Breaking the Glass Ceiling at UCSD

UC San Diego’s Women in Business is on its way to helping women find the confidence and connections they need to have a fulfilling career in business — and it’s fighting gender norms and social standards in the process.

Afsha Tabasum, a sophomore from Thurgood Marshall College majoring in bioinformatics, was watching a John Mulaney stand-up comedy special on Netflix when one particular anecdote caught her interest. Mulaney was explaining the results of a study he had read which explained why the subway in New York City used a woman’s voice to tell passengers which stop was approaching whereas it used a man’s voice to instruct passengers to step away from the subway doors as they were about to close. Tabasum immediately recognized the applicability of Mulaney’s anecdote to her work as director of membership with the Women in Business organization on campus.

“The reason why they do this [on the subway] was because there was this study which said that people will take information from a woman, but they’ll take instructions from a man,” Tabasum said. “It’s just strange that there are those norms. If there were more women in leadership, we could start to break that idea.”

Women in Business, which was founded just a few years ago, considers itself to be part of the necessary effort to get more women in the business world — including building young businesswomen’s confidence to put themselves out there and trying to help foster a corporate world that’s more accepting of women in leadership roles. Jessie Fu, the director of programming at Women in Business and a Sixth College junior majoring in business psychology, emphasizes that Women in Business is about creating a safe space of inclusivity.

“We feel like with a lot of other business orgs, it’s really competitive, and not in a good way where you push each other to be the best. It’s more negative, like ‘I have to step over you,’” Fu said. “So we want to break the barrier of that; we want to empower each other and genuinely be happy for each other’s successes.”

As part of creating this “tight-knit” group as Fu puts it the organization holds a variety of events: workshops for members to improve their resumes and cover letters, networking and speaker nights so that members may learn from other women’s journeys into the business world, and social events and formals. Both Tabasum and Fu had friends who recommended that they join Women in Business, and both instantly felt comfortable talking to other members during the recruiting period. They found it refreshing to communicate with other students interested in business but who had a wide variety of majors.

As both Tabasum and Fu point out, the barriers to entry for women in the world of business are much more substantial than those for men. Women in the workplace often struggle to be taken seriously. Tabasum recalls an instance in one of her internship experiences where she and a male intern were simultaneously learning about how to implement a new program on a robot. She alone was complimented on her progress — her advisor seemed surprised at her efficiency and less so by her fellow intern’s.

“It felt like they weren’t expecting me to learn it,” Tabasum said. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, she’s a girl, so, good for her for doing this.’”

Women in Business makes it a priority to reflect on the social norms that limit a woman’s opportunity to claim a leadership position and garner the respect of her subordinates.

Though gender roles have become more fluid in the past few decades, the stereotypes for what it means to be a woman remain.

For example, some would say that women who leave their children for the day to run a business are selfish and have the wrong priorities.

“There’s this perception that a woman can either be a good mother and homemaker, or she can be very involved in her work life — but she can’t have both. So that’s part of the reason why, if someone’s in an empowered position in the workplace, people think that she must be neglecting her life at home,” Tabasum said. “People kind of look down on those women, but there are so many cases where you can have a successful family life and a successful work life.”

Then there are the social norms which lay out a framework for what a woman’s personality should be. Assertive women are labeled as bossy and controlling while men are praised for their leadership and firmness. Men command respect while women face backlash for the very same behavior. As a result, many women in the workplace lack the confidence to speak up.

“If a woman is in a strong position the head of a company she might be called uptight. With a man, it’s, ‘He’s so driven.’ That’s a double standard,” Fu said. “At one of our workshops, we talked about how men are more likely to apply for jobs that they aren’t qualified for whereas women don’t. Also, women are more afraid to negotiate for the salary that they know they deserve for their qualifications. We need to work on empowering women to do that.”

That’s where Women in Business comes in: enabling those who know they have the potential to be a CEO one day to network with role models and achieve their goals, and perhaps most importantly supporting those who don’t. In the process, the organization looks to avoid the competitive, cut-throat atmosphere that characterizes some other business-focused organizations.

“I think it’s important to create a community where you can empower them personally and professionally, and making sure they can have that safe space to help each other grow,” Tabasum said. Fu adds, “UCSD is such a large campus; sometimes, it’s hard to find help. WIB is a safe space for our members.”

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When asked if they know any powerful women who are role models in the business world and in life for them, both Fu and Tabasum have no hesitation before naming their mothers, who they say they have learned some of their best traits from. Tabasum’s mother decided to get her clinical laboratory scientist degree after having children and hopes to pursue an MBA. For Fu, her mother has taught her some of the traits she hopes to bring into the business world.

“She never gives up. She’s very much set on her goals, but at the same time, she’s very open-minded. She’s really taught me to value diversity and teamwork,” Fu said. “She’s also a really kind person, and she has shown me the importance of having relationships with your team and employees, and to delegate tasks. She trusts her team and others, but while keeping her values.”

The two have lofty goals: Fu wants to work in marketing or public relations in the beauty industry while Tabasum wants to work in the biotechnology industry, and both want to pursue graduate school. They’re glad to know they have a community of networkers and friends in their fellow Women in Business members. They hope that any UC San Diego graduate who was a member of Women in Business feels the same way, has grown personally, and has learned what it means to be a leader.

Though their efforts operate on a smaller scale, Tabasum and Fu are confident that a student organization encouraging more women to enter the business world is only going to reflect positively in industries of all kinds. Both firmly believe that a company which hires and values women will not only see the effects of a more diverse range of ideas, viewpoints, and problem-solving tactics, but will be more successful overall. Fu points out that women possess many social skills that men do not, which makes for “a refreshing workplace dynamic and a more open environment.” Tabasum mentions that, as a woman in the business world fighting twice as many obstacles as a man does, that perspective is a valuable one to bring to a company.

“All the [negative] comments that push back women in the workplace … I feel that it makes for more of a well-rounded decision-maker in the sense that we’re able to consider a lot more things than men would,” Tabasum said. “Not everything is as black and white for us as it is for men, and I think that’s a really good quality to have in the business world.”

Fu emphasizes that there’s no reason why members of Women in Business at UCSD couldn’t be the ones to contribute to revamping the status quo and changing the perception of women in leadership roles. She hopes that one day, in the not-too-distant future, no one will be surprised at a woman’s success in the workplace.

“I want our members to break out of their comfort zone and challenge the double standards,” Fu said. “I’d like to see more female leaders in the workplace and I’d like to have it not be weird, but be completely normal.”

Photo courtesy of Alli Neece.

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