the local ecosystem of private and public assistance. This includes schemes like Business START, which gives mentoring and advisory support services for women, and the Micro Invest Scheme, as well as the Foundation for Women Entrepreneurs, Women Directors Malta, the Malta Association of Women in Business, Social Hub Entrepreneurs (SHE), Business and Professional Women Malta, the Malta Women’s Lobby, the EMPOWER platform, and the National Council of Women.

Together, all these incentives and associations create a powerful ecosystem that women can involve themselves in and tap into when needed.

Mentoring

Ms Vella argues that female graduates will be driven to strive for top management positions if more women in such positions are willing to share their experiences and mentor other women in the field, while Ms Kuymizaki’s four participants were all involved inmentoring other women. She notes: “The high-achieving women interviewed felt participating in research is part of their responsibility towards the under-represented gender and to other women who aspire to follow their example.”

Self-belief

Finally, self-belief emerges as the key characteristic among all the successful women features across all three research works. Although work may be “arduous”, women need to develop self-confidence that often goes beyond that required by men to reach similar positions. That is because women will face more challenges, and the research is clear that young women do not need this harsh truth sugar-coated. Rather, they need the support to develop a tough self-belief that can help them overcome the obstacles that unfortunately remain a reality.

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