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WOMEN leaders in the workplace – why are we so few?

Lawyer Life, Leadership, work-life balance, Working environment

WRITTEN BY ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST 

Article 1 of 3 in the Female Leadership series

Gender equality in the workplace is not a new topic of discussion. It has been discussed numerous times before. Seemingly falling on deaf ears. Not surprisingly as women leaders in the workplace are still a minority. And that is a fact.

But we want to reiterate before proceeding any further that this is not a gender bashing or anti-men article. Having women in leadership roles and gender equality is not about disliking men or wanting dominion over them. Not at all. It is simply about wanting to be treated fairly and equally, to have equal pay, equal opportunity for senior roles, to have our concerns, our ideas and ourselves (personally and professionally) taken seriously.

So let’s start off with the following quote (to set the tone) –

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves” – Mary Shelley.

Women in the workplace

If this were 60 years ago the very notion of women being anywhere but in the kitchen would have been the punchline to a joke. But here we are in 2021 and women can be (somewhat) seen in the workplace fulfilling different roles in different industries. Performing very well, actually.

But the question, on most (women) people’s lips, is this – how many women are really in senior roles or leaders in companies? Are companies merely paying lip service to the notion of diversity in the workplace?

According to the Catalyst, and based on the January 2021 S&P 500 list (which is not a static list and is updated annually with women who are counted from the date they officially take their positions), women currently hold 31 of the total CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. That makes up only 6.2%. In total.

To illustrate how significant these appointments of female CEOs are, News was made in November 2020 when Lauren Hobart was appointed as Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO, replacing Ed Stack, whose father founded Dick’s in 1948. According to Business Insider, this appointment was significant enough to note in a lengthy article on the matter. You see, Lauren’s appointment brought the total number of Fortune 500 Companies with female CEO’s to 41.

Women around the world “applauded” as the numbers rose from a previous “record high” of only 40 female CEO’s. This is said with a certain amount of sarcasm – 41 is really not an adequate number. Is it?

Honestly, I am not entirely sure that one increase in the number of female CEO’s is worth the applause. Although, as they say – “Beggars can’t be choosers”. A harsh statement to make, but it makes an impact. Especially under these circumstances.

Whilst we can acknowledge that the representation of women in senior roles in the workplace is improving, we are still significantly underrepresented. And that is simply not acceptable. Not in today’s times.

But why are women so underrepresented in the workplace?

Well there are quite a few contributing factors, including the “broken rung” and the “entitlement gap” –

Women in the workplace – The “broken rung”

According to the McKinsey & Company September 2020 article, the representation of women was starting to improve. Most prominently in senior management where the representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23% to 28%. But those percentages are still terribly skewed and women are once again not filling more of the senior roles.

McKinsey claims that it is the “broken rung” that is still holding women back. With women continually losing ground at the first step up to becoming a manager. As an illustration (and putting it into perspective) – for every 100 men promoted to manager level, only 85 women are promoted. As a result, women remain significantly outnumbered in entry-level management, holding only 38% of manager-level positions, whilst men held 62%. With this being the case, women experience an uneven playing (and paying) field leading to persistent leadership gaps in senior roles.

You see, gender diversity is simply not a priority to most companies. Especially in times like COVID.

The McKinsey study showed that prior to COVID, Women in the Workplace research had consistently found that women and men left their companies at comparable rates. However, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce.

Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic. Where is the sharing of the load here? In fact (and according to the Study), woman are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare. So much so that women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a “double shift.”

I can hear a collective “Amen sister” as I write that. Because it is the truth, is it not?

Now women (and mothers in particular), are taking on an even heavier load. The title of the Sarah Jessica Parker movie “I Don’t Know How She Does It” springs to mind.

It therefore comes as no surprise that one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner, face even greater challenges. It’s enough to want to make you pull out your not so perfectly coiffed hair (which reminds me – I really need to book a colour and blow wave. When I get the chance.).

