Race to the top: are women required to sprint into leadership positions? 

March, 2023 - Shoosmiths LLP

International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March each year. The aim is to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and strive for the acceleration of gender parity. The theme this year is #EmbraceEquity.

In light of the celebration of IWD, this article considers potential barriers to women securing leadership roles, in particular how timing can be a crucial factor in securing leadership roles, and what can be done to alleviate some of those barriers. 

The representation of women at leadership level has been an on-going agenda item in the corporate sphere. Women are still underrepresented in leadership positions and various barriers have been considered including visibility, childcare responsibilities, and gender bias.

Recent research conducted by Karin Kimbrough, Chief Economist at LinkedIn, has shown that timing can also play an important role in women’s likelihood of securing leadership roles, with women more likely to secure leadership roles in the first ten years of their career. After this initial ten-year period, women’s chances of securing leadership roles start to decline in comparison with a male counterpart. 

Why are women required to ‘sprint’ to the top?

A BBC article considers that women are under pressure to reach a certain level in their career before becoming a parent due to the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. In addition, women can be discriminated against on the basis of their potential fertility, even if they do not plan to have children.

The ‘motherhood penalty’ is the impact that becoming a parent can have on areas such as promotion, pay, and opportunities for women who often shoulder most of the childcare responsibilities. As a result, women are more likely to work part-time than men with statistics showing that only 27.8% of women in the UK are in full-time work three years after the birth of their first child, in comparison to 90% of men.  

The average age of mothers at childbirth in the UK is 30.9. As such, women may be more likely to start to experience gender bias around this age and therefore feel compelled to ‘sprint’ to the top in an attempt to alleviate and/or avoid the potential for gender bias. 

The effect of a ‘sprint’ to the top

As explained by Katie Bishop, the ‘sprint to the top’ can cause a mental and emotional strain on women. This may provide an explanation as to why statistics show that more women experience high work-related stress than men.

Women should not be required to make such significant strides so early on in their career in comparison to men. This can create undue pressure and may lead to women becoming withdrawn and/or detached from the idea of pursuing a leadership position. It is therefore important for employers to recognise potential barriers so that plans can be put in place to reduce any barriers to diversity in leadership roles.

What can be done?

The benefits of gender-balanced workplaces continues to grow with diversity having an impact on employee morale, motivation, and talent retention. Diversity in leadership is also important with diversity boosting company performance, improving decision-making, and increasing employee engagement and collaboration. 

We have considered some of the potential ways to encourage and increase diversity in leadership below. Overall, the benefits of diversity across all levels of an organisation are significant and should be a continuing area of focus as part of a long-term strategic goal.

Workplace culture 

Retention of employees is key to any business or organisation. To retain talent, it is important to create an inclusive culture that engages, supports, and empowers women.

Creating an inclusive culture will involve supporting women through life transitions such as becoming a parent by encouraging and adopting measures to facilitate return to work after periods of leave. 

Company culture can make a big difference to the success of a business or organisation. Although creating a company culture can be challenging and is not an overnight fix, this may begin with creating effective policies which form the foundation for a positive workplace culture. 

Flexible working

Employers should support flexible working where possible to help reduce any potential barriers for women who wish to continue working but have additional responsibilities. Flexible working is not just an option for women and employers should encourage flexible working for all members of staff to assist in breaking the bias around flexible working. 

Work life balance

In the digital era, employers should be mindful of the culture of being constantly available and should respect that many employees wish to achieve a work-life balance. 

Policies such as a flexible working policy and a remote working policy, combined with support for individuals returning after a period of family-related leave, can help ensure that women are not disadvantaged for having increased responsibilities at home. These types of policies are not only beneficial to women but to the wider workforce as they can help reduce stress and burn out and lead to more sustainable productivity in the long-term. 

Whilst policies are often an excellent starting point, leadership buy-in is essential for ensuring that policies become the practical reality in the workplace. Training should therefore be provided to all managers to ensure that they understand the benefits of such policies and to seek to address any unconscious bias. 

Opportunities for women

Employers may want to consider offering development programmes to help current employees to advance and learn new skills. This is an effective way to help individuals develop as leaders and to foster a supportive culture which can in turn lead to higher employee engagement and retention rates. As an example, a ‘Women in Leadership’ programme may be specifically designed to help women build leadership skills which will give them the confidence and ability to become the leaders of the future.

Visibility and Mentorship opportunities 

Visibility is an important factor which can influence women’s pathway to leadership. Seeing other women succeed can provide the impetus and drive for individuals to pursue leadership opportunities. Having visible female leaders is therefore paramount for inspiring the next generation of female leaders and is not something that should be underestimated. As such, employers could consider creating mentorship opportunities for younger female employees to have opportunities to connect and network with female leaders. 


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