Why do some women struggle to be successful in business?


With a large and very unflattering photo of Theresa May, a UK Sunday newspaper magazine recently ran a four-page feature article Why do some women have it… then throw it away? I was keen to read it. As an executive coach, I have conversations with many senior women in tough corporate environments and hear first hand the issues that they face.

Having read the article a couple of times, I felt it missed the point. Only a few paragraphs of the four full pages were devoted to the fact that many of the women they mentioned – New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Thomas Cook CEO Harriet Green – were operating at the top of organizations with a very masculine culture; ones in which they were at a distinct disadvantage.

“They have to perform better than men,” the article reads. “US research found that if a company’s value rises by one percent, male executives’ compensation rises by 44 percent; the female equivalent is 13 percent. However, if a company’s value drops by one percent, a female executive’s compensation falls by 63 percent – a male’s by just 33 percent. Given these pressures and imbalances, it’s hardly surprising that performance suffers and sometimes crumbles.”

From what I’ve heard in my coaching practice, I believe this is the crux of the matter – that women leaders appear to be less valued and less supported than their male counterparts.

Curious to find out whether this is true for those at the beginning of their careers, I spent some time with an inspiring group of young women. All of them were in their late 20s and early 30s; the majority in their first or second jobs in large multinational organizations. I hoped they’d tell me things had changed since I started my career; they didn’t.

One quote from that evening that typified the discussion was, “I was at an all girls’ school and then went to a top university. We were led to believe we were in the top 5%; that we could achieve anything we wanted to. Then I came into the workplace and ran into a massive culture clash where I felt I was doing everything wrong. I never realized things would be this hard.”

These young women told me that if companies truly want diverse teams that use the skills, insights and capabilities that they can bring, they need better support on a regular day-to-day basis. They’re not asking for massive new projects, diversity networks or injections of cash – they things they mentioned are simple. They include more support from their line managers in overcoming the obstacles they encounter; being encouraged to put their points across and take on new projects (as – in their words – ‘he or she who shouts loudest doesn’t always have the best or most strategic point to make’) and being surrounded by role models in their organizations who are accomplishing great things – women who have stayed true to their authentic leadership style as they’ve climbed the ladder.

Leaders and managers in large organizations should be aware that there could be a clash between the authentic style of young women and the dominant culture of the organization; and that these women need hands-on help to deal with this. That’s as true for the high-flying seniors as it is for the starters.

I’m conducting research into whether and how organizations with very masculine cultures can impact those working for them. If you’re working in a high-pressure organization (whether you’re male or female), please share your experiences by filling the following confidential survey: Working in masculine cultures. It will only take a few minutes to complete. I’ll share the findings – anonymously, of course – in a following blog.

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