So given these enormous challenges faced by mothers at work and at home, two things should come as no surprise – many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce altogether, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers are.

The (additional) problem is this – if these women leave the workplace, there will be even fewer women in leadership roles. And we simply cannot afford that.

Keeping your head above water nowadays really does feel like swimming against the current. In shark infested waters.

Women in the workplace – The “entitlement gap”

A study, which was led by Cambridge psychologist Dr Terri Apter in collaboration with LinkedIn and the educational charity The Female Lead, came to the startling (but not really surprising) conclusion that women have been socially conditioned to feel less deserving of men. Especially with regards to things such as pay rises, promotions or more suitable conditions (even when you know you deserve it). A phenomenon they term ‘the unentitled mindset’ or the “entitlement gap”.

This gap both aptly and accurately describes the difference between the ways that men may be quick to make demands on an employer and how women are reluctant to do so at all.

According to the survey of 2,000 UK workers (which was conducted as part of the study), the problem is widespread. The results show that 44% of women agree that women feel less entitled to promotions or increased pay in the workplace, with more than a third (35%) saying that they had experienced the entitlement gap themselves or had seen it experienced by others.

In addition, men admitted negotiating pay for a new role more often than women (63% compared to 40%), and while nearly half of the men (48%) said they had asked for a pay increase or promotion outside of their annual review, only a third of women (32%) had done the same. And when it comes to applying for a new job, over a third of men (37%) said they would apply for a new role even if they felt that they met approximately 50% of the criteria required, versus just one in four (27%) women admitting to being “brave enough to do so”.

Dr Apter has said that this entitlement gap effects women’s mental health, in two important ways –

1. anxious energy and constant reflection that goes with knowing that you deserve more status or higher pay or better conditions while wondering whether you really do (imposter syndrome to the max), and

2. the risk that the unentitled mindset doesn’t switch off even when you are not facing the specific challenge that activated it.

Leading to women, who have been treated badly in one workplace, being reluctant to ask for the status and/or pay they deserve when being offered a position in another workplace. Why? Because instead of owning their value and worth, they feel ‘grateful’ or ‘lucky’ that another company is even interested in them. It’s like having battered wife syndrome – where women who have suffered from abuse start to believe that that’s all they deserve and lose sense of their self-worth and self-value.

Although the entitlement gap impacts our behaviour, the study is keen to highlight that this mindset is not the fault of women – instead, it’s the product of a wider societal problem and the only way to solve this gap is to make society-wide changes.

But that is easier said than done. And just like from the SJP movie, you begin to ask yourself – How do you keep your life together, without losing it?

But women leaders have so much to offer…

Again, we want to reiterate that we are not just woke women who are gender bashing our male counterparts without rhyme or reason. We are not just liberal feminists who believe that women are superior to men. No. We believe that women and men are equal. And should be treated accordingly. Both sexes have their own benefits that they bring to the table. Equally important. But not always the same. And we believe that there is space for both sexes in every company.

Why we need more women leaders in the workplace

(Not that this should need explanation, but) Here’s why –

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) – Women in leadership positions are perceived as being every bit as effective as men.

According to the HBR, in an analysis of thousands of assessments, women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure. The conclusion? Women are equally as effective as men.

I do sense a communal “Duh” moment here….

But the HBR research also echoed that of the Entitlement Gap survey – when women were asked to assess themselves, despite their aptitude and ability to do the job, they are not generous in their own ratings. In fact, they have lower scores than men on confidence ratings, especially when they’re under 25.

But what the HBR research concludes (something we already know) is that it is not a woman’s lack of skill, understanding, capability or competence that holds them back. It is the scarcity of opportunities.

The Centre for Creative Leadership (CFCL) – Gender diversity is key for organisations’ bottom lines

To further this point, the CFCL has concluded that companies that don’t realise the importance of women in the workplace are missing out. Besides doubling their talent pool, more women may also improve a company’s performance.

