There’s been plenty of timely debate over glass ceilings, wage disparities and the “motherhood penalty,” but a Randstad Canada survey has highlighted one more piece of the gender equality puzzle: Almost 50 per cent of women do not want promotions into senior leadership roles.
Forty-eight per cent of women do not aspire to advance into senior or executive roles, according to the survey of 1,004 working women in Canada, including employees, managers and executives.
Nearly 30 per cent are undecided, with those from Atlantic Canada most likely to want a senior role and those from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia least likely to.
At first blush, the fact that 48 per cent of women don’t want senior roles is surprising, said Faith Tull, senior vice-president of human resources at Randstad Canada in Toronto. But when you dive deeper into the reasons why, it becomes less so.
“When we broke it down, we saw that younger people wanted it more than people in the 35 to 54 age group,” she said — a full 47 per cent of respondents in that group did not want a senior role.
Obstacles to advancement
What’s preventing more women from wanting promotions? In panel discussions across the country, Randstad frequently heard one conclusion, said Tull.
“It was really (about) the perceptions that are built in organizations around women.”
Fifty-three per cent of women feared that absences due to family obligations would be a barrier for them when it came to advancement, and 51 per cent worried about the impact a maternity leave would have on their career advancement, found the survey.
“(Women) also felt that the organizations didn’t embrace all the uniqueness that they brought to the table in their balance of work and family and external responsibilities,” said Tull.
“The deterrents are around the integration of their family life. So some of them think that they can’t do it simply because of the demands — the long hours aren’t very attractive.”
A lack of effective, flexible work arrangements has a real impact on women’s career aspirations, said Alex Johnson, executive director of Catalyst Canada in Toronto.
“The first takeaway for people when they see that is, ‘Well, women are self-selecting (out).’ No, I think what women are doing is very quietly internalizing, ‘I don’t have the support to do this job or take on additional responsibilities the way I would need to be successful,’” she said. “They don’t see a way of doing it effectively.”
Another hesitancy might be around the fact that women leaders often don’t have the same support as male leaders, said Jennifer Berdahl, professor of leadership studies at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“They’re stepping out of a traditional gender role by taking on a leadership position, especially if they’re in a company where that position has always been held by men before. It might seem like it’s too much in the limelight to be the first women to hold it — you’re under intense scrutiny. We’ve seen that with various women leaders… who are scrutinized, like Marissa Mayer (president and CEO) at Yahoo, and others who just experience a lot more scrutiny than a man stepping into that role, so that can be daunting,” she said.
Some women might also be concerned about the dynamics that may arise if their subordinates aren’t comfortable working for a woman, said Berdahl.
“Some of my work has shown that ambitious women leaders, women who want to be in positions of leadership and have strived to get there, are still mistreated by their subordinates or not respected by their subordinates in the same way that men who are similarly ambitious are,” she said.
“So there can be a lack of team spirit behind the woman who is taking on a traditionally male role — more questioning of her authority or her ability to tell people what to do.”
In fact, 36 per cent of women are concerned about perceptions of women in managerial roles, and 30 per cent are worried about perceptions of leadership capacity for women, found the Randstad survey.
However, the survey did find some positive changes in terms of the perceived salary gap and women’s willingness to speak up for themselves, said Tull.
“Women are basically speaking up more and they’re making it known and self-identifying that they’re interested in higher-level positions and higher responsibility. So that’s a big positive change,” she said.
“They also feel that it’s more attainable. So we’re making some strides where women are seeing more women at the top… and they think, ‘I think I can do that.’”
Making senior roles more attractive
So, how can organizations make senior positions attractive to more female employees?
The first thing employers should do is take a long look at their own corporate culture, said Johnson.
“‘What’s going on? What is happening in our organization that might have an impact on women’s aspirations?’” she said.
Also, organizations should try to identify and address any systemic barriers, said Johnson.
“Odds are, if they look, they’re going to find them.”
Another key factor is that of mentorship and sponsorship, said Tull — yet 76 per cent of survey respondents said they have never been mentored professionally.
“If there’s no one to take you under their wing and encourage you and follow your career, and basically be the ambassador for your success, then I think women are somewhat hesitant,” she said.
People should have access to role models and access to mentors, but also access to champions — people who will have not just conversations with them but conversations about them, and about their potential, said Johnson.
“Any time women feel supported in doing their job well or taking on more, they’re much more apt to say, ‘Yes, sign me up — I’m ready to take it on.’”
Getting more women interested in leadership positions isn’t just an organization’s responsibility, said Tull — it requires a holistic approach.
“It would start from the family, I believe, so young ladies being encouraged by their families to be confident, take charge, go after their dreams and not box themselves in. It’s the educators, all the way through school, encouraging females to do things and challenge themselves outside of the comfort zones — going into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, for instance, or going into the non-traditional (areas),” she said.
“Finally, I believe women need to take charge and to speak up and to go after those roles, and to challenge themselves and be OK with not being perfect.”
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