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How The Female Lead’s Women at Work Research illuminates the (lack of) progression from 25 years ago

When Edwina Dunn explained that The Female Lead were interested in doing research into women at mid-stage career, I knew they were onto something important.

While current research focuses either at entry level or high profile senior positions, something special is involved in the challenges facing women between the ages of 27 and 42, when questions about balance, priorities and fertility necessitate what Mary Catherine Bateson called “composing a life” – drawing together meaningful themes to shape a life pattern, within a context of shifting constraints.

Initially, however, I was hesitant about my participation in the project. I had done two time-consuming studies of women’s mid-stage career paths in the 1980s and 1990s, and since then much had changed.

Though the book in which I had presented my two previous studies – Working Women Don’t Have Wives – was fairly widely cited (including in the Wikipedia entry on Women in the Workforce), it was long out of print; but Veryan Dexter, Research Lead at The Female Lead, got hold of a copy, read it and insisted that many of the findings had resonance today and, in any case, would offer interesting points for comparison and contrast.

Encouraged by this response, I delved into the interview topics from those decades old studies and, with Veryan's help, refined and updated them. The Female Lead team then promptly recruited participants and set up interviews.

After nearly 70 interviews, the rich interview data, when read and analysed, illuminated the factors behind the many data sets showing very different career trajectories - hers and his - that began at mid-stage career, as his accelerated and hers stalled.

The first thing that struck me was the confidence of the participating women. Their words refuted many myths about gender bias, in particular that women are uncomfortable with ambition, that they feel ambivalent about independence, that they do not identify as strongly with their professional life as men. These myths can now be set aside.

Yet while there has been huge movement in women’s voices, media discussions about women’s experience remain just as they were 25 years ago, portraying women as helplessly mired by every bias, large or small.

The Women at Work report argues that subsequent progress requires us to distinguish between biases that persisted and those that are now sporadic, and often toothless. Without such distinctions, inefficiencies will slow the advance and generate defensiveness in organisations, when what is required is energetic collaboration.

Rather than calling out every sign or signal of bias, we need to look at the contexts in which biases emerge. One area is negotiation of pay and promotion. Here the stereotype of the male go-getter versus female timidity interfered with women’s confidence – not because the stereotype is true, but because negotiations are often shrouded in mystique.

Anxiety about how to do something then activates residual (usually low-lying) norms about “selling yourself” or “putting yourself forward.” Combined with the persistence of expectation bias that diminished women’s status and promotion prospects as they returned from maternity leave, many women experienced an ‘unentitled mindset’ where, even when they knew they were worth more, in terms of pay and flexibility, they felt unsure of their claim.

As the Report clearly shows, 'unentitled mindset' is not a deficit in women, but a problem that arises in certain contexts where dormant biases spring back to life. The solution lies in changing these contexts, leaving those biases to fade even further.

The title of my previous book was Working Women Don’t Have Wives, highlighting the template of a valuable employee as someone who is able to give everything to work because someone else, such as a wife or someone who fulfilled the stereotypical roles of “wife”, oversaw domestic and personal responsibilities.

While so much has changed in the past 25 years, there is still a widely held belief that a valuable worker needs to be full-time, and fully present, physically, in the organisation. More imagination is required to design jobs that embrace flexible working conditions and new measures of talent.

The brutal changes demanded by the Covid-19 generated lockdowns must be used to re-shape the concept of a valuable worker. Imaginative job design will bring not only improved equality, but also improved productivity.

Most organisations know the importance – both to their reputation and to their economic success – of equality and diversity. The next step is for organisations and policy makers to listen to what their workers need and to avoid inefficiencies that arise from a defensive response to gender biases (many of which are no longer problematic) and instead correct those that matter – not by outing every hint of bias in speech and gesture, but by embracing new ways of working for today’s diverse workforce.

Written by Dr Terri Apter

Read the Full Academic report from the Women at Work Research here:

Find out what YOU can do to help here

More about the author:

- Dr Apter, Women at Work Author, is a psychologist, writer and Fellow Emerita of Newnham College Cambridge.

- She has published a wide range of research on the hidden patterns of women’s decision-making throughout their lives (Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife) and the maze of challenges

women confront in their careers (Working Women Don’t Have Wives).

- Her book Altered Loves: mothers and daughters during adolescence was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and The Confident Child was awarded the Delta Kappa Gamma International Educator’s Prize.

- She presented her work on young people’s aspirations to the UK Treasury and her most recent book, ‘Passing Judgment: praise and blame in everyday life’ highlights how daily exposure to praise and blame impacts on our relationships, from social media to marriage.

- Dr Apter led The Female Lead’s research into teen girls and social media for the Disrupt Your Feed campaign, and again joined forces with The Female Lead for the Women at Work Research.


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