Why do so few women make it to the top?

A report by Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that aims to expand opportunities for women, has gathered strong evidence that companies with more women in top management are winning  and are outperforming their less diverse competitors. So how come relatively few women land the top jobs? It is not the size of the talent pool, surely. According to statistics, women make up 49% of the workforce, represent 49% of undergraduate business programmes and 41% of MBA programmes.

Some say that progress is blocked by a persistent glass ceiling, while others say sexism is just part of a reason.

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So why do so few women make it to the top and do the rules of this game need to change?

#1 : It’s just not one glass ceiling, but a leaky pipeline.

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When employers create work structures for the ‘ideal worker’, it is really for a man unencumbered by family responsibilities and completely devoted to work. From the onset, as managers formulate job descriptions, expectations, and salaries in mind, they write gender bias into the organisational structure, rules, and norms of work.

The proverbial glass ceiling not only continues to curtail the aspirations of many young women around the world, but is still best described in too many societies today as a “cast-iron ceiling”. In Asia, there is significant scarcity of women already at the middle and senior management levels due to lack of pro-family measures in the workplace. In more developed countries, this situation is no different. In Europe, women sitting in executive committees are 5x less likely than men to become a CEO and in the US, women at C-level jobs and board seats represent only 15%.

But the problem is not only at the top; women are outnumbered at all levels in companies and this has become even more apparent as they rise through the ranks.

Work today has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours. In a world where we value ubiquitous connectivity, we are expected to check our emails 24/7 and to be ‘on call’ as and when our companies require us.  What our current work structure does not take into account is that many women are expected to work that ‘second shift’ at home. The main responsibility of the household still lies with the woman. While men today may share more household responsibilities than the men in their father’s generation, women still do far more housework and childcare than men. Ultimately, women end up holding two full-time jobs; that both equally demand her time, attention and dedication. This of course, is unsustainable. Women usually have to make a hard choice in this regard.

Check out this article on why women cannot have it all.

#2 : The private member’s club still rules.

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It’s not really spoken about, but it’s definitely ingrained in Britain’s political, social and business circles- the old boy’s club. British businesses have often classed its companies more by the social status of the men at the top than by size, profits or prospects.

In particular, Advertising and Media have been those industries where the “old boys’ club” mentality has prevailed for a long time. Most CEOs in these businesses were (and currently are) white upper middle-class males who went to posh public boarding schools and received Ivy League/Oxbridge education. They have dominant opinions; they can sometimes be uncompromising in their beliefs; they have an unwavering confidence to think they have one up to handle any challenge that arises.

It is a world of class ranking and old traditions I don’t understand well, because I am an outsider looking in. What I find most disgusting about this is that it has nothing to do with money, talent, or even ability, but more to do with breeding. It is how these people make it through life and career with more than academic requirements, but because they have the right background. They have been born into a family where both parents are considered part of the existing Old Boys and now feed into the vicious cycle of self-fulfilling elitism, pocket squares and arrogance thus making the workplace full of “testosterone chest-thumping patronising bullies”.

Check out this latest article on why the ‘Boys Club’ is still thriving and alive, and why us women, must shake it up and fast.

#3 : Ban bossy and all other potentially stereotypical-labels.

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When managers have little information about what an employee is actually like, they often fill in the knowledge gap with descriptive stereotypes, often to the detriment of women, even more so ethnic women. The second major form of gender bias is prescriptive. This is where women who do break through and claim a traditionally male position are seen to be cold, uncaring, and even aggressive.

Initially when Sheryl Sandberg launched the BanBossy campaign, I didn’t quite understand its significance. From my point of view, labels are not a true reflection of who you are. Like they say… sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Then, over lunch one day I was chatting with my Global CMO over this same subject and I was really fascinated by her view.

Being a female in a leadership position, she helped convince me that labels, especially those that can be prescriptive can impact a woman’s positive evaluation and promotion opportunity to executive leadership roles. The perceived lack of job fit may explain the occurrence of gender bias against women in organisational decisions about managers – that is the stereotypical based attributes ascribed to women (kind, caring and relationship-oriented) versus men (tough, forceful and achievement-oriented) often raise expectations that women will perform poorly in leadership roles. These negative expectations resulting from perceptions of lack of fit detrimentally affect how women are regarded and how their work is evaluated when they are in traditional gender-type jobs. The differing levels of performance of men and women thus determines whether they are to be seen as worthy of a promotion.

A greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotyping will provide an opportunity to re-examine the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organisational processes and allows for the creation of truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.

#4 : A double whammy – effect of racial and gender discrimination.

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In my years in business, I have noticed that people tend to identify better with people similar to themselves – whether it be in ethnic background, gender, philosophy, or outlook on life. They can look at me and identify me as a Chinese woman. But I’ve learned early on that it was incredibly important to perfect the art of passing—that is, to downplay or, better yet, rid myself entirely of certain “minority group” traits in an effort to blend seamlessly into mainstream corporate culture. I find it is more important that I perceive myself as a creative thinker and strategist  first, before my being Chinese. That gives people something else to identify me with, instead of my race and gender.  I believe most people have a tremendous amount of potential to get somewhere – they are not limited by environment, they are limited only by themselves.

Nonetheless, I had recently encountered a situation where I was told, point blank “You are ambitious and have such passionate drive, but you’ll never be CEO of a company in the UK, because you’re a Chinese woman.”… Really, did that surprise you?

While blatant comments from people, particularly ‘bosses’  like these may be fewer and farther between these days, there’s still tremendous pressure on men and women with any sort of “outsider” status to conform, no matter the cost, for the sake of professional success. I do not mean to say that life as a young woman of colour at a large company feels like just one big marathon of blatant racist and sexist slights. This is hardly the case. However this experience is, of course, far more nuanced and subtle than that, and often more insidious and harder to battle for its very subtlety. We can often feel so comfortable, lulled into such a sense of complacency, and those inevitable occasions when something does happen, suddenly throws us off our feet, it’s all the more jarring.

This corporate double standard about race and difference—let’s recognise it when it’s convenient, but for the most part, downplay it, please— remains a primary challenge for all of us minority darlings in the workplace.

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