Survey finds 73% of female managers believe barriers to advancement still exist, compared with only 38% of men
The Guardian, Monday 21 February 2011
Woman in the boardroom: but the Ambition and Gender at Work report says women's management aspirations lag behind men's.
Most women aspiring to senior management positions believe the glass ceiling to career progression still exists, according to a report by a leading UK management organisation.
The survey of 3,000 members of the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) found 73% of female respondents felt barriers still existed for women seeking senior management and board-level positions in the UK. In contrast, just 38% of men believed there is a glass ceiling.
The report, Ambition and Gender at Work, suggests women's managerial career aspirations lag behind men's at every stage of their working lives, and that they have less clarity over traditional career direction than men.
At the start of their careers, 52% of male managers had a fair or clear idea that they wanted to work in a particular role, compared with 45% of women managers. Only half of women said they expected to become managers, versus two-thirds of men. Even among the under-30s, gender aspirations remained entrenched, with 45% of men and 30% of women expecting to become managers or leaders.
The findings, which came from an even sample of men and women with an average age of 43, also revealed that 24% of women under 30 expected to start their own businesses within 10 years, compared with 20% of men.
Penny de Valk, the institute's chief executive, said the pressure on many women to combine childcare with career aspirations was "part of the cocktail". If large organisations wanted to nurture the talent of their best female employees, they needed to start challenging some of the unwritten rules of what senior management roles looked like.
"It's not that women are risk-averse; younger women in particular are incredibly ambitious around entrepreneurial activity. Yet we can see that a promotion path within a large organisation is almost seen as riskier for them, on a personal basis, than going out and setting up their own venture," she said.
"Companies have to think about how they can nurture that ambition. The only way is to hold chairmen and chief executives responsible. Good governance is good governance and it shouldn't be gender-specific."
A separate recent report by the London School of Economics for cosmetics company Avon predicted a doubling in young female entrepreneurs over the next decade, with 72% of the 2,000 16-24-year-old women questioned saying the idea of being their own boss appealed to them.
Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United and an Avon mentor, said she believed young women would "define the next generation of entrepreneurship and rewrite the rules in this perceived male-dominated world".
Liz Gardiner, head of policy at Working Families, a charity which campaigns for parents and carers, said the trend towards more women entrepreneurs sent out a message about the need for change to the overall design of work. "One of the reasons women want to set up businesses is because they have more control over the hours they work," she said.
She said there was plenty of evidence that in many UK workplaces there was discrimination, "particularly against those who choose to be mothers, and also against those who choose non-traditional patterns of work".
Lord Davies's report into why Britain's boardrooms are so male-dominated, to be published later this week, will reportedly urge FTSE 100 companies to set voluntary targets for appointing female executives rather than imposing quotas, a policy that operates successfully in Norway and other countries.
Just under half of women responding to the ILM survey were in favour of boardroom quotas, although enthusiasm for the idea rose among the over 45s, with two-thirds of older women workers supporting the idea.
De Valk said imposing boardroom quotas would be an admission of failure for business leaders. "If early predictions about the Lord Davies review are correct, UK businesses have two years to increase the number of women on their boards," she said.
"Rather than waiting for external legislation, now is the time for employers to set voluntary targets for female representation at board and senior management level, and hold people accountable for meeting them. Business leaders must take responsibility for building an effective talent pipeline, and make it a commercial priority to proactively identify, develop and promote potential leaders of both sexes."
Anna Bird, acting chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: "The report highlights just how far the UK has got to go on workplace equality between women and men. A lot of things come together to keep women out of leadership roles.
"Outdated stereotypes about men and women's different roles in the workplace have an insidious effect on our cultural attitudes about who should do which jobs.
"The lack of high profile women role models can make it hard for both women and men to imagine women running the show.
"The world of work has not caught up with the needs of modern families where both parents work, with few senior positions offering flexibility around working hours – and it is still on the whole women who require flexibility in order to manage childcare commitments, thus restricting their career. Sexism, including women being passed over for top jobs, serves to further reinforce the glass ceiling.
"All this can limit women's expectations for their career and acts as a brake on ambition."
She went on: "Many years of tapping away at the glass ceiling have left it stubbornly intact. It is time we put aside our drip-drip tactics and took bold action to achieve real change.
"Boardroom quotas are a radical – but not unthinkable means of bringing about a dramatic shift in the role of women in business.
"They are not an end in themselves, and must be part of a package of measures designed to create a more representative and successful business norm – for example there must also be wider awareness of incidental discrimination, and action to tackle it. But one only has to look at the success enjoyed by those countries that have embraced quotas to see it makes business sense."