The CFCL research showed that gender diversity was key for organisations’ bottom lines:

1. “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on boards financially outperform companies with the lowest representation of women on boards.

2. Gender-diverse teams have higher sales and profits compared to male-dominated teams.

3. A recent Gallup study found that gender-diverse business units have higher average revenue than less diverse business units”.

But it doesn’t end there.

The CFCL also found that having a higher percentage of women in an organisation reflected –

1. More job satisfaction;

2. More organizational dedication;

3. More meaningful work;

4. Less burnout, and

5. Positively affecting employee engagement and retention.

Specifically, when asked why they stay with their current employer, people from organisations with a high percentage of women were more likely to cite positive and meaningful organisational culture, including having a job that fits well with other areas of their life, opportunities for them to make a difference with employees claiming that under female leaders they are just able to enjoy their work more.

Simple as that!

In addition, senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity (more than 50 % of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with only about 40% of senior-level men).

And these findings persisted regardless of the participants’ age, industry, organisation size, leadership level, ethnicity or gender.

Women are also more likely to mentor and support other women (38% of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of colour, compared with only 23% of senior-level men). And that is hugely important – women have got to help other women!

It comes down to the personal approach that women just seem to have. Treating their co-workers and employees like people instead of machines. It’s about caring. And that makes all the difference.

So whilst we agree that women are not superior to men, we do believe that we bring something (very) special to the table…..

And the results really do speak for themselves.

But…. There is always a but.

Whilst studies prove that women are not only competent to do the work but are also very competent leaders, women still turn down leadership opportunities because they are uniquely concerned that their qualifications will not stand up to their male counterparts and are not sure that others in the organisation will support them. Instead, they express concern that they were being set up for failure – the so-called “glass cliff” positions where leadership opportunities are high stakes, precarious, and have a high likelihood of failure (we will discuss this in our upcoming article – so watch this space!).

Unfortunately, research conducted by the Harvard Business Review suggests that these concerns among women are valid. Studies show that organizations expect women to be more qualified than men for the same positions, and that leadership opportunities for men often come with more resources compared to women’s leadership opportunities.

Given the above, it is not surprising that many women (in general) have said that the single most important thing companies can do to attract and retain talented women is to admonish sexism and offer gender parity in pay, experiences, and opportunities for success.

It doesn’t seem like a big ask. Does it?

But there just seems to be a disconnect with just not enough women in real leadership roles. And leaders have got to start taking a long hard look at what gets in the way of promoting women in their organisations. Clearly, there is an unconscious bias (both by women caused by societal ideas of the broken rung and entitlement gap as well as the subliminal bias of their male counterparts) that women don’t belong in senior level positions. So, it’s imperative that companies change the way they make hiring and promotion decisions and ensure that eligible women are given serious consideration. Not just given lip-service.

Following her presentation at the 3rd Annual Women in Insurance Conference, Carla Jordan Chief Financial Officer of Emerald Africa has this to say about Female Leaders in the Workplace –

“As a women leader in business, I know first-hand that the road to success is a little bit more winding, with barriers and challenges along the way that perhaps our male counterparts never encounter or even know exist. I also know that you cannot let these things define you or stand in your way. With global gender equality estimated to take another 100 years or more, we certainly cannot sit on the sidelines and wait for the world to change and for opportunities to come to us. As women, we need to be more confident in ourselves and our abilities, and lead the change that we want for ourselves and future generations”.

And it is on this point that we undoubtedly agree – we need to be more confident, we need to speak up for ourselves and what we want. And in order to get those things, we need to lead the change that we want for ourselves and for the future generations of women that will follow in our footsteps.

And that can only be done with action leading to positive change.

Can you say – “One giant leap for woman kind”?

And we know we can do it!

In our next article we will be highlighting some incredible female role models and discuss how we can break-through in the workplace. Stay tuned!

About the Author, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism. 

Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.

Email: legalwhizz@gmail.com 

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