Snakes and ladders

How can we prepare our students for the ups and downs women experience in the workplace? Helen Fraser’s speech to the GDST Annual Conference 2015.

Over 50 years ago, way back in 1962, a young girl, inspired by the US space programme, wrote to NASA asking how she could become an astronaut. She got a very polite letter back to tell her that women weren’t astronauts.

This was not unusual. There were lots of careers that, in the 1960s, were ‘not for girls’. Girls – or rather women – weren’t firefighters or commercial pilots or ambassadors or prime ministers. There were many other roles – such as in science, or politics – where only a small number of notable, indeed exceptional, women made successful careers.

But that was then, and this is now.

Now, we like to believe that no careers are off-limits to girls. And yet, gender stereotypes still linger, influencing perceptions of many jobs and careers. Do a search online for images of chief executives, or surgeons, or judges, and you don’t see many women. Do a similar search for images of nurses, or child-minders, or personal assistants, and it will come as no surprise that there aren’t many men to be seen. (Although, you may be pleased to know that when you search for ‘headteacher’ the pictures are much more balanced.)

These sort of stereotypes permeate our national and indeed global culture, and our children can’t help but subconsciously absorb them.

So it’s important that we consciously challenge these assumptions from the earliest age.

Raising awareness of different jobs at an early age enables girls to imagine themselves in a full range of roles, and not limit their horizons too early or too readily.

I know this is already something many GDST Junior Schools do as a matter of course – I was at a leadership day in Bromley High last week, where Year 6′s were working with an actor, a director and a TV script editor, to learn both about these jobs but also about the kind of teamwork and leadership skills needed in the creative industries. As those girls move up the school, they grow into confident, motivated young women, who leave school and university believing there is nothing they can’t do.

Moving on, when those girls launch themselves into the world of work, they will have the support of the GDST Alumnae Network – 65,000 women who are part of each and every alumna’s wider circle of influence.

…the notion that female bosses are ‘Queen Bees’, unwilling to support other women, needs to be put to rest

Helen Fraser, GDST Chief Executive

It used to be believed that women were less likely to help others with career advancement, because of fear of professional rivalry or being undermined.

New research from the US by Cristian Dezső of the University of Maryland, Robert H Smith School of Business, and David Gaddis Ross and Jose Uribe of Columbia Business School, indicates that the notion that female senior executives are ‘Queen Bees’ who are unwilling to support other women needs to be put to rest.

Indeed, their research suggests it’s more likely that too many companies feel that by appointing one woman they have somehow ‘ticked the diversity box’ and don’t actually need to appoint any more. It would seem that companies which have appointed one woman to the executive team are less likely to appoint a second one. They enjoy the good PR from having a woman on the top team but see it as the end of the process, not the beginning. It also seems to be the case, the research shows, that the lone woman is often appointed to a specialist board role – like ‘group HR advisor’ – whereas the real game changer is when a woman is appointed to a profit and loss accountability, as CEO or COO. When women are in that P & L position, things start to change for the better for women throughout the organisation, with more equal pay and more advancement for women below. The very opposite in fact of the Queen Bee myth. 

In fact, other research in the US by Catalyst in 2010, found that women who have themselves benefited from mentoring and coaching are more willing to help others, which in turn boosts the talent pool. This is also evidenced by our mentoring scheme, which saw many of our successful alumnae stepping forward and offering to help other women up the career ladder. Our mentoring scheme involves alumnae from 24 GDST schools, and shows that our old girls are well disposed to helping others.

Now I’m not, by any means, saying that men can’t or don’t mentor women, or that women should not mentor men. Indeed some senior men can and do go out of their way to sponsor talented women. But it’s not the norm – the Catalyst research I quoted earlier also showed that while 73 per cent of female mentors mentor women, only 30 per cent of male mentors do so. So we can’t wait for a few good men to help more women; women are going to have to help themselves, and each other.

In my experience, there are three points in a woman’s career when support from a mentor, specifically a female mentor, can be particularly valuable.

The first is when young women first enter the workplace in their early 20s, when a wise mentor can help them adapt to new expectations and acclimatise to the office culture.

The second point in a woman’s career when a female mentor can be especially helpful is when what I like to call the ‘baby question’ arises in her late 20s and early 30s. A more experienced woman who has already herself navigated the ups and downs and challenges of balancing work and family can share her experience and give encouragement and support.

The third point when, in my view, a female mentor comes into her own is when a woman is considering throwing her hat in the ring for that big, important, career-defining job or promotion. Then, a female mentor can reassure that they have the skills and experience to get the job and do it well, and inspire confidence to go for it.

But what’s in it for the mentors themselves? They also report benefiting from these relationships too.

We asked GDST alumnae who are in our LinkedIn group to tell us of their experience of mentoring. Responses from mentors were extremely positive. One said “It is about personal and professional delight in seeing mentees achieve some of their goals. And their thanks is palpable. I also learnt a lot from my mentees, it is a fantastic way to see the world though younger eyes or eyes newer to my industry.”

I said before that one of the career turning points when female mentors are particularly valuable is when women are in their twenties and thirties and looking to balance work and family life.

In my view, employers also play a crucial role in ensuring women, and indeed men, returning to work are welcomed and supported and, above all, challenged.

