Enabling the Corporate Climb

Launching a groundbreaking digital program “Empowering Women Leadership,” trailblazers Hira Ali and Maheen Noor Soomoro talk about creating positive change in the corporate sector through inclusion, capacity building in women and disabling gendered work environments via diversity.

Tell us about the program and the reason it is being offered?

Hira: Leadership skills (which are the core offering of this program) are necessary to run and lead a successful career. It’s the latter that differentiates you from the rest and helps you in exceling. I have always been passionate about soft skills trainings. After having trained thousands of people in the last 13 years especially women, and creating a positive impact if I may so, I have seen the incredible positive impact of these trainings. However, unfortunately, the importance of soft skills is often undervalued and not many companies invest in these skills as extensively as they should.

Moreover, the generic programs that do exist are not women focused. Women process things differently than men and in their own terms and behave differently as well; for e.g. the former are more self-oriented while the latter more communal focused. Their decision-making processes, the dynamics and subtleties of their personality and style, are qualities that are unique only to them. But unfortunately, some of these differences are also what hold some women back. Although there are many challenges both men and women face that can hold them back in their career, there are a unique set of challenges predominantly faced by women alone. These challenges are a result of internal obstacles faced by women but are rarely discussed. Yes, we are victims of gendered work environments too, but then many times it’s the gender specific derailers that hold us back.

According to many women in leadership positions and renowned book authors, it these internal obstacles that deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves by mastering certain skills. Research has evidenced that most leadership skills and soft skills are gender neutral and fail to address these very gender-specific ‘derailers’, internal obstacles, skill sets that men don’t necessarily need training for but do adversely impact women; example assertion, self-promotion, or even putting themselves forward to avail high end opportunities and owning successes confidently. Most programs do not focus on gender dynamics either. The objective of this program is to offer trainings that have been purposefully designed to reflect the underlining and not so obvious challenges that typically hold women back much more than their male counterparts. The trainings will not only focus on women mindsets but will also be focusing on how to deal with mindsets that create barriers for them

Maheen: I agree with what Hira has said, and to add to it. With over 25 years of our cumulative experience in working with different industries, markets and regions, we are often asked the same questions by women we meet to coach, network or work with. These questions are pertaining to how we get confidence, what made us stick to our career paths, how we overcome our responsibilities and took time out for ourselves. These women have been genuinely interested in any advice that we could share about how not to be not ignored at work, how can their voices at work be heard, how they could lead teams and motivate them without being labeled in a certain way. The interest was already there, we both were meeting, training and working with women in different ways. But we felt that there was nothing, no training, no courses and not certifications available for women to know that in their moment of weakness they were not alone. As women professionals ourselves, we’ve had to seek success through trial and error, but how amazing would it be if someone took the time and offered us advice that was not general but focused on the problems we face as a gender? This is why, after months of planning, sorting, structuring we launched this program tailored for women coming from similar backgrounds as ours.

What area some of the areas you are focusing through this program?

Hira: We will be primarily focusing on Self Leadership and Team Leadership Skills.

Self-Leadership is having a developed sense of who you are, what you can do, where you are going coupled with the ability to influence your communication, emotions and behavior on the way to getting there. It involves a combination of behaviors that focus on how you can manage yourself at work and in your life. In order to be a good business or team leader, you would first need to self-master yourself. Well-developed self-management skills will help you efficiently communicate with co-workers, management and customers, make right decisions, plan your working time, and keep yourself efficient and organized.

Maheen: The program focuses on helping women identify themselves, what they think they are doing to knowing what they are doing. Covering the distance between what they want to do, wish to accomplish to how can they make themselves a priority. The goal is to help them to balance their work, life and responsibilities but also not losing their identity.

We want our audience to develop skills and methods of understanding one’s strengths and improvement areas. We believe a more self-aware woman can take on many challenges and pull through without much assistance. Confronting your own improvement areas, understanding its not a failure but an opportunity to improve. This we believe is also a great way to not let anyone else take advantage of what you deem as a failure in yourself. When you know your capabilities, its so much easier to then own your mistakes, your faults and learn. People can then not pull you down, dampen your spirits or make you self-doubt yourself.

The program covers personal development, career development, professional development and even personal branding exercises that our audience can learn from and apply immediately to their lives.

