Women and Ambition - IEDP
  • Managing people

Women and Ambition

ILM's David Pardey highlights the outcomes of on-going research they are doing on gender and ambition.


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New graduates are more likely to be female than male. New managers are more likely to be women than men. Yet just 12.5% of FTSE 100 directorships and 22% of senior management posts are held by women. What is happening to stop these able, well-educated women from reaching the top? And should employees care?

The answer to the second question is easy. Apart from questions about equity (not to mention the possible risks of legal action on discrimination grounds) there is a simple truth which all employees should consider. If less able men are being preferred to more able women, then firms are setting themselves at a disadvantage, and simple logic tell us that this is happening. If firms want to cream off the top few percent of talent to fill senior roles, and yet women are not getting these jobs, it means that a larger proportion of men are getting through, including men who are less able than the women not making the cut.

Why is this happening? ILM’s research earlier this year (Ambition and gender at work) found that women set out with less ambition to be a manager in the first place, lower expectations of reaching senior management positions, and a reluctance to apply for promotion unless confident of success (unlike more ‘reckless’ men). Does this mean that it’s all women’s fault? No of course not; a combination of years of socialisation coupled with a largely male senior management, combines to make both male and female employees approach work with different mindsets. If most senior managers are male, shouldn’t women be sceptical about their chance of getting to the top?

There is one further factor compounding the barriers to women managers’ career progression. The transition to the senior management track occurs when managers are in their mid to late thirties; ILM identified this in the 2010 report Creating Future Leaders and this was confirmed by our own recent analysis of ONS data, which showed that the average age of senior managers in the UK is slightly over 49, compared to the average of all other managers at just under 43. This transition is the period in which people are most likely to be parents of young children, which creates very different responses in males and females. Men actively seek progression opportunities to provide for their new families; women seek stability in employment to enable them to double up as primary carer and provider.

A few years down the line, women are able to take on the challenge of progressing to senior roles, but the bus has gone, because the search for potential talent focuses on the younger group. Given that most people in their late thirties and forties will be working well into their late sixties, this is very short-sighted of employers, to make the gateway to the top so narrow that women are forced to make decisions between long term career and family, whereas men can enjoy both. Again, our research showed that women in senior positions were far less likely to have children but that men in the same positions were more likely to have them.

ILM has returned to the issue in its latest research (due to be published in mid-February), in partnership with a major UK bank, to see how the patterns we have identified are reflected in the banking sector specifically. We are also looking more intensely at the strategies that employers can adopt to make sure that they are able to benefit from the best talent that is available to them, whether it be male or female.

David Pardey is Senior Manager, Research & Policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management


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