Only 10 percent of the top management in listed companies in the Netherlands are female, national newspaper NRC Next revealed. This is despite government efforts to lift the number of women in management to a minimum of 30 percent.
At LEWIS, 40 percent of board and senior management positions are held by women. Unfortunately, this is the exception, not the rule. A Mercer gender diversity survey published in late 2014 shows that despite women making up 41 percent of the global workforce, they account for only 19 percent of executives, 26 percent of senior managers and 36 percent of managers. To reach those conclusions, Mercer looked at workforce data from more than 1.7 million employees in 28 countries, including more than 680,000 women.
As a woman in business and a board member in a company, I am personally very frustrated that there are so few women CEOs and board members. But I also understand the reasons perfectly. To my mind this is only partly due to glass ceilings. I think more frequently it is women’s own fear of breaking that ceiling. All too often cultural issues and private situations are the real glass ceiling.
Our role models were still very traditional
I am of the average board level age - 45. Most women and men of my generation (born in the 70s and 80s) have grown up with emancipation. We were urged to study and get a job and become financially independent. However our role models were still very traditional. Mothers were home with us kids when we were small, and did the lion’s share of the housework. Men born in our era had moms who were at home too. The women cooked the dinners, did the laundry and ironed the shirts. Women were the center of the household, and did most of the parenting. The dads did not have an active parenting role. They worked full time and played a minimal role in the household if any.
So if you are a woman my age, with a male partner more or less the same age, you face a double challenge. You have to have a career as you need to be emancipated. But you also feel you have to follow the example you have been raised with, that of being the mother figure and the homemaker. And I cannot name a lot of CEOs that are both those things.
The higher, the lonelier
If you do choose to go against those expectations, and go against what you have been brought up to believe in, it feels unnatural. You feel like you don’t fit in. Other women will not understand you because you are different to them. Men in your life will feel threatened, intimidated, inferior or just annoyed. It makes it very difficult to find and keep a relationship.
The higher you get to the top, the lonelier it gets. Along the way many women settle for a part time job without too much pressure, so they can balance their work with their job as a mother and homemaker. As a result of this Second Shift women face at home, there are very few women at top positions. The women there are surrounded by men. Men whose wives are mostly at home or in part-time jobs. These male colleagues don’t have to struggle with the work life balance, and hope the board meeting will end on time so they can pick up the kids from school. With their wives managing their home, children, and social life, these men can focus on their careers. Being one of the few women in a group of mostly still very traditional men, makes you feel like the odd one out, and is sometimes lonely.
And who wants to be lonely? Who wants to be the odd one out? Ultimately what most people want is to fit in. To have friends you can relate to, and have a partner and kids. So women are afraid. Afraid of being different, of not belonging, afraid of being alone.
Being a CEO or top manager is hard for anyone, but especially hard for women from my generation, the first career women after centuries of women being the homemakers. We are the first generation to do it differently and that are breaking the mold. It requires heaps of confidence, energy and courage.
The burden of juggling two roles
So companies who struggle getting women in top positions, these are the reasons. If you want women in top positions, you need to acknowledge that they often have double jobs and feel the burden of juggling both roles. You have to allow part time work without letting it jeopardize their chances for career progression. You don’t run that many risks. As to be honest, most women I know who work three or four days per week are as effective or even more effective as full-timers. They simply cut down on coffee machine chit chat, and keep their meetings short and effective.
I hope that the generation that is growing up now will have a different experience. Yes their role model women are probably still doing the lion’s share of the work at home, but at least these role models mostly have jobs. And the dads are not completely in the background anymore, but playing a more active role. And hopefully this way, more and more women will find it easier to find a balance and reach the top. So it will become less of a lonely place for women there and more inviting to other women.