Hira: Team leadership skills on the other hand are skills that involve managing and leading teams and are crucial too. Developing team leaders requires learning certain skills, and understanding what their responsibilities are, so they can successfully help their team accomplish what it was entrusted to do.

Maheen: As women, we are afraid to either voice our concerns, or then second-guessing ourselves when we find that voice. In a team, women are often told they are not doing enough, or that they did not have their 100% focus on the job because of their personal responsibilities. This program helps improve these issues and also gives solid advice/plans on how to interact with colleagues and how to take the reigns in your hands.

Who can attend/participate in this program?

Hira: Both professional career women as well as business women can benefit from this program. You could be a newly appointed Manager, you could be a Middle to Senior Level Career Professional who aims to excel in her existing career, you could be a business woman who wants to master self and team leadership or you could even be someone looking to resume your career after a break! The Women Empowerment Leadership Program offers trainings that cater to all levels and needs. It’s essentially a guide for all ambitious women desirous of pursuing a successful career. What we offer are behavioral skills and not technical skills (with the exception of a few skills) hence at what stage of the career you are currently in, will not be a determinant of how well or how quickly you can grasp the concepts.

You can self-nominate yourself and attend on your own or attend with your team.


What in your opinion is leadership?

Hira: Leadership is guiding and managing a team in a way that inspires motivated action, flawless execution and sincere ownership of projects, departments, businesses.

Maheen: Leadership is guiding people irrespective of their relation with you for instance a manger guiding his team, a junior associate giving productive advice in a crucial situation. For me, Leadership is genuine, it’s earned, it’s respect and it’s going out of your war to help someone improve. Letting people question your decisions, repeatedly. Giving someone genuinely productive advice. Not pointing out a problem but giving a solution to that problem. That I believe is leadership.

Why do we need more women in leadership positions?

Hira: We need more women leaders not just for gender equality.  Having a diverse pool of talent in leadership positions will foster new ideas, bring forth fresh perspectives and encourage broad range of experiences, which will be crucial in maintaining any company’s position in the global market. The laws of economics and a plethora of diversity studies and research work reveals that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve. Keeping talented women in the pipeline should hence be a priority on the agenda of CEOs and HR Heads. Top leaders must lead by example with more gender diversity in their boardrooms and among the ranks of their senior leaders.

Hira Ali

However, unfortunately, after slowly growing for decades, several studies reveal that today the number of top women in the C-suites has stalled and remains substantially lower than the number of men across the globe. In South Asian countries, the situation is even graver. Strides are being made by the women who are breaking glass ceilings but there is still what is called a glass tree house with only a few women it in while a vast majority is left peering from outside!  If we want more women to rise through the ranks, we require a strong pipeline of female talent behind the CEO and that can only be brought about through conscious and focused efforts in this direction by both organizations and women themselves.


Maheen: How do we not need women in leadership positions? I mean why we even ask this as a question. As per World Bank Reports Females comprise almost one-half of the world population. Just understanding this ratio, how can one half of the world be voiceless or not have representation? We have heard years of male dominated opinion in politics, culture, society, economy, and science. It is about time we start giving women the voice that they deserve and maybe their assistance on world matters will bring about a significant difference in how we see the world. But even then I agree, these positions must be given on merit and merit alone without any biasness should be the basis of such decisions.

What needs to be done to include more women in leadership?

Hira: Having more women in leadership positions has already evidenced better financial returns in many organizations. However, unfortunately, it’s not just South Asia or Middle East where gender inclusiveness leaves much to be desired for. Even developed economies face this challenge.

The very first recommendation would be to make men equally involved in starting women incisive initiatives whether it’s revisiting the recruitment policy or their promotion criteria.

As I wrote in my article in Huffpost on Taking Feminism Back, we need to elicit support from men as well, as gender equality is their issue too!  To truly advocate women equality, we must not dismiss support from men; we need to encourage them to step up and play their part by building awareness. One of the reasons why men are not part of gender initiatives is that they are unaware of how pervasive gender bias is within their organizations.

Unconscious bias training is also a key part of any gender initiative.  All employees should be given training and made aware of ways in which their perceptions impact their decision-making. Gender bias training should also focus on establishing a culture wherein all types of inequalities are called out. Even small acts of resistance can make a difference.

