With the Davies Report published last year, gender diversity has never had a higher profile. The weight of public opinion and threatened legislation are starting to fracture the glass ceiling that has kept women out of the boardroom.
But a major finding of new Ashridge research is that not much has changed for women in business over the past 30 years. The study exposes that organisational attitudes towards women frequently impede career advancement, and also outlines what steps women can take to make sure that they are best placed to be considered for top jobs.
Women in Business: Navigating Career Success, based on a survey of over 1,400 female senior managers and directors, reveals that 48 per cent believe it is harder for a woman to succeed at work compared with male colleagues, while 49 per cent think men and women are treated differently in terms of leadership and behaviour.
The continued existence of the old boys’ network and male senior teams who recruit in their own image, being fed up with “playing the games” that go on within boardrooms, having personal commitments outside of the workplace and lacking belief in their own ability, often lead to women turning their backs on the corporate ladder. Plus poor line management, managers taking credit, bullying and ‘macho’ behaviour are all factors that block women’s career paths and fuel inequality.
Company culture and stereotyping remain issues. Negative perceptions of assertive women abound, and females with drive and ambition are often regarded as aggressive and dominating.
Having children remains one of the biggest hurdles to career development. A culture of long hours and extensive international travel can affect some women’s ability to fill certain roles. Other issues for executive women include being perceived as being “soft and fluffy” by colleagues and struggling to earn the same level of respect as a male leader. Age and physical attributes can also be a hindrance – being either too old, or too young. One interviewee said: “being young, blonde and female has not always been helpful.”
Evidence suggests that women have to work harder to get respect. But women shouldn’t become like men. They must maintain their own authenticity and approach to doing business. It’s not about slogans, logos or slickness. It’s about realism, confidence and self-belief delivered in an energetic way.
Fiona Elsa Dent is the Director of Executive Education at Ashridge Business School, and co-author of Women in Business: Navigating Career Success