Barriers to women’s ambition
In my second article leading up to International Women’s Day on the 8th March 2017 I am considering how despite all the time, money and great intentions which have been put into building a more diverse talent pipeline in many organisations, there are still some basic barriers, which have not been removed and get in the way of women feeling and being more upwardly mobile. A Bain Study in 2015 illustrates that an employee’s early employment experience influences their confidence in whether to actively pursue a C-suite career or not. Some of the erosion of or challenges facing ambition come down to factors such as whether women are perceived as ‘ideal workers’, whether they are getting sufficient support from their own direct supervisor, the organisation’s leadership development process and the dearth of real role models. These types of barriers can be explored and supported through coaching and mentoring relationships.
Barrier 1 – Are women ‘Ideal Workers’?
Some women do not fall neatly into the stereotype of an ‘ideal worker’ in their organisation. This may be around their personal profile, building visibility, commitment to long hours, or ‘presenteeism’, the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, networking and self-promotion. Of course these may not be the real route to success, but are often valued more in organisations.
A Bain Study in 2015 demonstrates that although these ‘ideal worker’ characteristics are not necessary the ones that lead to success at work that unfortunately they are the ones that are valued most and are usually the ones that are most challenging to women. Often this can just be perception with women judging themselves most harshly they at they are unable to fulfil criteria and will undersell themselves in terms of their experience, potential and capabilities. The opinion that women are not as committed as men to long hours and ‘presenteeism’ because of family commitments is widespread, with 58% of women and 47% of men believing that juggling work and family will adversely affect a woman’s career, belaying the evidence of many successful women coping with this very successfully.
Women’s careers are also impeded by going on maternity leave, organising child-care and managing work life balance, impediments which some men will happily share with their partners, but still the majority responsibility falls to the woman. In an ILM Survey, 17% of women felt having a family had presented problems or barriers to career development, compared to 7% of men. They also discovered that 41% of women managers and leaders were childless compared with 28% of men. You would expect women’s ambition to be impacted when they start a family. However, the Bain Study found this is not the case and it illustrates that women’s ambition is not affected when they have children; it is when their ambition isn’t fostered sufficiently early on in their career.
Coaching and mentoring can provide an external reality check to some of the myths surrounding ‘the ideal worker’, working through work life balance issues and providing women with a sounding board to make sense of some of the issues they face around working hours.
Barrier 2 – Why doesn’t my boss talk to me?
Women generally feel less supported by their own line managers and supervisors. There appears to be less meaningful dialogues between a more junior woman and more senior male executives. This perception that women are more ‘relational’ and men are more ‘transactional’ is held widely and it appears that women need a different type of dialogue with their managers than men. Certainly women don’t appear to feel supported in having conversations with their managers about their career aspirations.
Bain’s 2015 study showed that just after two years in the workplace, women’s career ambitions have been drastically lowered; down from 43% feeling they have the aspiration to reach top management down to 16%. Men’s ambition levels remain constant over the same period. The researchers discovered that a key reason for this was because they did not enough support from line managers.
Challenging women to think about how to utilise their own line managers and supervisors in order to have meaningful career discussions with them, can be a useful coaching intervention. Often the line manager may not even have focussed consciously on this employee’s needs and a request for more support and development will be considered with a positive response.
Barrier 3 – Am I getting the development I need?
Most generic leadership development programmes fail women according to Ibarra, Ely and Kolb. They explore the notion that becoming a leader is much more than acquiring the skills and adapting your style to the leadership role you are put in. It is about a fundamental identity shift, which women find difficult, as there is often a mismatch between how women are perceived and the way leaders are viewed within organisations. The failure comes from the subtle gender bias still persisting in organisations, a tendency to instil leadership competences as if operating in a ‘social vacuum’ and a lack of support of women to encourage and support their leadership efforts if they do not appear to be operating like the current generation of senior leaders.
Finding leadership identity
As leadership capacity develops, individuals feel confident to demonstrate further their skills more visibly in more challenging assignments. However, without affirmation and organisational endorsement, the confidence to experiment as a leader will wither and an individual’s perception of potential may diminish. Finding a way to support women and men to internalise their own leadership identity is key, but this is very challenging for women, particularly if they are operating in a culture that is unconsciously conflicted about how they should behave and exercise their authority. There is a human tendency to move towards a person like yourself, which creates a culture of senior men sponsoring and becoming advocates for other men when leadership opportunities arise. If a woman demonstrates less conventional leadership potential, this may not be recognised by the prevailing culture. Without discriminatory intent, a very subtle ‘second generation’ form of gender bias can block women’s bid for leadership. Coaching and mentoring are ways of being able to support both women and men to internalise their own leadership identity.