Sometimes people do not realize what’s wrong until someone points it out, so don’t hesitate to establish a work ethos where people can point out and raise awareness in suitable ways.

Creating women affinity groups often called employee resource groups and power networks can also be established to gauge the needs of the office, develop goals and objectives for the group and the organization overall in terms of gender equality.

Maheen Noor Soomro

Maheen: Women are now graduating with degrees all over the world, ready to take on positions; they are now an important member of the community and economy. Our organizations, politics, society and economy must brace for this inclusion. There is no point in debating against or for this. How can the world sustain growth when you are not involving half the population in the progress?

It needs to start early with Educational institutions talking about a promising future for all of their students. Boys and Girls both, need to see they can attain similar skills, be offered similar opportunities on the playground and during project work. Especially in Middle East and South Asia, Schools need to eliminate gender specific roles that societies have held on to for centuries. They need to teach them inclusion at an early stage, respect for each other and the chance for boys to see their female friends leading from the front.


We have gender pay gap issues that are very real in the most advanced societies today. If we keep pushing women down the ladder, demotivating them, the real loss is for the world and its economies. If we based promotions and remunerations based on merit, organizations will thrive with happier inclusive environments. This is a general accepted rule, that’s true for everyone.

Our policies, working styles are changing around the world, we have open plan offices, and organizations are letting people work from home. A lot of this is based on how can one engage employees on a positive level and motivate them to do better. Then why can we not make policies, working styles and expectations of performance more suited for women with care responsibilities.

Organizations need to eliminate the tick box which states the gender of the employee when evaluating talent and choosing leaders to invest in.

Women need to bond with other women who have made it through, and have handled dual roles; personal and career. Organizations need to have these successful examples on board to make other younger women motivated and ready to take on these challenges. With these role models on board, they will be more confident about having a promising career along with their changing life situation.

Women around the world are juggling too many responsibilities now, sometimes without any extra help. Especially in the Middle East and South Asian culture, they are expected to be expert homemakers, raise children, socialize, and be responsible for the elderly at home and now to contribute as equals to the household income. Its only natural that women want to give up, they don’t believe in their own capabilities and strength. Their hard work, commitment is largely ignored, under valued or un-appreciated.

Responsibilities to bring up a family must no longer be just gender specific. When Women are now expected to take up dual roles of the carer and financial contributor at home, Men need to step up their game and learn basic life skills. They should also now not hold centuries of belief and rituals as reasons for ignoring women for top positions in business.

Retaining women in mid-level and senior position is a challenge – as a huge majority leave mid level due to personal and/or other work related issue – how can we counter that?

Maheen: We have mentioned earlier the steps organizations can take to ensure they retain Women on board irrespective of what they experience at home. But here are some exciting ideas we have to engage women at the workplace.

Hira & Maheen:

Zero Tolerance for harassment at Workplace. Never keep an accused harasser on the job. No matter how great a performer the employee is. When the Employee becomes a harasser they are no longer star performers. He/She is a sinking Ship. This would not just demotivate the employee who has been a victim, but also others at the workplace who see a crime go unpunished. When women see this zero toleration policy towards harassment, they will feel more confident and secure within their work environment and feel more inclined to stay.

Flexible Working Hours & Evaluation/ Work from Home Options. Organisations are realising that the flexibility in work hours helps improve productivity and quality of work. As long as the work produced has great quality and meets deadline – working hours etc can be items that can be managed otherwise.

Onsite Daycare facilities at organizations: This might not be easy to implement but several companies are successfully doing it. Moreover, studies have indicated that employee performance was higher and absenteeism lower among employees using on-site childcare than employees using off site child care.

Career Coach/Mentor within the company. Innovate a culture of mentorship in your workplace. Career Mentors and Coaches can be identified internally or hired externally Give employees’ access to them to discuss their day to day issues. These mentors can also assist employees by helping them to make life changing decisions. It will create an environment that is friendly, constructive and responsive. Women will have a way to discuss issues impacting them and find ways to address them.

