34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.

Childhood

Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?

_____________________________________________________________

*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

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