top of page

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 minorities
3) Work with businesses and stakeholder organisations to highlight the opportunity to design high-value jobs that break the traditional model of lifetime full-time employment.

The research is based on 70 confidential, in-depth interviews with women (and including 4 men) at mid-stage careers working in finance, engineering, media, communications and arts (in both the private and public sector), as well as the self-employed and entrepreneurs.

This study was designed, and the rich data set was analysed, by Cambridge Psychologist Dr Terri Apter, who evaluated it against a 1994 cohort of working women interviewed for her book Working Women Don’t Have Wives.

Regarding the 'unentitled mindset' of the women she spoke with for the Women at Work Report, Dr Terri Apter says: “They knew they were worth more, in terms of pay and flexibility, but they felt unsure of their claim.”

The Female Lead has recognised this particular finding as vital for the advancement of women, and one that we have chosen to highlight in a media campaign we are calling The Entitlement Gap.

A crucial aspect of the ‘unentitled mindset’ is that it is not just something that impacts women in their work. When we looked closer at the concept, we found it at the root of many troubles throughout women’s lives and a vital part of what keeps women in a less privileged position in society. If women expect less, then they will not complain about having less.

Once you know about the ‘unentitled mindset’, you will see it everywhere - from 'manspreading' on the train, to women’s unequal domestic load, and in the huge amount of unpaid female work globally.

The ‘unentitled mindset’ is firmly part of our patriarchal structures and by calling this a ‘mindset’ we should not suggest that the problem lies entirely within women’s heads.

This is not just an obstacle for women to fix by changing the way they think, for the entitlement gap does not arise in a vacuum. Women are not born with an ‘unentitled mindset’; it is learned behaviour. It evolves from experiences and conditioning which encourages women to expect less, not to take up too much space, not to demand more.

Our system exploits and benefits from this entitlement gap, which widens when we consider intersectionality and women from marginalised backgrounds.

In addition to the in-depth interviews, we partnered with LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, to survey over 2,000 working professionals in the UK. The research showed that women have been socially conditioned to feel less entitled than men which has fostered an ‘unentitled mindset’. Almost half of women surveyed felt less entitled to promotions or increased pay in the workplace and more than a third admitted experiencing this or having seen it experienced by others.

What can businesses do to create change?

Dr Apter recommends that organisations highlight positive policies. Women’s experience teaches them, for example, that flexibility is rare, and that if offered, then asking for more – such as higher pay or status or responsibility – would risk their employer’s good will, and possibly even their job. To change the environment, organisations simply need to make their willingness to embrace flexibility salient.

Furthermore, Dr Apter says that organisations need to understand how the environment (as opposed to the attitude of anyone in the organisation) triggers the ‘unentitled mindset’, but they can correct it. Inviting pay discussions, clarifying the possible outcomes, explaining how and when and with whom these discussions should be held, goes a long way towards reducing the ambiguity in which women are more likely to experience an ‘unentitled mindset’.

Off the back of this research, The Female Lead will create and curate recommended content for women who want to build self-awareness, enhance their skills and learn to minimise the ‘unentitled mindset’. The new Female Lead platform will open up free-to-use, powerful learning environments, accredited and tailored to women striving to fulfil their personal goals and ambitions.

Our mission at The Female lead is to Close The #EntitlementGap. And we invite everyone to make it their mission too. Find out what you can do to help raise awareness here.

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

By Holly Droy


bottom of page