Why women have to sprint into leadership positions

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If women don’t secure senior jobs in the first decade of their careers, they often can’t do so later. But this dash to climb the ranks early takes a toll.


It’s well known women are much less likely to end up in leadership positions than their male peers. Unconscious biases, the tendency for women to take on greater childcare responsibilities and outright discrimination mean women still hold just 23% of executive positions and 29% of senior manager positions globally, in spite of making up 40% of the workforce.

But new research suggests timing could also play an important role in women’s likelihood of reaching the corner office. Women aiming for leadership roles (defined in this study as a director or C-suite-level position) are most likely to secure them in the first 10 years of their career. After that, their chances tend to plummet.

The pressures women face to have children, combined with the fact that once they become mothers they often shoulder the majority of childcare, mean many women feel compelled to ‘sprint’ early on in their careers. While their male counterparts might have the luxury of time, women often establish themselves as early as possible. This puts them in a better position to take time off or reduce their hours once they become mothers, without fear of financial hardship or stalling their career while still in a junior role.

These career sprints show up clearly in the data – women who make it to leadership tend to do so faster than men. But sprinting can take an enormous toll on even the women who make it to the top.

Sprinting to avoid the ‘motherhood penalty’

There is immense pressure for women to reach a certain level of career and financial success before becoming parents, says Karin Kimbrough, Chief Economist at LinkedIn, who conducted the research into the 10-year window to leadership.

Kimbrough calls this process a “sprint” to leadership, meaning that women who don’t scale the leadership ladder very quickly are less likely to make it to the top at all. This might mean they end up overworking or making enormous personal sacrifices in order to ascend to C-suite level during this crucial decade. Much of this urgency to sprint – and the exhausting overwork it involves – stems from women needing to make sure their careers don’t sink once they begin families.

They are racing the clock against the so-called motherhood penalty. In this phenomenon, women find their careers stalling in areas such as promotion and pay once their children are born (while, conversely, men’s careers accelerate after becoming fathers). This effect, as well as the enormous burden of caregiving responsibilities that women take on, is well documented (and similarly affects other types of caregivers, like looking after ageing parents, says Kimbrough).Women are sprinting to avoid the biases that hold them back after the first decade of their career (Credit: Getty Images)

Women are sprinting to avoid the biases that hold them back after the first decade of their career (Credit: Getty Images)

The transition into motherhood also affects how managers perceive caregiving female workers. Women who are mothers receive competency ratings that are, on average, 10% lower than non-mothers, and are six times less likely to be recommended for hire. And while 26% of men are promoted or moved to a better job in the first five years of parenthood, just 13% of women can say the same.

“There’s a biased perception of pregnant women and mothers – that they’re less committed, less competent and less dependable,” says Christine Spadafor, a visiting lecturer on strategic leadership at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, US. She says these biases creep into performance evaluations, which can hold back women from top spots after the first decade of their careers. Additionally, structural issues, such as no paid parental leave and no available or affordable childcare, also “prevent women from progressing after the first 10 years”.

As a result, women remain much more likely to work part-time than men, facing wage, benefits and progression penalties for doing so. Data from 2019 shows the gap is so significant that only 27.8% of women in the UK are in full-time work three years after the birth of their first child, compared to 90% of men.

For ambitious women, sprinting to avoid these biases and their subsequent effects becomes paramount, which means women go full force in the race to the top, while men are more able to take a walking pace.

The mental and emotional toll of the 10-year sprint

Women who manage to sprint to leadership within the first decade of their careers might feel a sense of relief to have secured a senior role. But the achievement is often hard-won.

With statistics showing that working women tend to be more burned-out than their male counterparts, experts emphasise the enormous toll of career sprinting. “Achieving as much as possible in the first 10 years of a career can cause burnout and stress for women as they focus on producing good work, building a good reputation and advancing to leadership roles,” says Spadafor. This can lead to a toxic storm of physical and social stress as well as mental-health problems that can last for years.

And while women who explicitly hope to have children might experience very high levels of pressure to establish themselves early, research shows women generally are often discriminated against depending on their potential fertility – even if they don’t plan to have kids. This means employers often make hiring decisions based on whether they think a candidate is at ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant.

Women are also often discriminated against depending on their potential fertility – even if they don’t plan to have kids

Since the average age for a woman to have their first child in Europe is around 30, it makes sense that this discrimination could intensify in the second decade of most women’s careers.

Spadafor points out this is just one of the many prejudices that women, both parents and child-free, face when it comes to fighting for leadership roles. Essentially, women are fighting an ongoing uphill battle; they are forced to sprint on a steep track from the very start of their journeys, and also face hurdles even when they secure top spots.

“Prejudice plays a role in the perception of women’s leadership potential in general, even before it begins to decrease over time,” she says. “Women are deemed less capable and competent to lead than men. They are held to higher standards. Women need to prove themselves more and achieve more before getting promoted. It’s exhausting.”

Opportunities for change

The research might make women’s path to leadership appear bleak, but experts are optimistic that this doesn’t have to be the case. Some countries are doing better than others, with Sweden, the US and France reporting the highest proportion of women in leadership roles. Yet even in these countries, the path to leadership remains relatively narrow after 10 years.

Kelly Shue, a professor of finance at Yale School of Management, who recently headed up research on why women are often judged as having less leadership potential than their male counterparts, argues that the onus is on companies to do better.

“I think that there’s too much emphasis on what women should do to help themselves,” she says. “Much of the discussion concerns how women could do better by acting like men, such as by aggressively networking with superiors, or boasting about their management potential. I wish that the discussion were centred around what firms could do differently instead.”

Shue says that some of the ways that companies can change is by re-assessing how they evaluate employee potential for higher-level positions as well as offering longer protected maternity leave, greater flexibility around working hours and stronger support for childcare.Both before and after they have children, women have an uphill climb to reach and maintain and top positions (Credit: Getty Images)

Both before and after they have children, women have an uphill climb to reach and maintain and top positions (Credit: Getty Images)

These measures could not only ensure that more women make leadership roles after the 10-year mark, but also would have the knock-on effect of alleviating the pressure that women face in the first decade of their career.

But there are also deeply ingrained prejudices that must be addressed.

“We need to shift away from the mindset that if someone is juggling a ton of responsibilities outside of work – as many women are – that somehow they are less ‘committed’ to the job, and move towards a mindset that appreciates and recognises that oftentimes these life experiences are what make us more thoughtful contributors and effective collaborators,” says Kimbrough.

For now, the path to leadership remains a double-edged sword for women. They face an uphill struggle, and potentially a compromise to their physical and mental health, to reach leadership within the first decade of their careers. Yet if they fail to achieve their goals within this period, their chances of reaching the upper echelons of their company become vanishingly small.

But Kimbrough hopes there is space for change, and that the many shifts that workers are currently seeing within the post-pandemic workplace – from more widespread remote work to a greater demand for work-life balance – could recalibrate the way that women move into leadership roles.

“The pandemic has called into question a lot of our old assumptions about work, like that you need to be in a physical office five days a week to be productive,” she says. “In years past, offering flexibility [for caretakers] may have seemed ‘risky’, but workers today have proven they can get the job done on their own terms. Employers should be leaning into this, which will ultimately keep more women in the labour market and give them more pathways to rise up in the ranks.”

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