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Debunking 8 Myths Surrounding Women And Work

Debunking 8 Myths Surrounding Women And Work

There are a lot of myths surrounding women and workplace success. Ideas such as women lack confidence or that they don’t have to right kinds of networks that lead to opportunities are often referenced in the media, but rarely questioned.

KPMG and the 30% Club recently studied the career paths and performance reviews of 681,000 employees at 109 organizations in the United Kingdom. They wanted to understand gender differences in career management at all levels.

There are more women in workforce, more women earning degrees and more female breadwinners than ever before. The study aimed to see what was enabling women’s success and what was holding them back.

In her recent Jam Session, Tessa Breslin talked about a few myths that surround women and career success and what the research showed about what’s really going on with women and work.


The study found that there are more similarities between men and women in terms of aspirations, ambitions and leaderships styles. The marginal differences that bubble up are the ones that lead to differences in career paths.

1. Women Don’t Aspire To Senior Leadership Roles

There is a lot of research into gender difference that suggests that women are not hardwired for power and are alienated by organizational politics. Against a backdrop of intense scrutiny of the few female leaders in the public eye, it’s easy to assume that women don’t want these roles.

Research fact:

Women’s career aspirations do not differ from men and their ambition grows as their professional experience grows. But women’s ambitions has a slow fuse. They define success more broadly, which makes their decision making about careers more complex. This can be seen as a “caveated” commitment to career progression.

The big breaking point for women is at the first supervisory or line management role. If you ask men and women at the beginnings of their careers if they want to be CEO, you’ll get very different answers. But if you ask them later, once they’ve had leadership roles, their answers are much more aligned.

Both men and women define what matters most to their success in similar ways. Usually this means having positive work relationships and doing something that is intrinsically interesting.

Women define success much more broadly. This makes their career decisions more complex, which may seem unambitious. But ambition grows as experience grows.

2. Child Rearing Stops Women From Making It To The Top

Much has been written about the impact of becoming a parent on women’s careers. For women, caregiving is thought to reduce their commitment to a career. For men, breadwinning is thought to redouble their commitment to a career. Choosing to “have it all” is usually framed in problematic terms for women. (Less so for men.)

Research Reality:

The overall career impact of having a family is less than what people believe. Having a family slows women’s career progression marginally but it’s not significant in preventing them from getting to the top.

Men are promoted much more than women, but the research showed that there was no difference in promotions between women with children and women without children. This contradicts ideas that many women have had when trying to combine career and motherhood. Research shows that it is gender, rather than parenthood, that is the career-defining factor. The group that is most likely to be promoted is actually men with children and the group least likely to be promoted is women without children, which is a bit of a surprise.

Women do talk about a perception of a loss of stamina in their jobs right when they start to have families. This may be largely due to the fact that, in the moment, they are much more sensitive about it. More senior women, however, often look at that time in their lives as more of a pit stop and many talk about the positive aspects of having a family and career. It helped them broaden perspective, personal efficiency and organization, helped them develop empathy and made them more determined to succeed.

3. Women Don’t Get To The Top Because They Lack Confidence

It is often cited that men will apply for a role knowing they only have 50% of the required skill set while a woman will wait until she has 100% of the needed skill set. Women’s reticence to “put themselves out there” is seen as lack of confidence which means they miss out on senior leadership roles.

Research Reality:

Risk alertness keeps women grounded in reality. Women are brutally honest about their skills and abilities when putting themselves forward to unfamiliar challenges.

Confidence is implicit in the concept of leadership. Corporate leaders need to be careful about the behaviors that they see as indicative of confidence. Women are risk alert and loss averse but not lacking confidence. Confidence is a complex concept that manifests itself differently in men and women.

4. Women Don’t Have The Networks That Open Doors At The Top

The ‘Old Boys Club’ is often cited as a source of social access and influence that helps men progress in their careers. Lack of access to traditional types of networking opportunities is frequently used to explain why women don’t appear on the shortlist for top jobs.

Research Reality:

Women absolutely understand the link between professional networking and career advancement. At work, they tend to choose formal channels to build their profiles and access support for professional development. These include sponsors, mentors and family. They also relied on former managers to nurture their potential at an early stage.

Men use informal contacts more readily to sustain their progress, such as colleagues, family and friends. 

5. Formal, Flexible Working Arrangements Ease Women’s Route To The Top

Flexible working arrangements are what enable women to balance home and work commitments. Without flexible working, an even larger number of women will “leak” out of the talent pipeline.

Research Reality:

Informal, individual arrangements and agility are what women feel helps them most to succeed. Managers are essential in creating the right conditions for women to feel trusted.

Flexible working, though, was seen as a barrier to the top. Even if the option is there, the corporate culture may not be supportive of such decisions. But, if women are given the option to work autonomously, to get their work done, that was more beneficial and useful to them.

The downside of these informal arrangements between employees and direct managers is that they’re not known about by other people, particularly more junior women, who don’t understand how senior women are managing their work and life schedules.

6. The Business Case For Gender Diversity Is Working

The case for gender diversity is well established and tends to fall into two categories:

1. Demonstrating the business benefits of gender diversity

2. Putting forward the ethical argument for gender diversity.

Research Reality:

The personal case for gender diversity is a much more powerful lever when advocating for change, especially when the case is made by men.

The business case is not sufficient. It doesn’t touch people’s core motivation. Instead, it has to be visceral and emotionally development.  Authentic storytelling is a much easier way to legitimately see change in an organization.

7. Women Don’t Stick It Out To Make It To The Very Top

What keeps people in a corporate career? It’s rarely simply to just have a family. There was no strong evidence that women were giving up on their careers more than men. Lack of promotion, rather than attrition, seems to be a larger reason why women aren’t getting to executive level roles.

8. Senior Women Pull Up The Ladder Behind Them

It’s a myth that women don’t want to work with other women or that they prefer to be a Queen Bee. Women tap into their network to help each other out and can be very generous with their time at networking events. They also like to mentor junior women.

The research showed that the only time that woman may not be helpful is when they are asked to be a sponsor of another woman. Many times they would pass the request over to a male colleague, because the woman felt he was better placed to open doors or the requester may get a lot more out of the relationship.

Community Discussion

Great insights, thank you! While all resonated, the following was especially interesting: "If you ask men and women at the beginnings of their careers if they want to be CEO, you’ll get very different answers. But if you ask them later, once they’ve had leadership roles, their answers are much more aligned." I find as I gain experience, the idea of aiming for ever higher levels of leadership no longer seems so outrageous.

Wednesday, Sep 5 6:27 PM EDT