There’s something wrong if so many women are being held back

A report by the Chartered Management Institute, published in the middle of December (so not given much prominence in the wind down to Christmas) talked about the ‘missing middle’ – the way that women dominate entry level management jobs (with 73% of all first level managers being women) but are in a minority at the middle manager level (at 43%) and hold less than 10% of executive level jobs in public limited companies. This data matches the findings of research I led at the Institute of Leadership & Management, in 2011 (Ambition and gender at work). We found exactly the same phenomenon; women start out as the majority in lower level managerial roles, but are gradually eclipsed as they move up the hierarchy.

What we found, in the ILM research, was that the problem many women faced was a combination of real barriers to promotion, coupled with differing expectations to men when it came to their careers. Whereas men were over-confident about their ability to move ahead in their careers, applying for their first management role earlier than women and when they only partially met the criteria, women were far more cautious. They tended to be two years older than men when they moved into management and did so only when they felt they were fully equipped for the role.
This clearly works, for women, as they now get nearly three out of four initial management posts. What it doesn’t do, though, is help them progress beyond that level. Another piece of research we did at ILM, looking at how future leaders were identified and developed, suggested one of the barriers that women face is that what employers look for in the people when talent spotting for potential senior roles. They were those who, as they moved through their late thirties, took on demanding new challenges – working abroad or moving into roles which stretched their competence (such as moving into a different functional area). I saw exactly this in action in some recent research I did in the construction industry, where one large company expected their potential senior leaders to take on six month placements in completely different areas of the business to those in which they had worked so far.
Why does this disadvantage women? Because the Ambition and gender at work research and a follow up piece in 2012 (Women in banking) showed that this is the point in many women’s careers when they sought flexibility as they were taking on the primary carer role for children. In fact, one of the most distressing findings from our research was that, when they become fathers, men become more aggressive in furthering their careers (in fact, the senior men we surveyed had more children on average than the population at large). By contrast, a significantly above average proportion of the senior women in our survey were childless. In cannot be right that women and men have such contrasting experiences, that women must make such sacrifices for their careers!
There are no easy solutions but, as CMI argues, employers and other managers have an ethical responsibility for doing something to correct this situation. Given how long most people will be working, it is also absurd to assume once someone is in their forties they have passed the age at which they can be talent spotted or future senior roles – after all, they are not even half way through their careers yet. When senior managers retired in their late fifties it was perhaps reasonable, but now it will be their late sixties at least, so there is still time once women (and men) are in their late forties for them to be given the chance to broaden their experiences and prepare for senior leadership roles.