With role models such as Hilary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, the promising statistic that 26 per cent of women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (up from zero in 1995) and the fact many organisations are promoting gender equality in the workplace, it’s easy to assume that workplace equality has been achieved. However, I believe we still have work to do. Many women have felt discouraged from ‘going to the top’ by a set of myths which attempt to justify women’s lack of progress, often placing the blame on women rather than on sex discrimination. Indeed, the factors that are affecting women in the workplace are wide-ranging, complex, interlinked and still partly unknown. All I do know is that women still have to work harder and overcome more obstacles than their male counterparts.
To my shock, there are only 191 female MPs out of a total 650 Members of Parliament in the UK. There is only one female Supreme Court justice on the 12-strong Supreme Court bench. Although all FTSE 100 firms have female directors, women only make up 8.6 per cent of executive directorships, despite females making up 45 per cent of the total workforce. Clearly, these positions of responsibility are making critical decisions on behalf of the entire population and yet this is not representative of it.
Yes, biologically, women have babies. But, sociologically, why must this be seen as hindrance?
One of the arguments I’m frequently met with to explain this is that ‘women must just not be good enough’. This is simply not true. There is no agreed evidence to suggest that any one gender has a superior intelligence. In fact, if data on women’s leadership was what drove the recruitment decisions for influential positions, more women would be in charge. One of the most comprehensive, worldwide studies on corporate success in 2014 found that businesses with more women employed in senior leadership positions outperformed their competitors financially.
Clearly, the explanation is far more complex. Perhaps, it is not that women aren’t good enough for the leadership roles but that they simply aren’t applying for them. As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her well-renowned Ted Talk, there are numerous studies showing that women underestimate their skills and abilities compared to males. They are also much more likely to put their success down to external factors such as ‘luck’ rather than to their own character or effort, compared to men. Some women, despite success, still doubt their own abilities in a world that is seemingly out to crush their self-esteem. It is reasonable to argue that gender socialisation expects more of men. It encourages them to be tough and more often sees them as ‘natural born leaders’, while girls are ‘bossy’. As a society we need to encourage and support both men and women to climb the career ladder and recognise their achievements. As Sandberg rightly points out, women need to “sit at the table” and own their own success.
Secondly, I am frequently met with the argument that family and home responsibilities keep executive women from getting “to the top”. It is true that many women, out of personal choice, can take a career break often to look after their children, and there is no problem with that. The problem lies with the perception of this, which can lead women to fall behind their male colleagues on the career ladder. Yes, biologically, women have babies. But, sociologically, why must this be seen as hindrance? Indeed, there are countless examples in the media of women being discriminated against due to pregnancy such as being passed over for promotion due to doubts over ‘commitment’. However, the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL) is a key legal development to help parents balance competing demands of raising a family and their careers by enabling the father to take time off too.
This has perhaps helped to change the perception that childcare is primarily a female task. The more fathers that take SPL and the more businesses that embrace it, the more this perception will change. Certainly, organisations are beginning to do this. Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, recently stated his commitment to having an attractive maternity and paternity benefit to make it easy for talented women to stay in the workplace. He said: “We don’t want to force people to make that choice between work and family. We also want to help people re-enter the workplace on their return from having children so that women don’t lose momentum in their careers.” This commitment also makes business sense – it makes an organisation an attractive place to work.
If this perception does not change, it could have profound impacts on women’s decisions in the workplace. Society puts far more pressure on women to have children to keep up with the ‘tick-tock’ of their biological body clock. As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her Ted Talk, this can lead women to anticipate and plan for their future too far in advance and thus not go for promotions. Women need to refrain from ‘taking their foot off the gas pedal until the last day before maternity leave’. If women move forward in their career before family responsibilities, this increases the likelihood of her job being more fulfilling. This would make returning to work afterwards far more appealing and the higher pay facilitates her choice to be with her children.
Lastly, it is certainly true that one of the biggest challenges to achieving equality between the sexes is to break down the stereotypes that place women in lower paid and undervalued jobs. Women tend to gather in the ‘Five Cs’ professions – Caring, Cashiering, Catering, Cleaning and Clerical. Indeed, 77 per cent of people working in the Clerical profession are female, a profession that is often lower paid (The Guardian). Explanations for this trend include, among others, the unconscious or conscious stereotyping of ‘gender-appropriate’ subject choices at school.
Discouragingly, even when females do make it to the top, they are often still summed up by hackneyed stereotypes which undermine their leadership power. A key example is that of the ruthless and unsympathetic ‘Ice Queen’ stereotype, depicted perfectly in the character of Miranda in the film The Devil Wears Prada. This is a no-win situation for women. If a woman shows emotion in the workplace she is cast as too unstable and/or fragile to lead and if she shows none, she is icy, unfeminine and unapproachable.
We need to stop coming up with excuses and justifications as to why we have too few female leaders
This is backed up by the research conducted by the Harvard Business School. Two groups were given an identical case study about a real-life entrepreneur who had become successful by utilising their outgoing personality and networking skills. The only difference being, that the person was either named Heidi or Howard. Both groups thought Heidi and Howard were equally as competent, but Howard was seen as more likeable, while Heidi was seen as selfish. It suggests that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This stereotype may not only have a negative impact on the victims of it, but also have a discouraging effect on other women looking to progress due to fear of the way they may be perceived by others.
Clearly, the reasons why there aren’t enough female leaders are complex and often subtle. To tackle this, it demands the conscious effort on the part of employers to spot potential, offer training and raise their expectations of women. It demands a societal shift in the perception of women in the workplace so that we encourage women to succeed and we also like them for their accomplishments. We need to stop coming up with excuses and justifications as to why we have too few female leaders, and start talking about the solutions that will facilitate both business and equality objectives. As more women break through the mould and obtain leadership positions, I hope that eventually this need not even be a topic of discussion.