Reasons why more women are not on top

There’s been a lot of hubbub in the media about the dearth of women in top management positions in the UK a mere 12% of directors in FTSE 100 companies are women and only 20 of them (6%) are executive directors who run the company on a daily basis, compared with the 309 who are male.

So why is it that so few women are on top?

While it’s tempting to blame the system and the old boys club entirely for the dire state of affairs, I believe women need to take responsibility for their results. With my 10 years of experience in Investment Banking, I personally believe that the biggest reason is that women do not believe in themselves enough and lack the self-confidence to go for top jobs or the bigger jobs in their range. More often than not, women self-select themselves out of jobs (or should I say self-reject) because their beliefs about their abilities limit them e.g. “they’ll never hire me” or “I don’t have the qualifications” or “I don’t know everything there is to know about doing the job”. The result is that fewer women actually apply for senior positions, so automatically the talent pool has a disproportionate number of male applicants. The interesting thing is, blokes often do the opposite – i.e. if they don’t know everything there is to know about the job they assume “they will pick it up as they go along”, or go in with the attitude of “I’ve nothing to lose, cannot hurt to go for it” and generally believe that they “have what it takes” to do the job. This lack of self belief can appear in surprising places and people – I’ve seen it crop up in highly successful women as much as in those that don’t quite progress as far as they’d like. Also women constantly seek reassurance that they are doing well, they are not making mistakes and this sort of constant self-questioning is destructive as it does not really foster their managers belief in themselves either, who then don’t see them as being “ready” for the plum roles.

Another really major factor is that most women absolutely loathe self-promotion and “selling themselves”! This is so endemic that it shocked even me – I did an informal poll of several women in banking at reasonably senior levels, most of them “detest” people who promote themselves or “brag” about their work, or in any way publicize their abilities or success. Now the thing is, this malaise does not in my experience affect men (at least not to the same degree), which results in a lot of men rightly taking credit for their work and results and many women being content with saying “It was a team effort”. And then they wonder why they don’t get promoted! I am all for giving credit where it is due and I absolutely believe that it’s important to take credit for your work and achievements and ensure that they are visible. If women themselves don’t take charge of their careers, no one else will. This means telling your boss that you’ve done a great job (with evidence of course), asking the clients that are singing your praises to let your managers know, ensuring you have sponsors in the organization, dressing for success and taking opportunities for visibility.

A third reason is that many women do not think strategically about their careers – they don’t know who the key influencers are in the organization, how to get senior sponsors, how to “play the game” (in fact game-playing is also seen as distasteful & loathsome), how to network (another word that does not go down too well) and why to network and often don’t keep track of the developments in the business/sector so they are not aware of new opportunities or threats. Again, if women don’t take charge of their careers themselves, no one else will. In the meantime the men are busy networking (hence the golf games ladies), keeping in touch with key people and trends and going for the opportunities that arise. They usually get a bad rap for it too!

The fourth reason (and this is a BIG one IMHO) is that many women are afraid to be seen as selfish or aggressive. We women have a big need to please and it’s very important to “be liked”. We want to be perceived as being “nice” and this disease to please gets in the way of success because it’s simply impossible to please all the people all of the time! A critical component of rising up in an organization is making difficult and sometimes unpleasant decisions, knowing that not everyone will appreciate who you are and what you do and being OK with that. Many women, however struggle with this and it gets in the way of their being as forthright as needed in some situations or making the really tough decisions. Another hurdle is that women don’t want to be labeled aggressive and struggle with finding the balance between being assertive and being aggressive and often err of the side of niceness. Some don’t want to be thought of as selfish (What? You want a career and children and a happy family life too? Don’t you think that’s a tad greedy??). Many of us have it in our heads that it’s “noble” to sacrifice. Here’s the thing – worrying about what other’s will think does not serve anyone who has the conviction of their beliefs and decisions, which is tied in to believing in oneself and one’s abilities. Funnily enough, women often are their own worst enemies in this regard as we judge each other very harshly and add to the pressure on anyone who does try to make it big, whether it’s someone who has enough confidence to actually praise her own work or take credit for it, or someone who wants to have it all.

