New Research into Working Women launches today

The Female Lead has unveiled its pioneering research into why women have still not achieved equal progression and pay in the workplace.

The goal was to understand why women make certain career-shaping decisions, focusing on those in their mid-stage career, where female progression typically plateaus at the same time that male progression continues to soar.

And what do the results show?

Primarily, that women have been socially conditioned to feel less entitled than men in all areas of their lives. This has created a big entitlement gap between men and women.

This ‘unentitled mindset’ is a persistent problem that women face in their careers, leading to a lack of confidence at work. Many women in the study described this as a mindset where they were unsure whether they deserved better conditions.

Examples of this 'unentitled mindset' in women and where it stems from include the following:

1) A lack of confidence in negotiating pay increases and promotion. Participants said their workplace experience leaves them feeling unsure of their entitlement to promotion, to more family friendly conditions or increased pay. Women also expended significant energy considering whether their case was watertight, before making requests, and they reported feeling unsure of the rules of negotiation or the parameters of success.

“We emotionally work ourselves up because we don’t like doing it, and we do it way too late, or not often enough, because we undervalue ourselves or we don’t know how to call out our values. We also worry that we’re being disruptive. We think we’re putting our line manager potentially in an awkward position, so there is all this emotional analysis that goes into these conversations. As a result, we’re leaving ourselves behind, whereas I think males feel automatically entitled to have those conversations whenever they like. I don’t think we do.” Director of Data Management, age 35.

2) Intersectionality offers fewer escapes routes from persistent bias. Though women now resist overt bias, showing a willingness to challenge it wherever it occurred, overt bias was intensified when it intersected with bias towards race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or religion.

Several women reported that being young, or looking young, triggered overt bias. Men wanted to be paternal, and felt put out if a young woman demonstrated confidence and expertise, signalling that she had no need of their patronage. “Being quite young in the room, being female, being blonde and maybe a little bit ditzy looking, it got quite a few eyebrows raised. ‘Okay, who’s she kidding?’ was the message I got. I never really left this behind. It was always something in my mind.” Police Inspector, age 30.

3) Bias towards women returning from maternity leave. This directly led to lower expectations of a woman’s contributions to the firm, commitment and ability to take on responsibilities and challenges. Women who had experienced this bias themselves and those who did not have children, but observed other women suffer this bias, saw this as a significant impediment to career progress. This issue was further exacerbated by a lack of visible senior working mothers ‘making it work’ which had a disabling effect on younger childless females, pregnant mothers and recent returners.

One participant described the sudden shift in status when she announced she would need maternity leave: “As soon as they knew I was going on maternity leave, they stopped having conversations about promotion. They told me, ‘Now’s not the time.’ Instead, they would see how they could ease me back into work. I resisted. I insisted that I still wanted to progress, to be marketing director at some stage. But I know I will have to join another company to do that. Conversations about promotion for me are now a non-starter, because I’ve been on maternity leave.” Head of Innovation, Retail Company, age 33.

4) A ‘flexibility penalty’ exists for both part-time work, and full-time workers who enjoy a degree of freedom around their work schedule. Participants observed that even full-time work, when done flexibly, incurs a career penalty and contributes significantly to the ‘entitlement’ gap, even when the flexibility allowed is marginal and only negates the requirement to work over-time. All types of flexible working including part-time work, time-shifted or compressed hours, or the option to work remotely, positions the women who adopt it as ‘less than’ other employees. Participants report that this flexibility penalty lasts longer than the duration of the flexible arrangement, having a long-reaching impact over the length of a woman’s career.

One woman explained how her company responded: “They asked inappropriate and irrelevant questions when they were considering my request to work four days a week. They wanted to know how often my mother would be on childcare duty, and what emergency arrangements for childcare were. They wanted to make sure I would be available to clients pretty much all the time. When they denied my request, I applied to another firm, and I accepted less than I was worth because I was so grateful that they wanted me, even as a four day a week employee. So the treatment I got from one employer then impacted on how I approached negotiations with my new employer. There was both the short and longer term hit to my income.”

5) Even where household (and childcare) tasks were relatively evenly split in a relationship, the responsibility or ‘mental load’ still fell to the woman in the vast majority of cases. The complex daily organisation of all caring and household responsibilities while parents are at work, fell predominantly to the women. Indeed, several women without children cited this anticipated imbalance as a contributing factor in their decision not to have children.

As one employment lawyer said: “Lots of women have children, and a lot of men have children, as well. It’s quite interesting where I work. You wouldn’t notice, really, particularly, that the men with children have additional responsibilities, but you can feel the anxiety among the women. These are quite well- regarded women who by hook or by crook are managing to achieve in quite a difficult environment.”

Moreover, upon talking to the women the research showed that many presumptions about why women at mid-career stage are lacking behind men are totally outdated.

These presumptions previously blamed for the lack of equal progression include things like: ‘Motherhood trumps all else and shifts career to a backseat’; ‘Female workers are more averse to embracing risks'; and ‘Women are uncomfortable earning more than their partners’.

The Female Lead recognises that these persistent problems cannot be resolved by ‘fixing the women’, but rather by fixing the systems and working practices that are currently in place. So how do we encourage change so that women can break free from this 'unentitled mindset'?

The Female Lead convened a Women at Work Advisory Group to shape practical recommendations and solutions from the insights uncovered by our study. These clear recommendations and solutions – for business, for individuals and for legislators – drive forward a shared goal of gender parity in the workplace, in the home and in society at large.

Priority actions include:

1) Develop and suggest personalised self-service content and resources to help women and girls build skills, resilience and self-awareness to combat the effects of the ‘unentitled mindset’
2) Drive awareness of the ‘unentitled mindset’ to help leaders address the embedded structures and processes that inhibit progress and equality for women and m