News Article

Why women have to sprint into leadership positions

Posted 30th June 2022 • Written by BBC •

If women don't secure senior jobs in the first decade of their careers, they often can't do so later. But this dash to climb the ranks early takes a toll.

It’s well known women are much less likely to end up in leadership positions than their male peers. Unconscious biases, the tendency for women to take on greater childcare responsibilities and outright discrimination mean women still hold just 23% of executive positions and 29% of senior manager positions globally, in spite of making up 40% of the workforce.

But new research suggests timing could also play an important role in women’s likelihood of reaching the corner office. Women aiming for leadership roles (defined in this study as a director or C-suite-level position) are most likely to secure them in the first 10 years of their career. After that, their chances tend to plummet.

The pressures women face to have children, combined with the fact that once they become mothers they often shoulder the majority of childcare, mean many women feel compelled to ‘sprint’ early on in their careers. While their male counterparts might have the luxury of time, women often establish themselves as early as possible. This puts them in a better position to take time off or reduce their hours once they become mothers, without fear of financial hardship or stalling their career while still in a junior role.

These career sprints show up clearly in the data – women who make it to leadership tend to do so faster than men. But sprinting can take an enormous toll on even the women who make it to the top.

Sprinting to avoid the ‘motherhood penalty’

There is immense pressure for women to reach a certain level of career and financial success before becoming parents, says Karin Kimbrough, Chief Economist at LinkedIn, who conducted the research into the 10-year window to leadership.

Kimbrough calls this process a “sprint” to leadership, meaning that women who don’t scale the leadership ladder very quickly are less likely to make it to the top at all. This might mean they end up overworking or making enormous personal sacrifices in order to ascend to C-suite level during this crucial decade. Much of this urgency to sprint – and the exhausting overwork it involves – stems from women needing to make sure their careers don’t sink once they begin families.

They are racing the clock against the so-called motherhood penalty. In this phenomenon, women find their careers stalling in areas such as promotion and pay once their children are born (while, conversely, men’s careers accelerate after becoming fathers). This effect, as well as the enormous burden of caregiving responsibilities that women take on, is well documented (and similarly affects other types of caregivers, like looking after ageing parents, says Kimbrough).

The transition into motherhood also affects how managers perceive caregiving female workers. Women who are mothers receive competency ratings that are, on average, 10% lower than non-mothers, and are six times less likely to be recommended for hire. And while 26% of men are promoted or moved to a better job in the first five years of parenthood, just 13% of women can say the same.

“There’s a biased perception of pregnant women and mothers – that they’re less committed, less competent and less dependable,” says Christine Spadafor, a visiting lecturer on strategic leadership at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, US. She says these biases creep into performance evaluations, which can hold back women from top spots after the first decade of their careers. Additionally, structural issues, such as no paid parental leave and no available or affordable childcare, also “prevent women from progressing after the first 10 years”.

As a result, women remain much more likely to work part-time than men, facing wage, benefits and progression penalties for doing so. Data from 2019 shows the gap is so significant that only 27.8% of women in the UK are in full-time work three years after the birth of their first child, compared to 90% of men.

For ambitious women, sprinting to avoid these biases and their subsequent effects becomes paramount, which means women go full force in the race to the top, while men are more able to take a walking pace.

The mental and emotional toll of the 10-year sprint

Women who manage to sprint to leadership within the first decade of their careers might feel a sense of relief to have secured a senior role. But the achievement is often hard-won.

With statistics showing that working women tend to be more burned-out than their male counterparts, experts emphasise the enormous toll of career sprinting. “Achieving as much as possible in the first 10 years of a career can cause burnout and stress for women as they focus on producing good work, building a good reputation and advancing to leadership roles,” says Spadafor. This can lead to a toxic storm of physical and social stress as well as mental-health problems that can last for years.

And while women who explicitly hope to have children might experience very high levels of pressure to establish themselves early, research shows women generally are often discriminated against depending on their potential fertility – even if they don’t plan to have kids. This means employers often make hiring decisions based on whether they think a candidate is at ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant.

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