Generation XX - is the rocky road to female career success about to ease?

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 May 2011

19 May 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Women blocked from career success?

Companies will be fishing in a small and increasingly competitive pool of candidates unless they start developing their own emerging female talent for boardroom responsibility. It’s easy to look back over the last 20 years and note the lack of women’s progress in the corporate arena:

  • Equal pay hasn’t happened
  • Representation in the boardroom remains minimal
  • Professional elites remain male-dominated
  • The case for gender diversity is still hotly debated and therefore only partially accepted and acted upon

Women start out with the same level of educational attainment, ambition, and commitment as men; yet comparatively few reach the top. Thanks to a wealth of applied research on the subject, however, we now have a better understanding of the real root causes of the gender gap at the top:

Women opt out of routes to corporate leadership more frequently than men. They often lose appetite for the politics at the top of large corporates. Satisfaction with their positions is significantly lower than that of men. Their personal values become decoupled from those of their employer and they seek meaning elsewhere.

What are the barriers to female success?

Work-life balance for women is a chimera
Across the globe, women leave the office to start a second shift of focused family and home management before logging on to their third shift as a remote, out of office hours worker. The dual burden of management at home and at work saps women’s energy.
Notions of male-centric leadership abound
Several studies have found that while a successful male leader is decisive, assertive, go-getting, ambitious, and visionary, identical behaviours in a woman are likely to give rise to pejorative attributions, such as 'ball-buster', 'queen bee', or 'bitch'. Women are expected to be socially and emotionally attuned, caring and concerned with others’ wellbeing. These gender-related attributes often conflict with the concept of a leader as a mover and shaker.

Structural hurdles remain intact
The glass ceiling, glass escalator, and more recently the glass cliff, are real phenomena. Appointing women into high profile leadership roles is the exception to the norm and therefore viewed as a risk. Women are promoted to CEO often when there is little left to lose, i.e. in highly precarious circumstances.

Personal dynamics and professional networks
An aspiring female leader will have to manage more complex interpersonal dynamics to navigate acceptance by a senior, often older, and mainly male network. Frequently, it’s easier to stick with what feels familiar. However, all-women networks are no panacea – typically women find that their female colleagues and mentors are not as influential as male equivalents.

Out of sight and out of mind
Women fail to promote their own interests and don’t speak up. Whether the result of early social conditioning or a belief that deep competence is required to add value, women tend to minimise their own contribution to success, and hold back from putting themselves forward for promotion. 

The price of success is high
On average, the higher women climb up the corporate ladder, the fewer children they are likely to have, whereas the reverse is true for men. Women have to make a conscious choice to prioritise their career over their family. The same choice does not appear to have the same consequences for senior male leaders.

What else has affected the trend?

Macro socio-economic changes mean we are also clearer as to why the gap matters:

  • The war for talent continues. Europe can expect to see a shortfall of 24 million people in the active workforce by 2040. Businesses need to draw on the widest possible talent pool.
  • Fostering a better understanding of customers. Women represent an increasingly large part of the consumer market with a major influence on purchasing decisions.
  • Promoting collective learning. There is some evidence of group-think on boards comprised of those individuals who share the same background and experience. Recent very public corporate mishaps could arguably have benefited from the traditionally viewed female insistence on ‘celebrating mistakes’ and less tolerance for empire-building behaviours. 
  • Better corporate governance is linked with the presence of women on the board. Men learn to communicate using direct, confrontational speech. Women learn to maximize intimacy and minimize conflict. A blend of both is necessary for transparent, collective problem-solving at board level.  
  • Organisational competitiveness. In 2009 market capitalisation for those FTSE-100 companies with women on the board was significantly higher than those without. In Europe, companies with more women on management and supervisory boards produced an average ROE (return on equity) of 11.4%, against 10.3% for a comparison group. Where women were well represented on boards, profits grew 11.1%, against 5.8% for the comparison group.

What does the future hold?

The view for women in the next 20 years is more hopeful:

The law of supply and demand will kick in
The world will have an increasingly urgent need for female leaders. In some emerging countries, the gender imbalance will put a premium on females per se, both as potential wives and mothers, but also as champions of female-friendly products, services and organisational cultures. In the developed world, societal shifts and legislative pressures mean organisations will be forced to address their recruitment biases for senior level positions. 

The ‘female’ model of leadership will come of age
The need for connectivity, meaning and emotional intelligence in our corporate leaders will begin to outstrip the need for authoritative, directional and macho leadership. In a globalised, networked world, women’s traditionally perceived areas of strength will come to the fore as essential leadership qualities.
Social equity will become a key driver of legislation
Almost all European countries now have some form of affirmative policy enshrined in their legislation. The EU is considering hardening its approach to gender diversity for member states. Spain and Norway have already taken the initiative in setting quotas for women in senior positions. Corporates will be forced to become more transparent about their gender balance at the top. 

A critical mass of senior female leaders will level the playing field and may also change the game
Equity in status through more equal representation at senior levels will lead to greater levels of acceptance. The notion of leadership as ‘male gendered’ will fade from consciousness. Women will continue to take time out of the workplace to perpetuate the species. However, the career ‘penalties’ they have historically paid will slowly but surely cease to exist.

YSCs top tips for women to beat the system

  • Broaden your horizons – see the world. Early on in your career, make sure you have an international posting under your belt before family commitments anchor your career to one place for a number of years. Later in your career, think globally. Of 14 women new to FTSE boards in 2009, only one was a home-grown Brit.
  • Don’t expect your results to speak for themselves. Don’t wait until you are sure you can succeed at the next level before putting your hat in the ring. Men will put themselves forward with only a 50% assessment of having the skills for success, whereas women tend to wait until they have at least 80% of the requisite skillset for the role. 
  • Once you are over 40, start planning your exit. Your chances of promotion are likely to be increased as an external candidate. Women CEOs are nearly twice as likely as men to have been appointed to the job from outside the company.  
  • Watch your figure(s). Get a good grounding in finance. Three of the 14 new FTSE-100 first-time female directors in 2009 were appointed as finance directors.  
  • Get out more. You need to be serious about networking to stay abreast of your male counterparts. YSC’s psychometric research suggests that networking should be an area of strength for women. Source yourself a senior mentor and use him/her to introduce you to other senior leaders.  
  • Manage your profile. Female leaders are judged on their appearance more so than their male counterparts. Decide what you want people to remember about you and make sure they do. 

Tips for organisations to hothouse female talent


  • Provide mentoring for your junior female talent from really senior leaders. Also, make sure your junior female talent gets a succession of great female line managers early in their career. Role-modelling is incredibly important for engagement and aspiration.
  • Really engage your senior female talent in roles and projects that feel meaningful for them – or eventually they will walk. This will create a depleted talent pool just below main board level. Hiring in female talent externally at main board level will further deter your remaining female talent from staying around for the top job. 
  • Enable flexible working for women who want to work on their own terms. Ensure they have an environment that allows them to be effective in their jobs alongside other conflicting priorities. Measure their levels of engagement regularly and listen to their ideas for improvement. 
  • Encourage mobility (functional and geographic) in early career. YSC’s research confirms that both international experience and P&L responsibility are key building blocks to success in later career. Make it easy for your female leaders to explore their options without losing their way. 
  • Put your money where your mouth is. Don’t make pious public statements about the organisation’s commitment to diversity if the reality doesn’t marry up. Don’t massage the statistics. If they don’t look good, start doing something different.