The other stumbling block that get’s in the way of women rising to the top is that most women would need to be pioneers as there are so few role models. It’s not impossible to forge a path to the top on your own but it certainly help’s if someone else has blazed the trail. Unfortunately because there are very few women at the top, it means that there are few role models that women can relate to and emulate. Also the distaste for networking is a hindrance as many women feel like they have to go it alone and don’t know where they can get support from.

Of course this is not to say that there are not systemic challenges to overcome, for instance instead of focusing on skill-based training I think focusing on building up womens’ confidence and belief will go a much longer way towards bridging the gap.

I do firmly believe that when women take charge of their careers and really have the confidence to go for the top jobs, things will change.

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4 Responses to Reasons why more women are not on top
  1. Beverley McMaster
    August 20, 2010 | 12:16 am

    Hello….mmmm you got me thinking. You really want know what I think since you asked? I wonder whether it will ever happen. How depressing is that? I think that the issue is more complex than women not taking charge of their careers. There is a whole piece for me about work life balance. I am becoming more and more convinced that real change will happen only when the nature of work changes such that more of a level playing field is created. I am currently spending a lot of time recruiting and it is shocking how many women are walking through the door saying that they want to work for us because of a better work life balance. They are prepared to take significant pay cuts because they don’t want to be working all hours and making such big personal sacrifices that their current roles demand of them. I honestly feel that work life balance and therefore a more level playing field will only come when men start demanding it. It it is possible that this next generation coming through will make a difference here. The current younger generation look at the way our generation work and say nope, not for me – and who got their head screwed on here? (I am broad brush generalising I know!) So, the challenge is to be ready with the skill sets and with the political savvy for when the level playing field comes. Of course, there could be a whole other area to be explored about whether the nature of work has/is/will change such that it plays to the more collegial softer skills that women have – meaning that actually the change they need to make might not be that massive after all. I’ve got an even bigger one to explore which has impact for the balance of power in the work place – the historical relationship between men and women, where it all started, how it’s evolved and how that balance is still held in the collective unconscious. But not today :)

  2. Piya Khanna
    August 20, 2010 | 5:50 pm

    Wow – big big thoughts here Beverley! I actually think that things are much better now than ever before – 50 years ago we had far fewer choices so I am optimistic they will continue to improve :)
    I also agree that issues like work-life balance are important – I categorize those as “systemic” issues though & also know enough blokes that have made choices based on those issues – i.e. wanting to spend more time with family and less hours at work and they have also compromised on the salary as a result.
    My point is that for those women who want to stay in the corporate world and progress, the onus is on them to make it work for them given that the situation is as it is. It’s not “fair” but it’s how it is.

  3. Rita Hovakimian
    August 24, 2010 | 5:24 am

    First of all I want to applaud you for being who you are and stating your perspectives so clearly and bluntly. Your message reminds us that we do have the power and freedom to fulfill our professional vision and goals and that we need to take responsibility and give up blaming any person or circumstance in the achievement of it.
    In my work with executives and leaders who were desiring to move to the next level in their career, one of the things that I worked with them on was reframing many of the things you mentioned: 1) networking is relationship building and creating good will 2) acknowledging your accomplishments inspires others and increases confidence and self esteem 3) standing up for yourself and speaking your truth, seen as assertiveness, establishes one to value themselves. If the qualities you pointed out in your article can be seen as opportunities for growth and development in a context of a woman being more of who she is vs. what she is not, perhaps she can be enrolled in taking on these practices and developing these competencies. Thank you for this very thoughtful conversation.
    I have heard many stories of VERY successful women say,
    “If you say there is a glass ceiling, then there will be one”.

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