Are women their own worst enemy when it comes to the top jobs?


Research compiled by BBC News shows women are under-represented in many of Britain's top jobs - from the boardroom and the courtroom, to politics and policing. But do they only have themselves to blame?

Women in 'top jobs' in the UK

"There is nothing to stop you being whoever or whatever you want to be. The only thing stopping you is you."

So says Emer Timmons, a businesswoman of 20 years' experience, promoted seven times in the past six years.

But figures gathered by BBC News show women still hold fewer than a third of the most senior positions in the UK.

In politics this figure plummets to a fifth, and it is even lower in the top 100 companies.

But if, as Ms Timmons argues, women now have a huge opportunity to succeed, why are they still largely invisible at the top table?

Cherie Blair on what can be done today to get more women to the top

The 43-year-old president of BT Global Services UK believes there are so few lifestyle obstacles, it can only be down to the individual.

"Sometimes people still think they should be handed things - but they've just absolutely got to have more confidence in their abilities," says Ms Timmons, who is married with two step-children.

Research by the Institute of Leadership and Management on ambition and gender found different attitudes between men and women.

"Compared to their male counterparts, they tend to lack self-belief and confidence - which leads to a cautious approach to career opportunities," a 2011 study suggested.

Emer Timmons, president of BT Global Services UK Emer Timmons hopes to become chief executive of a FTSE-100 company

But leadership psychologist Averil Leimon says this approach begins long before women enter the corridors of power.

At age 11, girls and boys have very similar ambitions and attitudes to risk, she says, but as they go through puberty, girls reduce risk-taking.

"Each gender is conditioned from an early age to behave in different ways - girls to keep quiet and boys to shout out.

"We train our girls to work hard and get A*s. When they get into an organisation, women continue to work hard, they do well and they wait to be picked for the next role. That's not how organisations work - they are not necessarily meritocracies."

Women "get stuck waiting to be picked" and find this "hard and unfair", she says.

Men will say "pick me, pick me", even if they are not quite up to scratch. "If a man has got 40% of what it takes to do a job, he knows he's ready - a woman will wait until she's pretty perfect and then think, 'Am I ready for this?'

Start Quote

We still have a long way to go to ensure that women are better represented, not only at every level in politics, but at every level in society too”

End Quote Kate Green Shadow Women and Equalities Minister

"Just that action sets women back."

That might even explain the lack of female candidates for high office.

Diane Abbott MP was the lone female contender for the Labour leadership.

"I, as a woman, really agonised and thought 'Is this right?', and obviously all the other women in the party did too because I was the only one prepared to go for it, whereas the men who ran really didn't give it a second thought," she explains.

"Women tend to think of the reasons why they shouldn't do something, whereas men are not hindered by that level of introspection."

Leimon does not think women are their own worst enemies. Instead, the problem is more to do with perception.

The issue is "strongly rooted in our Anglo-Saxon culture which still thinks it's a little bit odd and special that ladies want to go out to work", she says.

But barrister Cherie Blair believes men are subject to stereotyping too.

Men do not want to be cast as "the chap who goes hunting in the forest, brings home the bacon and has nothing to do with the bringing up of his children".

She adds: "The roles between the sexes are now much more fluid."

Leadership psychologist Averil Leimon Averil Leimon said women still face a "huge unconscious bias"

Then there is the parenthood factor.

Ms Timmons says with technology enabling women to work anywhere and more free childcare available, now is the time to aim for the top.

You can have it all, agrees Mrs Blair, just not at once. But a change of attitude is needed.

"We should stop pulling women back for the decisions they make in their early child-bearing years as somehow being full-stop decisions."

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, says you cannot have a top job and a family life. Ambitious mothers are obliged to get nannies and cleaners, effectively "outsourcing" family life.

Leimon's take is that squaring ambition with having children is a matter of personal choice, but that these decisions are no longer just a "female issue".

But why is it important to have women at the top table?

Apart from the fact women make up half of the population of Britain, girls outperform boys at school and make up 60% of university graduates.

There is growing evidence that women in senior positions are good for business, and there are those who question why Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq far outshine the UK for women in positions of political power.

Figures in full

DownloadWomen in top jobs [42kb]

Much has been made of boardroom quotas, all-women shortlists, role models and mentoring, but how else can women achieve the top jobs?

Few appear in favour of taking to the streets to start a new wave of feminist protest - change, it seems, needs to be more delicate than that.

"There is a place for just being a lot more bolshy but there is also a case for us being subtle and influential and just changing opinions politely," says Leimon.

And her advice?

"Women need to build their confidence and go for it - and haul another woman up with them."

Women in top jobs: Secret of success

Name Role Advice
Cherie Blair

Cherie Blair


"You have to get momentum to get to the position where it's taken for granted that women occupy high positions. All the research shows that you need to get to at least a 30% level, in which case we're not doing as well as we should."

Jane Scott

Jane Scott

UK director of the Professional Boards Forum

"Women are inclined to be too modest about their abilities and the reverse is true of men. They just don't realise the skills they have or how they're going to be valued, but I think the whole climate is changing."

Julie Spence

Julie Spence

Former chief constable

"Besides investing in and developing your skills and experience, challenge any real or perceived unfairness. Things will never change if you don't, and unfair practices or stereotypes will perpetuate if people remain silent."

Emer Timmons

Emer Timmons

President of BT Global Services UK

"I have seen women feel like they've got to dress like men, or feel that they've got to be more aggressive but I think that you have to always remain true to your own values and to who you are... I've not changed my personality, and it has not stopped me in progressing in my career."

Averil Leimon

Averil Leimon

Leadership psychologist

"Women often eschew, they turn their lip up, at being thought to be political. But they have to understand that there is a game going on. And they have to work ways of being influential, not just doing good work, because that alone won't get them to the senior positions."

Ruth Lea

Ruth Lea


"You still see a gulf of difference between the aspirations of men and women, on average. Men are much more single-minded, much more career oriented than women are... and there are more of them ready to go into the top positions."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    No quotas, please. Just the best person for the job. Women are perfectly capable of getting top jobs - several well-known names come to mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    Males tend to remain in the workplace following a career path, many ladies taking time out to make a family. This does disadvantage many.

    Positive discrimination is however wrong in principle. Instead barriers must as now continue to be broken down, equal opportunity based on ability is the key. Male dominance is not a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    How about an article on the massive overrepresentation of men working in heavy industry or suffering workplace injury or dying early from stress.

    Women never seem to complain that there aren't enough female bin 'persons'. The feminist position is totally hypocritical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    What annoys me the most is people who assume that all women of childbearing age will leave work to have children in the near future so therefore they are not worth employing. I am in my early 30s and have absolutely no interest in having children whatsoever. Not all women want to have babies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Of course, equal opportunity should be a given to all. However, ultimately the best person for the job must be chosen, regardless of gender, age, race, etc. Introducing quotas would eliminate this by twisting a company's arm into recruiting less qualified people. Equal opportunity has to be ingrained into a firm's underlying philosophy, without legal/rights group pressures.


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