Why women at the top still face prejudices - HR Future helps people prepare for the Future of Work and is South Africa's leading print, digital and online Human Resources magazine.

Why women at the top still face prejudices

A new gender revolution is becoming the trending topic of this decade.

After many predictions giving women hope that there is an end to the diminished value of women in leadership positions, the right of women to expect equal consideration for equal work is at the forefront of the new gender revolution.

According to Carol Sankar, founder of The Confidence Factor for Women in Leadership, the women’s movement must be a collective movement. It should not focus on the select few women to advance and enter the holy portals of the “club” while others are left behind. The restraining factors must be identified for these issues to be addressed in any meaningful way.

Women now make up nearly 60% of the graduates in the United States and more than 50% of the lecture classes in many traditionally male fields such as medicine and law. Despite these gains, equality has not been reached in business — especially at the most executive levels. Sally Blount, the only female heading up a “Top 10” business school says that past data predicts that at least 50% of women who graduate from top MBA programmes in 2017 will leave full-time work within 10 years of graduating — either by choice or because they have been “forced” out. If we understand why women of high potential choose not to enter business in the same numbers as their male peers and why those that do, leave at greater rates than men do, more insight is undoubtedly needed to create much-needed support programmes for women across all stages of their careers. This is urgent if we are not to continue to lose a large portion of employment potential.

According to Sankar the main factors holding women back are:

Self-bias: The belief that you are not qualified enough to try.
A seat at the table: Vacant seats at the table are often filled within the association and alignment of the male” club”— this can lead to the feeling that a seat at the table for women is a myth.
Competing instead of collaborating: Women who work together will win together.
Lack of mentorship and meaningful professional advocacy: The much-discussed importance of gaining access to professional mentor’s neglects to address the fear of seeking mentorship outside one’s comfort zone.
Loneliness: There is a high level of mistrust and gender bias between women affecting the value of professional relationships and advocacy.
Fear of asking: Women do not know what to ask for, who to ask and the appropriate time to ask. Equal consideration for equal effort must be rewarded not ignored.  

However, to continue in their fight for equal rights, women need equal access.

A growing body of evidence suggests that there are three pivot points in a woman’s career at which she faces unique biological and cultural issues. These decision points introduce predictable stressors into the lives of adult women and mean that, on average, women of high potential with similar education and experience to high potential men experience goals, career choices and trade-offs differently. If we continue to overlook or only partially address these unique needs, large portions of highly talented women will never get near the C-suite.

Career launch

Data from elite institutions like North-Western, Princeton and Harvard indicate that women starting their careers earn on average about 80% of what their male peers do. Lack of parity appears right at the start of these women’s careers. How can we hope to achieve parity in the later stages?

A broad class of entry-level positions at consulting firms, investment banks and certain Fortune 500 companies offer upward mobility for leaders across all sectors. Women do not gain the benefit of these early career accelerators because they do not feel qualified enough to apply for them.

Young women tend to hold more negative stereotypes about working in business than do men. They encounter relatively few female role models who can demonstrate why working in business is a meaningful career choice.

Mid-career

The second critical pivot point occurs when women face greater demands at work at the same time as greater demands at home. Stress levels rise when aging relatives become frailer and children’s schedules more and more packed. Many well-educated career women decide at this stage that economically or emotionally it is just not worth it to stay in the game.

Part of the solutions clearly lies in our ability to improve the availability, affordability and quality of child and old-age care — as in the Scandinavian countries where this is the norm.  Another part also relies on more flexible work hours and career paths.

High potential women need to be coached to prepare for and bridge the Mid-career years. They face the added issue of implicit and explicit bias at work — in ways that men still don’t see. Furthermore, because of this, they are less likely to ask for help or pursue new opportunities.

Executive transition

The shift from running a section of the organisation to running the whole of it, or being in the C-suite means more responsibility, more meetings, more travel, more politics and broader scope. Many women never make it past this hurdle — by choice or chance.  

After years of sitting in limbo with no chance of filling the C-suite jobs, some women opt out by choice because the potential benefit no longer seems worth the personal cost.

Annual strategic talent reviews belong at the highest levels — a key aspect of best practice succession planning. They should include executives of diverse backgrounds, including women, and should not be delegated to Human Resources.

We must also recognise the unique challenges faced by professional women. If we can support them through the critical pivot points in their careers, the number of women in the pipeline to the C-suite will increase. We may finally begin to realise our full potential as a society that espouses equal rights for all.

Susi Astengo is the Managing Director of CoachMatching.

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