Why women don’t “want” the top jobs – and what to do about it

“What can we do? There aren’t enough qualified women! They just don’t want the top jobs!” is the battle cry we hear from many when pressed to explain why executive boards are exclusively male, or why there is no gender equality at the top of many big corporations.

From 11th June 2021 there is now a legal requirement in Germany for executive boards of bigger companies to have at least one woman (when there are 4 or more people) in the top leadership team. Now it’s no longer a choice but a necessity to understand how to create the space and the opportunity for women leaders to rise to the very top.

As an insights specialist and coach for high-achieving women in business, I get a “behind the scenes” look at what many women leaders experience in the workplace. It is often a mixture of frustration at external blocks – not being seen, heard or recognised in a male-dominated workplace – and an intense internal reflection about the cost of this kind of success to personal life satisfaction.

It’s not that women don’t want the top jobs from the start, it’s often just that on the way up the ladder, they wonder if either the ladder is leaning up against the wrong wall, or whether the cost of the “ultimate” success in the workplace comes at too high a price.

In the end, it’s not about the money or the status, but about the impact that they can make. Too much stress and too many sacrifices for too little recognition can make women leaders reassess where they want to invest their time and energy in their lives. And if – consciously or unconsciously – choices get made against a “full-steam ahead” approach for their corporation or the line of work for which they are highly qualified, this drop-off in women leadership can truly impact the growth and profitability of the corporation as a whole.

Legal requirement or no legal requirement, we know from the data that a more diverse leadership team leads to better-performing companies.* So let’s look at what conditions help women thrive in business, so that they can contribute with real impact at all levels, and stay motivated to get to the very top.

I love the analogy of the hardy plant that manages to thrive in the harshest of conditions. We can look at the type of plant that breaks through, trying to learn from this kind of remarkable living organism that can forge its way through the tiniest of cracks. In the same way, we have amazing women leaders at the top of big corporations and in politics, changing the world.  Like the plant, we can learn how these women manage to flourish and break through despite difficult circumstances (see my other article on “Lessons in courage”), and use this to teach others how to develop the same resilience. Or we can take a different approach by considering how to create an environment that is more welcoming to a more diverse range of flora – or in this case, different kinds of women leaders.  This article focuses on the second part of the equation – about how to create a more nourishing environment that allows a more diverse leadership team to flourish.

Here are some thought-starters on what might help.  Particularly for big companies in Germany where the Vorstand (Executive Committee) is less diverse than in other countries such as the US or the UK:

1. People and purpose over profit and power

A recent McKinsey article (June 21, 2021 “The growth triple play”) shows clearly how using a combination of analytics, creativity and purpose helps companies deliver at least twice the growth of their peers. It’s an article about marketing strategy, but in fact these recommendations can be equally well applied to create the right environment for women leaders to flourish (which also then creates more growth, as we know). Let me explain:

Analytics is all about “knowing your customer like you’re in the room”. So a deeper understanding of what truly motivates the high-potential women on course to the top of this particular organisation, on a more individual level, is a foundational first step. Stereotypical assumptions and “one size fits all” is no replacement for real data and emotional depth of understanding.

Creativity: Psychological safety is key for team performance.  How much space and safety is there for women to truly be themselves in a male-dominated environment that has been dictating the rules for so long?

Purpose:  Shareholder value on its own is a hollow shell that doesn’t deliver human interest.  A company committed to creating a better world motivates not only customers to buy but also employees to go beyond the call of duty in their work. The drive for money and growth at all costs is often at odds with the values that women – in particular – cherish. If there is a real commitment to and action on bigger values such as human empathy or sustainable living, then it opens up a workplace that many women would feel is more aligned with their core values.

2. Effective time management rather than 24-hour availability

Often women leaders have climbed up the corporate ladder with such success because they are extremely conscientious. It’s hard to say no to demands from bosses and colleagues when you have high standards for yourself to perform and deliver. This can become unsustainable over the longer term.

Often the higher up the corporate ladder one goes, the more it is expected that one is wedded to the job, to work an excessive amount of hours. It is no longer a question of self-management because in the majority of cases men dictate what is normal and women are expected to toe the line.