An Engaging Network at the workplace: Corporates can improve their communication internally through creating networking channels and platform for both men and women. Platforms can be created where the latter can talk about improvements at workplace, their personal lives and productivity. Such platforms can also be regularly used to run workshops that coach and counsel people on inclusiveness, professional ethics and organization’s goals.

One of the prime reasons women go missing mid level is care responsibilities, does the corporate sector need rethink about its care policies (devise one or revise)?

Maheen: More Corporates around the world are embracing and understanding women care responsibilities and are launching Career Programs for women. These programs are for women who wish to join the workforce after taking a break to raise their children or take care of pressing matters at home. But ofcourse a lot more work is needed in this direction!

Promising women need to be given mentors in the workplace that can provide much needed support and encouragement. Because whatever mentoring you give a resource, that experience is bound to stay with them forever. They can be back and running more successful projects for you after their breaks. Or if we make it possible for them, then they could continue working for businesses without taking breaks provided their care responsibilities are handled. Providing shorter on the job working hours, Day care facilities at work, work from home options are some of the easily sustainable steps organizations can take.

Hira: Agreed! Just as Maheen pointed out, the corporate sector could initiate ‘Return to Work Programs’ to facilitate women as they transition back into their careers.

In a survey, I conducted for my upcoming book on top challenges holding career women back, FOMO seems to be a huge challenge. Women have increasingly reported the fear of missing out on performing different roles satisfactorily.

They fear that they are ignoring or neglecting their children if they go back to work. Mom guilt something which all moms including myself can identify with can be very consuming! Research has indicated that children of working moms are often more independent and confidant. A study conducted by HBR has assured us working moms that our long term benefits for our children after all. We should also start talking about these benefits more so that moms can ditch the guilt and embrace work choices more positively and confidently.

Coming back to the program, what are some of the capabilities a leader needs?

Maheen: Despite the contrary belief, that Leadership is a skill that comes naturally, it is also a skill which one can develop overtime with consistency hard work, focus and the right attitude. However, whether it comes naturally or with experience and learning, a successful leadership is earned!

As a leader you need to be confident, vocal, have the ability to be heard over a crowd, or spotted no matter how big a crowd. But you become a successful leader, when the crowd can acknowledge your strengths, can see your success and know that you can lead the way for everyone to follow. Success of a Leader is determined when the group of people the leader wants to inspire can see that, this person is capable, they can walk the talk.

A leader is someone who can calm the followers even amidst a storm and still be able to accomplish what they set out to do, despite the road blocks. A leader is someone who remembers that anything that can go wrong will go wrong and be prepared to deal with it when it happens.

Leaders become popular when they put their team’s interests before their own. They think for a broader accomplishment of goals and not just personal successes. Ofcourse personal success makes a leader stronger but in the longer run leaders must be able to share their success with their teams. Successful Leaders inspire people to put forward their best performance; they know when to say no, and when to offer praise.

With a fast changing digital world, we more than ever believe that leadership is now not limited to your work teams but also people you are interacting with online and in person for networking sessions, business relationships etc. The concept of Leadership remains the same, which is to be a guide, a beacon of light for others to follow. However the audience we believe has changed dramatically. Now, as you develop skills, gain business acumen and become popular as an identity online, even what you type on your twitter, is serious business.

Hira: Absolutely, all the traits and qualities that Maheen has mentioned are crucial in making a leader admirable. Here I would like to add that women leaders especially, bring many more strengths to the table as compared to their male counterparts. These strengths include a collaborative style of working, empathy, attention to detail, intuition, emotional intelligence, continuous self-development and multi-tasking!

Anything you wish to add?

Hira: We have some very Exciting News for a FAST ACTION BONUS:

The Training Program, which is currently priced at $650, comes with a 6-month free access to The Career Exceler. The latter is monthly memebrship program, which offers additional benefits such as monthly group coaching calls, leadership book reviews & guest sessions from career experts.  The training will end in 3 months but participants will continue getting support for an additional 6 months in the form of Monthly group coaching, live Q&As access to guest sessions.

For more information on the program, Sponsorships, Registration, Group discounts, interviews of the trainers you can send us an email at Register@advancingyourpotential.com or Maheen.soomro@mushawar.co.uk.

About the Program:

This is a 12-week program with 41 interactive Sessions with the trainers, Hira Ali and Maheen Noor Soomro.




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