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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  • Comment number 998.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 997.

    Post 989


    ''800,000 women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during the war. Nearly 200,000 were decorated & 89 eventually received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union. They served as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members & partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles.''*


  • rate this

    Comment number 996.

    976. Golgotha parental leave isn't special treatment. we're not the same physically. it's unfair and dogmatic if women are judged by standards that only suit men. 984. panamaroadotahuhu2 i'm an optimist. 985. Paul didn't say men werent oppressed by other men, but at the same time women were owned by men. its not about duty. abuse was a male entitlement. nothing diminishes what they did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 995.

    Okay. Let's try to work this out without being sexist

    Men tamed the land, fought and died to secure a safe place for their women folk and children

    Now some women want THEIR share?

  • rate this

    Comment number 994.

    "Nonsense! Russian women in WW2 drove T34 tanks to defend the people of the Soviet Union!"

    So, on this basis, we can say that (at that time) soviet society perhaps did not discriminate against men in this respect. However, other societies throughout history did. Why would a society designed to oppress women leave men with such an onerous duty, but not women?

  • rate this

    Comment number 993.

    Women would have more equality in the workplace if men had more equality in family matters.

    Overturning the outdated rebuttable assumption in English Law that women are awarded custody of the kids in 99.99% of breakups would allow more women to be able to work the long hours needed to get to the top.

    Modern women have it all, it is modern men who need equality.

    Current law is unequal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 992.

    What happens when you appoint on the basis of Tokenism? - Maybe David Cameron would like to comment following weekend media coverage

  • rate this

    Comment number 991.

    Are women frightened of the view from below when the glass ceiling becomes the floor?

  • rate this

    Comment number 990.

    So much animosity towards me for noticing the animosity towards women… even weirder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 989.

    971. Paul

    Plath, "society functioned differently as women were oppressed. stop minimising"

    Correct:e.g. only women could be charged with adultery.

    ''No, imo women had the better half of the deal. Shielding from external violence, priority for help and rescue and no responsibility to defend anything.''

    Nonsense! Russian women in WW2 drove T34 tanks to defend the people of the Soviet Union!

  • rate this

    Comment number 988.

    If women are not in more positions it's their own fault. They let men get away with things instead of calling them out. I fail to understand why there has not been a woman president here in the 'States' where they represent 50% of the vote. It's simple, they are voting like their domineering husbands tell them to. They need to flex their muscle instead of whining about women's rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 987.

    It's all about keeping the middle aged, rich man at the top. This is the reason women are not allowed to be bishops, why women are not allowed to be heads of industry etc. Women have to make more of a fuss about it before it will change.
    I'm male and I think women are treated unfairly. I have had many excellent female bosses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 986.


    Exactly, Women and Men are so diverse in thier wants it's impossible to treat everyone equally, the best we can do is come to a comprimise with each individual instead of thinking, "she's a woman so I have to treat her this way to be equal" etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 985.

    Women and children died or were raped as collateral in the disorder that resulted in the war. Nobody considered these consequences to be part of the victim's duty. However, men died as a proper function of their culturaly accepted male duty. Why would a system designed to oppress women, give such a duty to males?

  • rate this

    Comment number 984.


    It is a rather appalling thought!

    What I am rather clumsily trying to say is that although it was late and grudging men have voted in favour of increasing equality of women with men when they might just have kept faith (!?) with places like Saudi Arabia and in essence said "and what are you going to do about it?".

  • rate this

    Comment number 983.

    Why is Cherie Blair being interviewed? Are the Blairs offering us MORE guidence? Thought we'd seen the backof them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 982.

    I am a girly girl. I enjoy that, but I am well aware that sex is not EITHER /OR, but rather is a spectrum, and we all fall along the line somwehere, but it is not our choice. It is an accident of birth.
    Why is society still thinking in terms of gender and not simply in terms of people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 981.

    Diversity in the work place is widely regarded to be beneficial to organisational thinking and practice, however achieving this by encouraging women to become more like their male colleagues represents false logic.
    We shouldn't let numbers cloud our judgement. The situation needs to change, and although organisational change might take longer, it will surely be more effective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 980.

    It's much more than just how employers treat women and there's little change left there for such rules to squeeze out. It's also about how couples make decisions, how people choose partners and how people are viewed socially. For example, women put implicit pressure on men to be successful and wealthy through their choices of partner, but the pressures the other way are quite different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 979.

    970. plath: In the UK, domestic violence is 50/50 at least. Some time ago, in the Independent, of all places, both Johann Harri and Virginia Ironside were prepared to admit the fact. But then films, soaps, even ads promote the notion that female violence is acceptable, even funny. The way to reduce violence generally is to quit the sectarian propaganda and say that nobody gets to hit anybody else.


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