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Dr Zahira Jaser, University of Sussex Business School: "It took great self-belief and courage to stand tall."
I grew up in a family where challenging stereotypes was the norm. I come from a mixed heritage: my father was Palestinian, and my mum is Italian. When they married in Italy, she was working, and he was studying medicine. She was the main bread winner for a while. My mixed, non-traditional background made me insatiably curious about others. So, when I went to university I felt at home, and at the end of my degree in Politics and Economics I was invited to stay on as a researcher. But I had no money and so was applying to multi-national companies.
I got my first job in investment banking at JP Morgan. No role models. I remember my first experiences of being the only woman in a room full of men. It took great self-belief and courage to stand tall and be heard, to be taken seriously for your brain, and not for your look. I spent ten years on the trading floor. When I had my children, I remember not knowing who to ask for advice. Most women left when they had children, so I had zero role models on the trading floor. This meant it was difficult for me to envision my future there. I also remember coming back from maternity leave with fewer clients than when I left because some male colleagues had taken them. It was tough.
As a woman in that environment, you are pulled into two different directions. You are a mother at home, so you want to be nurturing, but then, in a very hard performance environment, you have to put on a hard persona. You become an ‘insider outsider’. You have to go against prevalent stereotypes, which see women as nurturing and gentle, and men as assertive and tough. You are at constant risk of being misunderstood. If you are tough, you are treated much more harshly than a man would be.
I left in 2011 when it was clear that banks were not changing fast enough. After the financial crisis I hoped that the culture would change, that it would become less competitive, more collaborative and accommodating of different profiles. But this did not happen fast enough, so I left. I had moved to Barclays and I remember on my last day that I couldn’t cross the threshold of the door to leave the building. Within me was the question, if I am not a banker, then who am I? I had to embrace this unknown. Symbolically, crossing that threshold was like jumping off a ledge. This experience provided me with great insight on how difficult it is to go through a career change – the issues with identity and self-belief.
I went to LSE to do a Masters in Organisational Behaviour, and then I did a PhD at City Business School (old Cass Business School). I chose to study managers and leaders through the lens of social psychology and sociology, and I loved it. It was a constant lightbulb moment because all my ‘insider outsider’ observations about gender, stereotypes, identity shift, which I had gathered in the previous 15 years, were now finding an explanation. Now I could actually start researching them. I could bring them into the light. They didn’t need to stay unexpressed, unobserved and unspoken.
In studying leadership, I look at things differently, I look at leaders as one of us. For example in my book The Connecting Leader: Serving concurrently as a leader and a follower, I have invited many colleagues to contribute their ideas to develop a less heroic pictures of leaders, not as superior beings who direct us from a higher positions, but as one of us who connect different people and ideas in organizations. I look at leaders’ challenges in staying authentic, at being empathetic, and in creating environments for people to express their voice. I guess my way of looking at things differently, and challenging the status quo, is paying back. My research has received many acknowledgments and awards from the Academy of Management, and will be out soon in prestigious journals.
My latest research is on empathetic leaders. I’m particularly curious about how leaders use empathy in their messaging, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. New studies are linking empathetic leadership from women with the ability to convince people to accept enormous personal sacrifice and more extreme measures, with a result of a lower number of deaths. I have analysed the language of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern and compared it to UK PM Boris Johnson. This is providing insights on how she has constructed a ‘sense of us’, for example using metaphors of journeys, rather than wars; of working together rather than fighting together. It is fascinating to look at leadership with this gender lens.
I started working at Sussex in 2018 and I really like the values at the University. I talk about this with my students when we look at corporate culture. One of the big artefacts of the University is the Meeting House. It’s a multi-faith space where everyone feels accepted. This beautiful building is at the root of that culture of inclusivity. I love working in academia, it's much more collaborative. But I never regret my days in banking; I met a huge amount of super interesting and innovative people and gained great insights on human behaviour, and gender dynamics.
Dr Zahira Jaser is hosting a Women in Leadership event, via Zoom, on 16 July, with fellow speakers Bogolo Kenewendo, African economist and the former Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry in Botswana, and Fumani Mthembi, co-founder of the Pele Energy Group (“Pele”) and the managing director of its subsidiary, Knowledge Pele (“KP”).