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Why Women Miss Out on Top Jobs and How to Win at Work

Research-Why Women Miss Out on Top Jobs and How to Win at Work

New research by Ashridge Business School into women in business reveals what is blocking women's path to the top, and shows that despite policies and practices in place to support women, organisational attitudes hamper career progress. The study also outlines the factors that enable women to break through the glass ceiling and offers advice to employers on how to create more diverse organisations.

The new book, Women in Business: Navigating Career Success, based on an international survey of over 1,400 female senior managers and directors, reveals that 48% believe it is harder for a woman to succeed at work compared with male colleagues, while 49% think men and women are treated differently in terms of leadership and behaviour.

The study exposes that organisational attitudes towards women frequently impede career advancement. 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 some boardrooms, having personal commitments outside of the workplace, such as a family, and lacking belief in their own ability, often lead to women turning their backs on the corporate ladder.

Having a good line manager and supportive senior colleagues are key career promoters. Conversely, poor line management, often where managers take credit, bullying, other women who see female colleagues as a threat and lack of support and development are all cited by senior women as major barriers to progress. Evidence shows that female as well as male bosses use aggression or & lsquo;macho’ behaviour to block women’s career paths and fuel inequality.

Co-author Fiona Dent, Director of Executive Education, Ashridge Business School, said: "A major finding is that not much has changed for women in business over the past 30 years. Whilst women are becoming a higher percentage of the workforce throughout the world, the number reaching the top is still very small – significantly less than 20 per cent are getting into board positions globally. The importance of levelling the playing field isn’t just about careers for women it's essential for the economy. Businesses with women at senior management level typically have more balanced decision making. Ensuring that all your people are at the top of their game contributes to a higher performing organisation."

Company culture and stereotyping remain issues. Women are typically perceived as more accommodating and relationship focused than men, who tend to be viewed as tougher and more output focused. At the same time, negative perceptions of assertive women abound. Females with drive and ambition are often regarded as aggressive and dominating. One interviewee stated: "When women attempt to take a stand it can be interpreted by men as being prissy or emotional which is very frustrating, while men are seen as being challenging or assertive."

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 highlighted 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 were mentioned as a hindrance – being both too old, and too young. One woman said: “being young, blonde and female has not always been helpful.”

However, women should draw on their strengths as a female leader. Fiona added: "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. There are things you can do such as putting yourself forward and taking on tough, challenging projects. The same with pay a man will ask, but women often end up earning less because they don't ask for that pay rise."

The study also offers advice to employers about how to create a more diverse organisation, so that women get their seat at the top table.

Advice for women – tips to get to the top

Be explicit: Identify your career goals, ambitions and aspirations. Remember, you can adapt, develop and change these over time.

Find a good boss: Recognise the important role your boss can play in your career success. Finding a good one is invaluable for developmental purposes.

Identify who can help: Coaches, mentors and sponsors. Take every developmental opportunity offered to you and offer to develop others.

Be aware: Relationships and networks are important. Make your networks work for you by being actively involved in both internal and external groups.

Develop self-awareness: Identify your major strengths, style, interests, values, beliefs and any areas you need to develop. Be open-minded to and welcome feedback from others to help you raise your self-awareness, confidence and self-belief.

Be open-minded: Welcome opportunities when they arise and ensure you put yourself forward for key projects and assignments.

Develop a plan: Create your personal brand and a personal pitch to share with others when appropriate.

Juggling the work-life balance: This is tough and needs careful planning. Recognise that there will be times when it feels unbalanced and others when you feel more in control. Find the strategies that work for you.

Remember You can have it all, just not all the time.

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