Article: Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder

Strategic HR

Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder

How to overcome the barriers that hinder a woman's career progress
Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder

Empowering women is a smart attribute for business. Profitability, ROI and innovation, all increase when women are part of the workforce. We cannot grow our business, jobs and our economy if women are left out of the workforce. Companies need to support changing mindsets and help build a pipeline of female talent. Yet women are dropping out of the workforce and not returning. Let's look at some of the barriers that hinder a woman's career:

Unconscious biases

Unconscious biases represent a significant barrier to a woman’s career. Male-dominated organizational culture is the primary barrier to a woman’s career progression. Men are judged by a more lenient standard than women which is even more pronounced in traditional, male-dominated cultures. 

A McKinsey research report from 2007 claimed that the business world equates leadership with unfailing availability and total mobility at all times. They describe this as the main barrier to career advancement and success for women because it cannot be reconciled with balancing work and home responsibilities. Women opt out of leadership roles as they feel they cannot balance the travel or long work hours expected with leadership roles, along with their domestic responsibilities.

Too many women have walked out a spinning door and been too scared, shamed, and disillusioned by socio-cultural stigmas to look back. They feel they are the weakest link when they return to work as they are given less responsibility and lesser challenging roles if they are unable to work long hours.

  • Companies need to invest in sensitization of frontline managers, to help them understand that unconscious biases play out in the workplace all the time. According to a study done by Bain, it is understood that managers make assumptions about female employees based on what they know about their personal lives - not considering them for more challenging work, for instance, because a female employee is a mother. Sensitization helps managers to understand the personal problems and burdens that women shoulder, as wives, mothers and daughters, and how they can help female employees rather than passing them over for employees who aren’t parents.

  • Company policies around parenting can also be distributed equally between male and female employees, so that unconscious biases are not directed towards women. Companies can urge men to work from home, and distribute parental leave between male and female employees. This ensures that men also take on some of the responsibility of parenting.

Women and networking barriers

Women ‘off-ramp’ typically between the ages of 28 – 45, during which time they may miss important high profile and visible assignments that often accompany this career phase for both men and women. This combination of less exposure and visibility serve as key risk factors for women’s progression through the pipeline. It is harder for women to get into the right networks of powerful executives and to cultivate a relationship with mentors.

For e.g, in a study done by Bain, a female general manager from a multinational technology company noted how a peer in a previous role would smooth the path for his male supervisors by socializing regularly with them, excluding the women on his team. He would go out and play golf, where they would make most of their decisions. This shows how women are being pushed to be aggressive like their male counterparts.

Gender stereotyping

Women often step out of the workforce when they become mothers as they feel they are the primary caregivers for their babies. When they are ready to get back after their maternity leave, there are many re-entry challenges like their need at the time to work flexible hours or part-time. A combination of domestic responsibilities and career sacrifices that women make after motherhood is another spoke in their career progression as they often take the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.

It is time to change the discourse from maternity leave to parental leave. When fathers take on more of the caregiving role and are provided the enabling work environment to do so through paternity leave, mothers can balance work and family better.

Lack of mentoring

Women often hold themselves back and are not as aggressive as men in pursuing their careers. Lower aspirational and confidence levels undermine important career-building behaviors in women. A study done by Bain shows that women are less likely than men to seek out an opportunity, if they know their supervisor might not be fully supportive, to make decisions that could be perceived as risky or to voice an opinion with which others may not agree. It is important to address these issues early-on to ensure exposure to projects and create support mechanisms that build confidence and enhance career commitment through mentoring. 

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” – A woman’s career is often nonlinear and circuitous.  And that’s alright. There are on-ramps and off-ramps on a woman’s career highway and they need to stop deriding themselves for it, or think that there’s no path back to the main road once they’ve taken a detour.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Diversity, Culture

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