Too often, working parents can be side-lined when they return to work after maternity or paternity leave. Colleagues with family responsibilities are blamed for ‘opting out’ when actually it’s their bosses and employers who aren’t even giving them a chance to opt in. This can, understandably, lead to disillusionment and a lack of productivity within the workforce. The ‘mommy track’ as it is known in America, is not a myth.

The extent of this disillusionment is laid bare in a study published in last December’s Harvard Business Review. This looked at the career expectations and the reality for both men and women who graduated from Harvard Business School over the past 50 years. It highlighted how women aren’t so much leaning out as being pushed to one side, suffering from stereotypes associated with caregiving and not being given the opportunity to opt in or out in the first place. To quote from the article:

“Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered “players” is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: they may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led. One alumna recalled, “I left my first job after being ‘mommy-tracked’ when I came back from maternity leave.”

Another, in her forties, said, “The flexible part-time roles I have taken…have never been intellectually fulfilling.” Yet another recounted leaving the workforce in response to unfulfilling work: “I last quit three years ago because I could not seem to get new challenges and became bored by the work. I had great reviews and the company liked me. There appeared to be preconceived notions about part-time women wanting less challenging work, off track, when I was seeking the more challenging work, on some sort of track. And being part-time took me out of the structured review and promotion ladder.”

Now while this research refers specifically to the female experience of the workplace, I think it likely that, as more men take career breaks and paternity leave, and play a bigger part in raising their children, this will gradually extend to the male experience of returning to work and of balancing their home and work responsibilities too.

I call it ‘diminishing returners’, and it seems to me that, by letting this sort of talent go to waste, companies and organisations are proving both short-sighted and narrow-minded, and essentially shooting themselves in the foot.

It manifests in many ways. In some workplaces there’s a sort of ‘baby shame’ which means many women and men who want to be taken seriously at work are reluctant to have photos of their children on their desks or walls, so colleagues and bosses aren’t constantly reminded of their supposed lack of commitment to work. They feel they need to invent medical and dental appointments rather than let their peers know they have a childcare emergency.

Further research by CEB, a research, strategy and consultancy firm, as outlined by their executive director Jean Martin in an article for the Guardian’s Women in Leadership webpages, suggests that it’s not one big challenge – a glass ceiling – that is stopping women, but a series of micro-challenges – glass splinters perhaps – throughout their careers that lead to women opting out. As Jean Martin writes, women are leaving organisations “not because they hit a glass ceiling but because they find the promise of a successful career has been broken many times over”.

So what’s the solution? It’s actually very simple. Rather than diminishing returners, and simply assuming that staff who are also parents or caregivers prefer less demanding tasks, employers should be prepared to take bets on them, to promote them and to give them really stretching and interesting projects to work on, so their talent doesn’t go to waste.

The onus is on employers to ensure the full potential of their female returners is tapped to help plug the ‘leaky pipeline’ that continues to contribute to a lack of women in leadership positions.

I have long had a theory, based on observation of many young women returning to work after having had their babies, that they approach their careers with renewed vigour and focus. The issue of when and whether to have children is such a huge one for young working women and you can see that when they have resolved it, they have a renewed appetite and energy for work. Also anyone who has worked with young working mums knows how extraordinarily productive they are – no lingering around the coffee machine chatting when you know you have to leave on the dot of five for the childminder. Their time management skills are formidable – and so, when they move into management, are their skills managing people, honed by the greatest management challenge of all, babies and toddlers. 

We have talked a lot in the GDST about the importance of girls avoiding perfectionism – Oxford High even christened it ‘the death of Little Miss Perfect’ – but that advice is never more important than when a young woman returns to work after having a baby. Trying to be a perfect working mother (indeed a perfect any kind of mother) is a recipe for disaster – you just have to accept that you will be a bit less than perfect as a parent, as a partner and as a worker. Living with that – and understanding that even if you’re operating at 80 or 90% of your potential, your spouse, employer and baby are very lucky to have you – can be very helpful. And that sort of quiet confidence and sense of your own self-worth is something that every school should really aim to instil, and something that I think single-sex schools like those in the GDST network are particularly good at fostering in their students.

I will finish with a further quote from that study of Harvard MBAs I mentioned earlier:

“Most women who have achieved top management positions have done so while managing family responsibilities—and, like their male counterparts, while working long hours. Women want more meaningful work, more challenging assignments, and more opportunities for career growth. It is now time … for companies to lean in, in part by considering how they can institutionalize a level playing field for all employees, regardless of gender or caregiver status.”

I look forward to hearing what our speakers this morning, Sandie and Sacha, have to say about these issues, and the many others we are discussing today.

I began this talk looking at the issue of gender stereotyping, and what has changed and what hasn’t. The little girl I mentioned at the start who wrote to NASA is now aiming high in a very different arena: her name is Hillary Clinton, who is challenging stereotypes by aiming to become the first female president of the United States.



Is There an Implicit Quota on Women in Top Management? A Large-Sample Statistical Analysis; Cristian L Dezső, University of Maryland, Robert H Smith School of Business, David Gaddis Ross Columbia Business School and Jose Uribe Columbia Business School – see