Women in Senior Positions… What’s Holding us Back?

Posted on 19/09/2019 by Eliza Mould


Author: Anna Dunne | Associate Director, Regulatory & Financial Crime Compliance 


“Young boys are encouraged for their assertive behaviour, while girls are dismissed as bossy”, said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management conference last year. These sentiments are echoed in Sandberg’s 2013 book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’, and are really forcing us to stop and consider the challenges that women face in the workplace. 


Why are there fewer women in senior positions? Why are the likes of Sandberg considered ‘special’? 


Exploring Stereotypes


Stereotypes are all around us, and even though we may strive to ignore these stereotypes, we can’t overlook the fact that we’re exposed to stereotypes — with no malicious intent — from a young age. 


My own Mother likes to remind me about how, at the impressionable age of 5, I came from school bursting to tell her that I’d decided to become a nurse when I grew up. And that I’d marry a boy in my class who would become a doctor. “Why would you be the nurse, and he be the doctor?” asked my Mother. My response? Because girls are supposed to be nurses, and boys are supposed to be doctors.


Of course, even though I wasn’t taught it (and certainly not by my Mother who enjoyed challenging convention), this thought came from somewhere. These subtle and unconscious stereotypes come from books, television, clothes and toys and tend to be reinforced by their peers, teachers and well-meaning family. Of course we cannot ignore the biological difference between the sexes having an impact on our innate preferences. From a young age, there is generally an assumption that because girls have a preference towards something and boys to another then they can’t, or more precisely, shouldn’t follow a certain path. The roles that men and women are ‘supposed’ to have in the workplace becomes embedded from a very early age, and despite thinking we know better as adults, it’s a difficult notion to try and shift. 


A Broken System?


So what really is holding women back? Of course, it’s easy to blame the system. After all, we work within a corporate culture that systematically favours forward-thinkers. But there’s more to it than just a system that favours traditional ‘male’ qualities. What’s really holding us back? Well... we are.


Research has shown that when men progress into senior positions, their ‘likeability’ factor increases yet when women do the same they can become disliked or lose an element of trust from their colleagues. Do we still have the problem of a mismatch between what is expected from a woman versus what is expected of a leader? A male who is assertive, highly confident and is openly ambitious is seen as showing strong leadership qualities. A woman doing the same thing can be seen as aggressive and can lead to a level of distrust from their female colleagues.


Women at the start of their careers are not accustomed to seeing themselves represented at higher levels, and while it’s unfortunate that some are not supporting top-performing females, it’s sort of easy to see why: It’s unusual for us. Businesses eager to succeed should be making a conscious effort to ensure that women are able to reach their potential within the workplace, with support and encouragement along their journey. And as for us, we should be doing everything in our power to help ourselves, and other women to succeed. 


Success Stories


The latest YouGov figures show that 29% of all FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women, up from just 12.5% in 2011. And it’s a self-propelling factor. The more women in senior positions, the more young people are seeing their own demographic represented in these roles, facilitating the next generation of powerful women. Currently, graduate level hiring is typically 50/50 male to female. 


Of course, the pathway to the top can often be different for women if they chose to (or have no choice to) step away from their careers to raise a family. As touched on earlier, there are biological differences between men and women that do exist and which we shouldn’t ignore, but we should work to find ways to incorporate these differences into hiring and career progression.


Sheryl Sandberg herself says it best when she proposes the change from ‘career ladder’ to ‘jungle gym’– i.e. an indoor playground with lots of different routes to climb, room to pause and start a new direction are opening up to more of a pool of talent that gives room to let people thrive in a modern world?