Busted: Myths about female business leaders exposed

It’s a fact: everyone knows women get to the top and slam the door rudely behind them, preventing other women joining them. Or so I am constantly told in conversations exploring that vexing problem of improving female representation in senior levels of business.

Well, they don’t. In fact, that’s the myth. According to recently published research called ‘Cracking the Code’ by KPMG, the opposite is the case.

"Men and women have similar aspirations, ambition and leadership capabilities, but the current system exaggerates the small differences that still exist."
Helena Morrissey, Founder, 30% Club

KPMG found senior women actively seek out other women to join them. That correlates directly with my own personal experience.

It makes sense, right? Men like working with other men and women also like other women in their teams.

But that’s not the only busted myth. The research, which surveyed 4608 men and women from 109 companies across 11 sectors, aimed to explore and disprove myths because the myths themselves are used to hold women back.

“What the research shows is that men and women have similar aspirations, ambition and leadership capabilities but the current system exaggerates the small differences that still exist,” says the founder of the 30% Club, Helena Morrissey.

The 30% Club is a global diversity campaign founded in the UK in 2010 by a group of UK chairs facilitated by Morrisey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management.

Now that large corporations are assumed to have done some heavy lifting such as dismantling structural barriers, addressing bias and providing professional development opportunities, the research also attempts to answer what next can be done to address the startling statistic that a man is 4.5 times more likely to make it to the Executive Committee than a woman.

So what are the myths, what did the research show and what can organisations do next? And… does the research comprehensively disprove the myths or actually raise more questions?

Myth 1: Women don’t aspire to leadership roles

The research proved this myth was false, revealing that women’s career aspirations don’t differ from men. So how to explain all the young women you talk to at the junior and mid-level who say they don’t really aspire to leadership positions? 

Well, if you ask men and women at the start of their careers whether they aspire to be CEO the men appear far more ambitious than the women. But once the women are in leadership, the answers are likely to be much more aligned.

In fact women’s ambition starts behind and overtakes men’s as they take on more management responsibility.

Takeout: Don’t write women off too early. When you encounter young women who claim not be ambitious, listen for and challenge their assumptions.

Myth 2: Women can’t hack the pressure

Linked with the lack of ambition and another reason given for the lack of women at the top is they lack the resilience to succeed. 

However, the research found no evidence to suggest women are giving up on their careers in any greater numbers than male peers. In fact the opposite is true.

At one and two levels below the executive, women were two times less likely to be promoted as men and four times less likely to leave as men.

So the low proportion of women being promoted and the high proportion of those who choose not to leave suggest internal female candidates may be overlooked.

In other words a lack of promotions, not a lack of resilience, is one main reason why women don’t make executive level.

Takeaway: Support your senior female talent to keep progressing. And beware: senior female leaders are highly attractive in a bull market for female leadership talent.

Myth 3: Being a mother stops women getting to the top

Does it? Well, the research is a bit inconclusive here. It admits having a family slows women’s career progression down with women having to make up for lost ground on their return from starting a family. But not that many.

I was surprised only 36 per cent believed their career progression had decelerated – on average four years – as a result of taking maternity leave.

The good news is senior leaders, with a bit of hindsight, see motherhood as a pitstop in a grand prix. And once you get into senior leadership, it’s a bit like labour.

You can’t remember the pain and what you focus on is the positives: in this case the senior women described what they learnt from the crazy years of balancing kids and careers including a broadened perspective and sharper ambition.

Again, it is lack of promotions that gets the blame. Men are more than twice as likely to be vertically promoted and twice as likely to move horizontally than women, the research found, with the implication being that is a key reason more men end up on executive committees than women.  

Now one might think that makes sense: if women are on a few stints of maternity leave, they may be likely to be promoted less or they might select out of promotions.

But get this: there was no difference in the number of promotions between women with children and women without. And men without children received significantly more promotions than women without children. Sigh.

Takeout: The research shirked the obvious takeout here of urging women to get more promotions. Instead it urged organisations to take a long view about career paths for female talent and challenge women in the middle stages of their career to revisit aspirations.

Senior male leaders should also self-challenge any generational differences in attitudes and expectations between the young men and the young women.

Myth 4: Women don’t get to the top because they lack confidence

Not quite: men apply for a role knowing they only have some of the required skill set. Women might have all the skills requisite and still not apply. The reticence to put themselves out there reflects a lack of confidence, so the myth goes. The research tried to prove this myth false.

Women are brutally honest about their skills and abilities and the researchers preferred this as a better explanation than a lack of confidence.

So while women understand the personal disadvantages of losing out to more assertive peers, they see no advantage in overselling themselves.

The problem, the research implies, is men oversell themselves big time and leaders should actually spend more time doing a reality check on them rather than assuming women lack confidence - because they don’t exaggerate.

Takeout: Don’t confuse women’s balanced self presentation with lack of confidence. I’d add women should also be aware their brutal honesty may well come across as lack of confidence. 

Myth 5: Women don’t have the networks to open doors at the top

The 'Old Boys Club' is often seen as the door opener for ambitious men while the lack of access to traditional types of professional networking opportunities is frequently used to explain why women don’t appear on the short list of the top jobs.

Or so the myth goes. But the research concluded men and women network differently. Men feel more supported by informal personal relationships with a number of people in a broad range of settings.

In fact, the top three supports for men were colleagues followed by family and friends - and presumably some friends are well connected and influential.

Women feel most supported by formal professional relationships. For women the top three supports were sponsor, mentor and family. Overall, women value sponsorship and mentoring far more than men.

The obvious problem with this, which the research fails to address, is a man’s circle of influence can be so much larger than a woman’s which can make him more visible and her receive fewer promotions.

Also, if women can’t find a mentor or a sponsor – or the mentor leaves the organisation - then their visibility and chances of promotion may be more limited.

However, the researchers brush this aside and shy away from recommending that women work harder to build support among their colleagues.

Takeaway: Women understand the link between professional networking and career success and boards should look to open their own network of contacts to help senior women find relevant opportunities.

Myth 6: Senior Women pull up the ladder behind them

This myth turned out to be clearly false. In fact, not only do senior women say they attract and work hard to recruit other women ,but they try to create the type of culture where women succeed and tap into their own networks to source candidates for jobs.

This reinforces the business case for assessing the skills of talented women on a part time and flexible basis.

They also authentically share their experience and mentor other women further down the pipeline.

Takeaway: Men, be warned: male board and executive committee members in particular are under heavy scrutiny as role models for senior women, who are sharply observant in order to gauge the real attitudes and consistency of behaviour towards their female peers.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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