Women and the ladder of success

Women and the ladder of success

By Gabriele Schambach and Julia Nentwich
September 7, 2020 

We are pleased that the Handelszeitung as our project partner has published this article in an abridged version in the print edition on 20th of August.

The low proportion of women in management positions is often explained by the fact that women do not want to work in these positions. But is this really true? Is it not that men are reluctant to question repressive cultural norms necessary in order for women to really develop? Our contribution highlights the importance of the willingness and desire of male managers to change prevailing corporate culture. 

The proportion of women in management positions in Swiss companies ranges from between thirty and fourty percent and has changed very little over the past 25 years. Although many companies have recognized the advantage of mixed management teams and have taken measures to promote women, the necessary and highly anticipated systemic and fundamental changes have not yet been realized. Male managers from our partner companies have discussed the reasons for this as part of our project "Leaders for Equality: Leaders seize opportunities".

Women just don’t want to...
A central and frequently recurring explanation is "wanting". A manager asks: "Do women even want this? Or how many want it? We can see that some want it, which is why we have women at the top. But do so many really want that? Or do the companies feel they have to bring in women because they lack the experts?"

Many of the managers interviewed say that women have already said to them: "No, I don't want that at all! I don't want to take on this responsibility and go the extra mile and be in the office for so long." For women, for example, the idea of thinking about work for hours after work on the way home and in the evening is a deterrent. And also the frequently made observation that superiors "scamper around stressed out and work overtime" leads to women tending to say: "I'm happy with the way I do things and I don't want to have to put myself through that”. 

But many of our managers do not stop there. They put forward various reasons which, in their eyes, can explain the observed reluctance of women to go that extra mile and access management positions in their company. Managers’ mention, for example, the lack of opportunities to reconcile career and family. But beyond that, other aspects that have been less discussed are addressed – we believe male managers can influence these aspects and that they can be very helpful for women.

Alleged non-competitors
From a manager's point of view, one must consider "whether we have a masculine culture where you, as a woman, are not appreciated for your true potential and capabilities”.

It's not so much that women "may generally feel less confident in executive positions (...), but it's always a cultural problem". This cultural problem manifests itself in prejudices against women and their abilities. For example, might be asked of a woman: "Can she even do that? What is she doing here anyway? Doesn't she belong behind the stove?" Women must also give ten times more to customers because the customer said on the phone: "Yes, give me one with the best knowledge." These prejudices are a fundamental problem in the eyes of the managers interviewed: If a new person coming into the company feels that he or she is not accepted without prejudice and also feels that he or she has to make a double effort to be regarded as competent, or to get a chance at all, then it is much more difficult for this person to say: "I want this position!” To fight against prejudices is an important measure, which is not only difficult for women, but is also experienced by the managers interviewed as a "fight against windmills". 

Alone among men
Another important reason why women show a certain reluctance towards a "culturally classic male environment" is military service. Because "all those who have done military service and have been around men only 24/7 " would have "somehow a different base". In the opinion of male executives, "completely different manners" developed as a result of the military experience, such as a certain authoritarian tone of behavior (to which women reacted negatively). Although the importance of the military is generally declining in everyday life, and thus its influence on the work place, it still required "a great deal of courage for women to say: 'I'm going first – out of my way’!". In general, in the talks we have had, there is a great deal of understanding that not every woman always wants to be courageous or to be first. One manager is convinced: "If I put myself in a woman's shoes now, there is always a bit of an example missing. I always have to be so pushy. But the examples that show that women can also be pushy are really missing. Without role models and experience, the uncertainty as to how this will develop is simply too great. There are a lot of these confidence issues that have to be dealt with for the first time when a woman joins the company, so that, in the end, you are "like a researcher or developer helping to develop a company or change a culture in a company" - that is much more than just doing a good job. 

50/50 would be the ideal - but how do we get there?
"Fifty percent men and fifty percent women works out in the company and then everything is sorted out," - one manager is convinced of that. But since this is rarely the case and the management teams are often made up exclusively of men, the overall cultural change is more difficult to implement. 

It is precisely here that the prevailing masculine culture slows down the necessary change. One manager, for example, stresses that it is "the loud ones" that "are heard and seen in the end. "And the noisy and extroverted ones are mostly men". Women, even if they do a great job and have the skills to be managers, tend to sell themselves short, under value. Also, "the number of men who are convinced that they are ready for the next step in the ladder is significantly higher than the number of women." A greater visibility of women and the support of managers is necessary to correct this effect, as otherwise "the men will always push themselves forward".

On ability and the desire for change
"Actually, there should be opportunities to advance as a woman - if that is what you want," says one of the female managers interviewed. In the discussions we arranged, women largely share the assessments and perceptions of men, but mostly describe even more drastic personal experiences. If, as our discussions clearly show, women are to "want" to be managers in the future, profound cultural changes are required in companies. Prejudices must be dispelled, and equity measures developed. It is imperative to focus on the "wanting" and willingness of male managers to sometimes leave a little space for another approach and it is arguably men who have the ability to shape a culture of togetherness. As soon as they want to move away from military-style forms of competition towards cooperative and egalitarian forms of cooperation which are equally appealing to women and men, change will come. When men shape their understanding of leadership accordingly, in order to make it possible to reconcile career or leadership and family, it becomes clear that it is less the non-willingness of women to climb the ladder but more the will of male managers to challenge cultural norms and barriers.