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Women Won’t Reach Senior Leadership Roles – Here’s Why…

Self-doubt, exhaustion and a lack of support can hold women back from reaching their full potential, resulting in many turning down well-earned promotions
Self-doubt, exhaustion and a lack of support can hold women back from reaching their full potential, resulting in many turning down well-earned promotions, research shows.
  • Survey shows women turn down a promotion into a senior leadership role due to professional exhaustion, less personal time, and a lack of professional autonomy
  • In this, 36% also noted imposter syndrome as a clear demotivating factor
  • Workplaces need to start adapting work to the multiple roles women have in everyday life, rather than just simply trying to promote women into senior leadership roles

“Nobody wins afraid of losing. We go into every game to win it.”

Leah Williamson, captain of England Women’s National Football Team, highlighted this mantra as the key to guiding the Lionesses to victory in the European Championship this summer.

A positive mental attitude helped pave the way to their success. Playing whilst in fear of being inadequate to the competition, or worrying that they were under-prepared despite the time and effort spent training, would have only stopped them from demonstrating and utilising their capabilities.

It’s well documented in the sporting world that fear, doubt and scepticism of our own talents can hold individuals back from reaching their full potential. Unfortunately, these hurdles in sport appear all too often in our daily working lives. And, as the Lionesses know all too well, the hurdles always seem to be that much higher for women, even when opportunities for progression come their way.

Typically, the reality for many women is that a step up in their professional careers with more responsibility does not lessen the burden of being the main ‘caregiver’ at home. Rather than finding balance, many women instead end up adding another responsibility to an already overwhelming workload – some even undertaking two full-time lives at work and at home, often at the expense of their own health.

Investigating further, Professor Viviane de Beaufort of ESSEC business school interviewed more than 100 female business school alumni; all in different industries, all whom had been offered a promotion on the basis of their own merit, and and all of whom had turned that promotion down.

Over half of the respondents said that they chose to do so in order to focus on a different life goal, with 44% citing more time with family as their key motivator – not wanting to endure or further complicate their dual lives any longer. After the pandemic, lockdown and crisis after crisis, it is hardly surprising that a fifth of the respondents also cited professional exhaustion as having prevented them from continuing to climb the ranks, despite their original ambitions which, of course, had motivated them to invest in gaining a business education.

But perhaps more significantly, almost 60% of women felt they would not have the sufficient resources, nor the independence, to complete the job. Respondents said they lacked the professional autonomy to do their work to the best of their ability, however best suited them. Regardless of how high a position they held within their organisations, 84% felt their seniority would not be reflected in practice, further hindering their capacity to operate.

A majority felt constrained in their ability to get on with their current professional obligations anyway, never mind a more senior role, and described their working experience as if they were operating with one hand tied behind their back.

On top of this, over a third of those surveyed also suggested they suffered from imposter syndrome after being offered a promotion.

It all makes for pretty grim reading.

But aren’t there already multiple initiatives in place to help women break through the glass ceiling to access those senior-level roles? Well, yes. There exists initiatives to back gender parity and address covert misogyny, which is of benefit to us all: women-only recruitment drives, setting measurable promotion targets, investing in training for women, to name just three. These are, of course, tangible and important efforts to include and elevate more women into senior leadership. But do we consider too frequently how to funnel women in senior roles, rather than ever reflecting how best to adapt our working practices in order to better encourage and support women?

Professor de Beaufort’s research highlights this key difference: bringing women into the workplace is not equal to evolving work to suit women. The first approach ignores the dual role women commonly perform in their day-to-day lives, while the second recognises, accounts and accommodates for this.

So what can be done to better encourage this second approach amongst our industries?

De Beaufort recommends ending unnecessary, rigid in-person working hours where possible, allowing for women to embrace the opportunity for promotion, taking on senior roles and completing them successfully in a more flexible and autonomous manner. The study’s interviewees were held back from entering senior leadership not because of a scarcity of their talent, opportunity or ambition, instead it was a working culture and lifestyle that inescapably stacked the odds against them, and made them feel they were not up to the job. Because of this they went into the game forced to worry about how they might fall short compared to the rest of the team, and afraid they were going to lose.

Inevitably, the changes recommended would benefit everyone: flexible work-life balance, more autonomy to get on with the job and internal support and training is not a benefit solely to be enjoyed by women. In a world now defined by our ability to live in a hybrid manner, it is fast becoming the expectation of all workers to have a degree of flexibility to their professional lives.

Often when considering diversity and inclusion, we talk about elevating individuals – raising people who need that step up. But Professor de Beaufort’s research highlights that it’s not about uplifting people to opportunities anymore. Instead we should focus on broadening opportunities to suit all; it’s a fundamental shift in how we consider inclusion into the workplace.

While we may be quite a while away from gender parity across the board, perhaps even 100 years away, listening to women and the factors which influence their decision making can help us get their faster.

Listening to people and providing them with the support to no longer be afraid is surely the way to victory for all.

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