The stress that comes from being digitally connected – almost “on call” 24/7 – in these times creates a sense of imprisonment that easily creates overwhelm, especially for women who often also shoulder the majority of the responsibility for children and household chores. 

One client of mine told me that in the upper management circle of the bank she works at, all her male colleagues at her level have wives at home who manage everything – the kids, the household – so that the men are free to devote themselves entirely to their work. Women don’t often have that luxury. My client had the self-confidence to set clear boundaries about her working hours:  7 am to 5:30 pm and no weekend working, to make sure she had some kind of life left, but she found it very stressful nonetheless, because she had to accept that she could not get everything done in that time and learn to stand strong in the face of peer pressure.

It takes guts to set new rules and boundaries when established “players” have set up the game and how it is to be played long before. Sometimes a new set of rules and expectations need to be set up consciously by the whole team to give all leaders more time for recovery and space to think freely. Some companies now set up “meeting-free” days for this or cut down average meeting times to 20 or 30 minute slots with strict agendas – a creative way to make working schedules more humane and productive.

3. Space to be heard rather than needing to shout

Sometimes women just get tired of having to make such an effort to get their voices heard.  Men interrupt women almost 3x more often than other men, according to research by LeanIn.org and McKinsey (Women in the Workplace 2019).  If women try hard to get heard, they can be labelled as bossy or too dominant, which hardly ever happens to men.  In a study of performance reviews, 66% of women received negative feedback about their performance style such as being abrasive compared to 1% of men.

We need to consciously create space for everyone to be heard in meetings. Sometimes it helps to have a trained facilitator managing the room, so that everyone gets a chance to be heard without having to fight so hard. This not only helps motivate everyone within the meeting, but will usually make a meeting more productive.

4. Awareness of unconscious bias

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink got me intensely interested in the adaptive unconscious in 2005. He illustrated the pervasive nature of unconscious bias by revealing his own test results (Project Implicit Harvard University) and it made a big impact on me. He realised that he had his own unconscious bias against black people although he was half-Jamaican himself. And he was not alone: apparently more than 50% of black people have an unconscious bias for white over black people, according to the research he presented in his book.

I know it’s no different for us as women.  Even as women ourselves, we can still have an unconscious bias against women for leadership roles, despite our best intentions. It is the nature of the society we have grown up in that influences our perception.

As in other areas of life we need to develop enough self-awareness to acknowledge a problem before we can hope to solve it.  I certainly didn’t realise myself the extent of the bias against women until I read the research from LeanIn.org.  3 out of 4 women experience bias at work but only one in three managers challenge it when they see it.

I love LeanIn.org’s initiative of “50 Ways to Fight Bias” Digital Program because it raises awareness in a very interactive and impactful way and teaches us how to take effective action.

5. A more flexible approach

I love the dictionary definition of homeostasis which explains why there is often such a resistance to change:

Homeostasis is any self-regulating process by which an organism tends to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if it’s unsuccessful, it results in a disaster or death of the organism.”

When executive boards have been run by groups of men from a similar background, of a similar age and education, for decades, it can be hard to open up to a new way of working.  It can feel chaotic and dangerous to one’s own survival (at a deep unconscious level).

Transformation is uncomfortable. But it can also bring enormous growth. For that growth to happen, there needs to be a genuine interest and openness to understand what is actually going on with the women in the organisation – what they need, what they want, perhaps beyond what they’ve been able to voice openly.  Then, from this solid data base – that must include the emotional and unconscious as well as the rational barriers to promotion – a commitment to creating new ways forward to guarantee more diversity of talent into the upper management circle.

How about in your organisation? What’s stopping women leaders get to the very top at your place of work? 

If you’d like me to help you find out what’s below the surface and facilitate the development of customised initiatives to move gender equality forward for the good of all, please contact me through the website. I’d love to hear from you.

*(Research from McKinsey with 300 companies in 10 countries shows a 47% difference in return on equity and 55% difference in operating results between the companies with the most women on their executive committees and those with none. Source: McKinsey Study “Women Matter”, 2017)

Thank you so much for making it to the end of this post! If you are interested in more of what I do, please feel free to contact me via this website, or take a look at thejoycoach.com – a new, more personal site (still a work in progress 😊).


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