A dear friend and trust colleague once told me she never offers to take notes in meetings. When her supervisor once asked her to, she said no. She turned it around and said, “In my experience, it’s always women who are asked to take notes, and until we start refusing, it will stay that way. Do I have your support?” “Do I have your support” – five words that can and should put an end to the sexism in the boardroom that nearly every culture and country struggles with to a certain degree. 

Even the most developed countries in the world struggle to eliminate this bias toward women and their contributions in the world outside of their homes. From presidential races and head-of-state positions to the business boardroom, women across the world are competing at a much higher standard in order to even be considered.  I know this from experience as the business climate in Vietnam has been no different. And while sexism in Vietnam is not as extreme as other parts of East Asia, it has still found itself fighting against the Confucian view of women – a that they should obey her father as a daughter, her husband as a wife, and her sons in widowhood. 

Women are Needed

When countries and cultures reflect on their histories and times of trial, they’ll often find that the strength of women have played a critical role in overcoming challenges faced.  For Vietnam, our struggle for independence forever changed the role of women in society as it resulted in one of the largest contingents of women ever to fight in a war. The resistance’s official slogan was, “Let women replace men in all tasks in the rear.” They ran supply lines, acted as spies, and made many of the rudimentary weapons from bamboo. But many fought and held those guns, too.

Other countries who have found themselves in the midst of conflict have leveraged the abilities and strengths of women.  One of the most iconic images to come out of the 20th century is that of “Rosie the Riveter” a woman flexing her biceps with the words “We Can Do It!” used as an inspirational image to boost female moral who worked for Westinghouse Electric during World War II.

These contributions – and the impact they can have – are no different in the business world.  An article in Entrepreneur addressed this, writing, “As women have infiltrated the sphere of management, it has become clear that women offer a different perspective and a way of working with and managing people that can produce the same successful outcomes or better.”  Unfortunately, these qualities aren’t being celebrated as they should. Instead, many women feel they need to shed their gender-specific qualities in order to advance in their careers. The same article from Entrepreneur speaks on why that’s a problem, “By keeping women out of the highest echelons of business, we’re losing out on 50 percent of the possible brainpower, the potential for new ideas that always comes along with increasing the diversity of a group. Different backgrounds and perspectives foster more creativity and innovation, and there are dozens of studies out there to support that.” 

More and more studies are showing the same result: women in leadership positions are good for business.  An article published for Yahoo Finance UK cited this interesting fact: “Research shows companies with diverse boards outperform others, outside of any financial benefit, I would suggest a traditional board make up is now seen as out of touch,” says Caroline Strachan, co-founder of Women at Work.” 

And yet, despite all of this, many women continue to experience discrimination across the globe especially in leadership and executive positions.  Being overlooked for promotions and positions – in addition to inappropriate behavior – is all too common. The widespread movement of #MeToo has shown that this environment affects too many of us.  As the movement gained support and awareness, more and more accounts sounded all too familiar for women throughout the world trying to succeed in their careers. 

I too have experienced these circumstances, and because of them I have been forced to make business visits with the presence of another colleague for my own comfort and the protection of everyone involved.  It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is.    

How We Continue to Move Forward

The lengths women need to go to in order to avoid potential trouble or to be positively recognized in the workplace is unfortunate.  Having to outperform well beyond the measure of others, while maintaining meaningful – yet professional – relationships is exhausting.  However, it is important as female leaders to rise up, reach out, engage in good, and not exist in a victimized state; the contribution of women is too valuable to give up.  Companies and cultures flourish when women are in leadership positions.

It’s critical that we stand up and be counted. Those five words stated by my friend —“Do I have your support?”—are critical, because women cannot eliminate sexism in the boardroom, or anywhere, on their own. We need men to help us dismantle it. The good news is that, even with a difficult history of support throughout the world, more and more men are eager to do this.

I could not have reached my current position at THP without the support of my family and the many colleagues – both men and women – I have had the privilege to work with.  There’s space and need for men and women in the boardroom. As we work to make the influence of women more prominent, let us remember to confirm the following from those around us, “Do I have your support?”