Business & Leadership

Izzana Salleh

Co-founder & President of Project Girls for Girls International

An earnest conversation over coffee with eight other girlfriends from all corners of the globe – Uganda, Mexico, Uzbekistan, the United States, Iceland, Oman, India and China – made Izzana Salleh realise that irrespective of cultures and geographies, women continued to be underrepresented in leadership, be it politics or the corporate. The episode sparked the idea for the then Harvard Kennedy School master’s student to pursue a path that will “contribute positively to the gender equality cause,” as she puts it. Together they established Project Girls for Girls in 2017. Today, the international NGO aiming to help young women develop the courage, vision, and skills to take on public leadership has expanded to 23 countries and is still growing, with the Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna enthusing that it is her way to “pay it forward.” Living by the motto “if not you, then who; if not now, then when?”, Izzana speaks to us about her organisation and the current state of women’s leadership. 

Do you still see women being held back from leadership roles? If so, in what ways and what are the contributing factors?
In short, yes. There are two main factors deemed as barriers to advancement in our leadership journey. 

The first being systemic issues. This refers to the “where and how” a woman can rise into leadership positions. These are political pathways, corporate ladders and any other journey women embark on in their work life. Career women, unlike career men, are constantly bound by the double burden syndrome of having to deliver well in both the workplace and at home. Women are not provided with an effective support system of childcare at the workplace, easier and/or more affordable methods to hiring home support such that that they can deliver equally well as the men at work. If we begin “handicapped” at the start of the “rat race,” we will be required to work twice if not three times harder to deliver the same results as a man who does not have the same home front obligations and expectations. This point is very much supported by the fact that most Malaysian women drop off the labour force around child- bearing age (30.87 years old) and do not return. 

The second obstacle would be cultural biases. In Malaysia, the various cultures practised here are still steeped in patriarchal values. It is 2021 and women’s success is still measured by their marital status, their finesse in the kitchen and the number of children they mother. Unfortunately, some women have had to sacrifice great opportunities because cultural biases do not support them pursuing it, however qualified they may be. 

I find that the patriarchal culture is the toughest barrier for women in leadership and an impossibly challenging mindset to shift if not for the courageous men and women who persist through the stigma. Many may say that these are just anecdotes. But here are some key statistics that demonstrate the little-to-no progress made in Malaysian female leadership thus far: 

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report Index Ranking 2020, Malaysia dropped three spots to be ranked 104th out of 153 countries. This index captures holistic data calculations across economic participation and opportunity (97), educational attainment (86), health and survival (84) and political empowerment (117). 

In 2021, we have 33 members of parliament (MPs) who are women, and while this is an absolute numerical increase, it is still a meagre 14% of MPs in parliament. A sad and far cry from the 48.6% of the female population in Malaysia. In 2019, Malaysia also ranked 143rd out of 190 countries on women’s representation in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

Malaysians (either through political manifestos or agency targets) are also still speaking about achieving 30% female representation. By right, we should be pushing for the conversation to be about 50% (or more) representation to reflect true equality. The conversation begins first, then the actions will follow. 

Are there fears of women as leaders? 

There are no fears of women as leaders, but people are generally happy with the status quo. Until and unless we have enough people dissatisfied with the current unequal landscape, with sufficient will and power to make a change so great and deserving of its people, we will remain as is. 

Do you think women are lacking in any area in order for them to step into leadership? Women themselves are fully equipped with the skills, talent and perseverance to lead. They are, however, severely lacking in: 

• Policy support from the government, especially in the ease of access to childcare which would then give them the ability to rise to their full leadership potential.

• Being treated as equals by men at home or in the workspace (note: equal does not mean identical).

• A shift in cultural mindset by the older generation reflective of the values in this era. 

Do you think women make just as good a leader if not better? If so, what would be the reasons?
Generally, I would say that people are as good a leader as they put their minds to. A woman can be a strong leader; a man can be an empathetic leader. It is not gender dependent. It is dependent on the leader’s personality, values and sense of courage. 

However, there are some recent write-ups that indicate evidence of female leaders having performed better in navigating their nations through crisis, including the Harvard Business Review. It cites female leaders’ ability to deliver in crisis, i.e. the “glass cliff.” 

Post-Covid-19 peak, it was found that outcomes related to Covid-19, including the number of cases and deaths, were systematically better in countries led by women. I look forward to more research and data on this topic. It may be our way to finally smash the “glass ceiling.” 

Can you tell us what are some of Project Girls 4 Girls’ initiatives and what impacts have they created? How do you groom girls to aspire to be leaders of the future? 

At Project Girls for Girls, we run on three main pillars where we conduct mentorship circles, provide inspiration through the webinars/ journals/engagements produced and most importantly, the global network which connects all our mentors and mentees worldwide. Currently, we have various partnerships across universities, NGOs and corporations in our member countries. We have graduated approximately 3,000 girls and trained 450 mentors. 

Our impact is captured through growth in confidence and technical leadership skills (public speaking, negotiations, etc, of our mentees), as well as the testimony and the increase in mentors committing to the cause after having run through the cycle with us. In our experience, mentoring girls who have even a slight interest in leadership provides returns in multiple folds. Her confidence grows under the guidance of an experienced mentor, coupled with growth in skills and a tribe of sisters who cheer her on every time – she leaves the programme a different person with aspirations and an action plan to achieve her leadership goals! That one girl whose mindset and confidence has been changed, will make a difference in someone else’s world. And that matters greatly. 

Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
My message for anyone who has aspirations, goals and dreams is simple but hopefully clear: “Go for it, and go for it today!” Staying true to your course for the next several years will provide the sweetest fruits to your labour. 


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