Women aspiring executive roles face structural barriers, finds Bain study

22 February 2017 Consultancy.uk

Women continue to be under-represented in the top tier echelon of the business world, making up less than 5% of CEO roles at large US corporates. A new report explores a range of factors that limit the outcome of executive aspiring women, whose potential to lead remains on par with that of men.

The path to the top of the business world for women remains beset with challenges and hurdles. The consequences of the impediments are that few women hold key strategic executive decision making positions at US companies: a recent Korn Ferry study found that 5% of CEO positions at top US corporates are held by women, 12% of CFO positions are held by women and 19% of CIO positions are held by women.

In a new study from Bain & Company, titled ‘Charting the Course: Getting Women to the Top’, the management consulting firm explores the factors that impede women, throughout their career journeys, from reaching comparable levels of parity to men in top executive decision making roles at companies. The study involved 8,400 male and female, bachelor or higher holding, LinkedIn members who work for companies in the US.

Women’s lower aspiration and confidence mean a harder climb to the top

The study finds that it are primarily external factors that affect women’s ascension to top positions within the business world – as structural biases and perceived barriers undermine key behaviours that are seen by those with authority as key to ascending to higher levels in the organisation. These external factors create a vicious circle, which eventually depletes the resolve of all but the most hardy aspirant.

The structural conditions meant that, even at entry level, women tend to be less likely (60% for women vs. 70% for men) to advocate on their own behalf to get an opportunity that they want, even if they know that their supervisor may not be fully supportive. The gap closes at midcareer and in senior leadership, however, it still trails men by around 8% and 5% respectively. Women also tend to take fewer risks, with around 55% of women reporting that they have made decisions that had both major upside or downside potential with respect to their career at entry level, compared to 60% for men. At midcareer the different stands at 15 percentage points in favour of men.

Women are also considerably less comfortable speaking their mind at entry level, a trend which only reaches near parity at senior leadership level.

Compared to midcareer men, midcareer women are

The study shows that women also perceive a range of barriers when it comes to navigating their path through the often daunting tests that are thrown at midcareer level workers striving after executive level roles; female respondents are 41% more likely to believe that the do not have the same opportunities for advancement as men, which may affect a willingness to play game which may be stacked against them; women are 20% more likely to not feel inspired and motivated by the work they do day-to-day; while female respondents are also 42% more likely to be unable to manage the stress of work with a minimal impact on their other activities.

Women face different home dynamics

Women also face other structural constraints, as they seek to juggle home life with office demands. The partners of aspiring women tend to have more strenuous roles, in terms of hours, effort and stress, than those of men. At entry level the difference comes in at around 15%, while at mid-level this drops to around 10% and at senior leadership the difference falls to 5%. The dynamic creates a more difficult background from which to achieve, according to the firm.

Women are also much more likely to be the primary parent, at 40% for entry-level women compared to around 2% for men, at midcareer this increases slightly to around 40% for women and 7% form men, while by senior leadership level around 25% of women indicate that they are the primary parent.

These factors, among others, affect the level of ‘commitment’ that women can give to their employer, as well as the perceived level of commitment that employers attribute to their bucking female junior staff looking for promotion.

Women are trailing men in aspiration and confidence to ascend to top management

The research points out that as a result of a host of external factors, from structural biases and unreasonable hoops to perceptions, women’s aspiration for top level positions bottoms out at the midcareer level, falling from about 65% at entry level to 55%. While male aspiration too falters, it weakens less than that of women, at an already higher base. The firm notes that the midcareer is of critical importance in terms of preparing oneself for the executive or opting out.

Confidence too is far below that of men at both entry-level and midcareer, with a different of around 13% and 10% respectively. Confidence levels for women rise to parity at senior leadership level.

“Most women and men begin their careers aspiring to top leadership positions, but even at this early stage, women face a more challenging path. Men tend to see a clearer, well-trodden road ahead,” reflects Julie Coffman, a Bain partner who leads the firm’s gender parity research. “We’ve long suspected and now have the data to show that external factors such as unconscious bias mean that women just simply experience the workplace differently than men. It’s increasingly clear why women often run out of steam on their way to the top, reinforcing the gender gap.”

Related: 5 tactics to cultivate a pipeline of qualified female executives.

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