Barrier 4 – Where’s my role model?
There still remains a lack of role models in senior leadership positions for women to relate to. Even women who have got to the top are often under so much pressure to please everyone; they make very poor role models for more junior women coming up after them. Stimulating a creative approach to finding a role model and extending the range of suitable role models can be one way to help here. Having a range of role models to connect with and a fresh supply as a woman’s needs and focus change is a challenge but an imperative to succeed. Helping a woman to find a sponsor can expedite this. Help in opening doors and being introduced to new opportunities can often be the catalyst needed to kick start more confident ambition and career progress.
Coaching and mentoring can encourage a woman to find a mentor or an informal sponsor. Making women aware that a mixture of emotional and tactical support, combined with affirmation and a role model/professional friend can really help her thinking. Women tend to have more difficulty developing relationships with people who have the power to advance their work. This can be perceived by outsiders as being too “pushy” or counter to the classic ideal of femininity. Reaching out to more powerful mentors and sourcing advantageous contacts seems easier somehow for men. However, a reality check around how to tap into and to maximise this support often busts some of the reticence women demonstrate when sourcing this type of support. Organisations often encourage this informally or arrange more formal sponsorship programmes for their high potential women.
Barrier 5 – Can women be ‘Bull Dozers’?
Women can also be perceived as ‘bull dozers’ if they dare to demonstrate the same level of vertical ambition motivation as a man. Women are 30% more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are too aggressive, bossy or intimidating according to the McKinsey and Lean.In Report.
Women are providers
The unconscious sense that women should be deferential, or relinquish recognition to others is still so embedded in society, that it can be extremely difficult for women to confront. Using a psychological tool to make this more explicit can be helpful. The most widely applied psychological measure of femininity/masculinity is the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BRSI). The traits ascribed to femininity in the BSRI show that femininity exists only in the context of a relationship and that the woman is providing something for the other person i.e. giving is the chief activity that defines femininity. With masculinity the adjectives can be quite solitary e.g. forceful, assertive, dominant. So when a woman competes with a man for highly visible roles, their femininity is frequently attacked and they can be described as too forceful, unattractive etc. Frequently coaching assignments are instigated on the basis of helping a woman to ‘tone down’ and become less competitive and aggressive. Unpacking the range of BRSI traits and supporting a woman to understand her behaviours on the spectrum is another great way to support the way she demonstrates her ambition visibly, without her confidence being eroded in the process.
So from the BRSI descriptions it appears that women are providers: “giving” is a chief activity that defines femininity. Giving recognition to others around them is part of this. However, if women are as vocal as men in a work situation or compete for more senior roles, they can be viewed as too forceful or pushy. Stimulating women’s thinking through coaching about being advocates of themselves and how to overcome this societal dilemma around how to get the correct level of recognition for their accomplishments is key to breaking out of this mode.
Barrier 6 – Do I feel confident applying for a job?
The well discussed fact that men will apply for jobs where they don’t fully meet the criteria was also borne out in the ILM Survey with 20% men conferring they will put their application in versus 14% of women when they don’t feel confident of having all the right competences, experience and attributes needed. A Hewlett-Packard internal study in 2014, quoted by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In emphasised this even further, finding that men would apply for a job they feel 60% qualified for, while women hold out for 100%.
This barrier alone probably accounts for a large number of women not applying for more senior positions. Often coaches and mentors can encourage women to think about their achievements and successes in life to encourage them to put themselves forward for more senior roles.
So just some thoughts about what gets in the way of women’s ambition and how coaching and mentoring can support some of these barriers. Do get in touch and discuss these ideas further with me if you are interested?
My third and final article for International Women’s Day 2017 will consider Imposter Syndrome and some of the ways to overcome it.
Ambition and gender at work, Institute of Leadership & Management 2011
Bain & Company Inc, 2015 Everyday Moments of Truth Report
Bem, S. & Lipsitz, S. 1981 “Bem Sex-Role Inventory” Mental Measurements Yearbook with Tests in Print,
Ibarra, H., Ely, R.J. & Kolb, D.M. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers. September 2013, Harvard Business Review, Boston USA.
Leanin.Org and McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace 2016 Report,
Sandberg, S. 2013. Lean In. London. WH Allen
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