Henley Principal Consultant Noa Muratsubaki with an interesting piece on gender perceptions:

“I recently interviewed a Technical Director to discuss a new opportunity with her, that of a Chief Technical Officer. She appeared to be an excellent prospect, ticking virtually all of the boxes my client wanted and it offered her a step up into a senior leadership position, which she had always said she’d wanted. Following a thorough discussion with her, I was pretty excited to say the least. The transition would be seamless given her existing industry knowledge. The job was on her doorstep albeit involving some international travel. She was bright, articulate and she commanded my attention and respect…

But then to my surprise, she stopped me mid-flow to say although the job sounded fantastic, it wasn’t for her. “The jump would be too big.” She went on to explain that with the existing pressures as a working mum, the job with its larger responsibilities would tip the scales too far. Frustratingly, she said, for women like her, the demands that come with a job beyond that of “Director” level is often too much. Although an opportunity to become CTO would be a dream, it was exactly that. The trade-off would be impossible. It would mean relinquishing her duties as the primary parent, irrespective of a supportive husband and the flexible working patterns my client could offer, something I took care to explain. Her fear was that she would neither perform nor be able to compete in that kind of environment.

This exchange got me thinking about some of the reasons behind why there are so few women in leadership positions. There have been ample studies addressing this question. Thinking back to some of her sentiments, it made me wonder… Is there such a thing as the confidence gap between men and women? Are women more hesitant and risk averse? Are there fewer women in leadership positions because juggling a demanding leadership role alongside childcare is too challenging? Or does it ultimately boil down to gender stereotypes and societal pressures? After all, women, generally speaking, bear the brunt of household labour and are the ones to take a career hit once they become mothers. Meanwhile, men can be penalised more heavily than women when they take up flexible work arrangements, more often than not in how they are perceived by their peers or employer. I was speaking to a friend the other day in Milan, a dad to a recent newborn and entitled to six months voluntary paternity leave, which he dared not take because of how his absence would be perceived. This has been known to happen even in the Nordics where paternity policies are much more generous than our own here in the UK.

So how do we even begin to address some of these issues? Beyond being a woman, and perhaps since becoming a mother to a daughter, I feel vested in tackling gender diversity within the workplace. What measures can we put in place to ensure future generations do not face the same obstacles as we do now? I recently read a study by KPMG which refers to the socialisation of leadership – that a woman’s inclination to lead doesn’t begin at adulthood but much earlier in their childhood. Women’s views of leadership start with the values she learns, her exposure to leadership skills, and whether she has positive leadership role models. This has really made me evaluate the role I’m playing in shaping my daughter’s views of leadership and in recognising my complicity in perpetuating some of the gender stereotypes through my own unconscious bias.

Now I realise trying to affect heavily entrenched social and systemic change of this magnitude isn’t an overnight endeavour. We all have to operate within the system that exists today but we can choose how we respond to it. What can I do to help shape her ideas around what leadership looks like? How can I teach her that what a “leader” or a “successful breadwinner” looks and behaves like doesn’t have to look and be like a man?

As Christmas fast approaches and I wrap her presents, I’m glad that in and amongst her Disney princess costumes, her toy vanity kit, her dolls and teddies, we’ve remembered to get her some more puzzles and LEGO, and a design and drill power tool kit (which looks awesome, by the way…) To my daughter, there are no such things as “boy toys” or “girl toys” and though we didn’t make these purchases intentionally, it’s interesting to see that STEM toys are predominantly marketed to boys while social role play and arts and crafts toys are predominantly marketed to girls. Another way in which children’s ideas of gender roles are conditioned from an early age.

And looking to the new year, a new resolution for myself… to make more effort to tackling my own unconscious bias towards women and looking at ways to build an environment for my daughter, one which won’t undermine her inclination to lead. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do that yet but being conscious of the words I use will be key in shaping my child’s worldview. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll make mistakes and some days will be tougher than others but if ever there was an accolade to be won, surely being your daughter’s first positive female role model is one worth striving for?”