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The state of women’s leadership

The above is a snipped from a wonderful comic by Toby Morris, which illustrates the idea of accumulated (dis)advantage. You can see the whole thing here

Welcome to week 2 of my journey through the women’s leadership MOOC taught by @DianaBilimoria of Case Western. This week’s theme was the current state of women’s leadership at the top of organisations.

Key takeaways for me are:

  1. Identify and fight for ‘hot jobs’ that are visible, mission-critical, or international. Do not be ashamed of holding decision-makers to account for how they allocate such roles.
  2. Be prepared to ask, “How and why do you feel abraded?” And, yes, use those terms: put the onus on them to own their emotional response to you, and highlight how ridiculous the terminology used for criticising assertive women can be.
  3. Be conscious of what (dis)advantages you and others are accumulating. Do not be afraid to point out their accumulation, but speak up for others who are accumulating disadvantage, not just yourself.

Bonus takeaway, courtesy of Gloria Steinman:

If you are with those who have more power than you, learn to speak. If you are with those who have less power than you, learn to listen.


This week’s readings focused predominantly on corporate/for-profit institutions, although in the forums there were a lot of interesting reflections about different areas, including academia. Readings included a statistical overview of women in the workplace, from Catalyst.org, an organisation focused on expanding women’s opportunities in business; studies about how women are given less favourable development opportunities and about how the ‘double bind’ manifests itself, causing women to be judged critically whether they are assertive or not; and an article from Fast Company about how ‘abrasive’ is a gendered term in performance reviews.

The statistics are, I hope, well-known. The US and the UK do not even break into the top 30 countries for women in senior management positions, a table topped by Russia, Indonesia and Latvia.* Grant Thornton call out the UK, particularly, as “stagnating” on this front.

Developed countries, by and large, are less equal in this regard than developing countries. Perhaps there is an element of economic complacence for the former countries, so that they do not feel sufficiently motivated to leverage the whole of their workforce (even following the 2009 crash). It is interesting to see that such countries and cultures are clinging so hard to unconscious gender biases that they go against rational economic self-interest — companies with more women senior leaders financially outperform those with fewer — as well as the national, societal interest, as those firms with more women leaders also have higher levels of corporate social responsibility. There should be strong internal and external incentives for companies to boost their numbers of women at the top. And yet, progress is exceptionally slow. (Perhaps we should remember Germaine Greer’s assessment that women have very little idea of how much men hate them…)

What, then, are the barriers that women face in advancing their careers? Unfriendly corporate cultures continue to alienate women in some industries (tech has recently been under a lot of scrutiny over this), and there is always the human bias towards homophily in making promotion decisions (i.e. promoting those who are like ourselves, particularly in terms of gender, race, or class).

This tendency towards homophily is also reflected in the lack of strong mentoring for women, and their exclusion informal networks, both of which are invaluable sources of information and learning. For example, a good mentor might give crucial advice about which projects to fight for or accept — which are ‘hot jobs’ — and which to pass up. Catalyst suggest that approximately 20% of our learning and development comes through these mentoring and networking activities (with 70% coming from on-the-job training and 10% from formal training). 20% can clearly make all the difference, and I am certainly going to be thinking about how best to developing leadership networks and mentoring systems, as I now have a role in the development of ‘high potentials’ in my organisation.

To my mind, the most crucial element is the failure to judge men and women on an equal footing, however. Various studies have indicated that, with identical CVs, men are more likely to be hired than women, such as one from Cornell looking at recruitment in academia and evaluations of whether a candidate had completed sufficient teaching and research.** The Fast Company article notes how, in reviews, women are routinely described as ‘abrasive’ and given personal feedback, whereas men are not judged in this way. The classic ‘double bind’ whereby women are rarely judged as both competent and likeable, but are either ‘abrasive’ (i.e. competent but unlikeable) or ‘sweet’ (i.e. presumed incompetent at higher levels, but likeable). Such evaluations of female performance typically come from second-generation bias, or unconscious assumptions, rather than explicit discrimination. Second-generation bias is also reflected in the way that women are channeled into certain leadership roles over others, such as HR over finance, on the basis of an assumed ‘female’ skill set.

It is important to note that advantages or disadvantages accrue over time, as the Toby Morris cartoon at the top of this post illustrates. Like interest on an investment or a debt, things can spiral beyond our control. Once labelled ‘abrasive’, women can find themselves passed up for roles that would involve them managing challenging teams, which are essential for building experience. It can be very difficult to call out colleagues or senior managers on small things, but it is essential.


One of the exercises this week was a consciousness-raising one: to research the statistics for our own organisation, industry and nation. In brief, as I noted above, the UK’s progress has slowed to a virtual halt. Within the civil service, the split is 62% men, 38% women in senior leadership positions (according to the ONS in 2014).

My organisation occupies a small niche of the UK public sector, with only 15 senior managers. However, our statistics are slightly worse: 64% to 36%, including one female senior manager who has been on a career break for several years (making the current proportions even worse: 69% to 31%). And this is after a senior male manager left quite recently.

I was surprised by this, as I thought we would have been slightly better than the average, but we are not. Emotionally, we feel defensive about organisations or places where we are happy, to the point of minimising failings. In my organisation, there are many difficulties around career advancement because there is relatively low churn at the top levels, which people can reach quite quickly in their careers. With so little space for people to climb into, it is easy for promotions to have the appearance of fairness, but there may well be implicit biases that go into those decisions, shaping the organisation’s decision-making for decades to come. In small organisations, every promotion is key to the organisation values and culture.

Previous weeks

Week 1: Developing your leadership identity

You can find out more about the course itself (and still join!) on the Coursera website.

* Statistics taken from Grant Thornton International Business Report, 12 March, 2014
** There have been similar studies comparing rates of hire for those with names that might identify someone as non-Caucasian, such as a study from the University of Chicago. Although the course, and therefore this post, 


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