Double standards stunting female career progression

Women face greater challenges to career progression, but male employees are less aware of gendered double standards

Forty-three per cent of female employees report having been judged more negatively than men for the same behaviour in the past 12 months, according to research by Murray Edwards College, a women-only college at the University of Cambridge.

The research, released as part of the college’s 'Collaborating with Men' programme, found that more than half (53%) of women have seen these double standards affect their female colleagues in the past 12 months, while less than a fifth (18%) of men have noticed this happening. This suggests that while men are often aware that women face greater challenges to career progression they rarely notice the ways it manifests, the researchers said.

These double standards were found to be perpetuated by both female and male bosses. More than half of employees (55% of men and 59% of women) reported being treated differently because of their gender by a female boss.

This new research follows previous research by the university, which found that traits commonly valued in potential leaders (such as ambition, a single-minded commitment to work and risk-taking) are frequently associated with men.

The new study found that these assumptions are perceived to affect female promotion into leadership positions.

For two-thirds (64%) of female employees stereotypical views about female traits (such as building good relationships, attention to detail and strong admin skills) have led to them being perceived as good managers rather than good potential leaders in their workplaces. In contrast only 29% of men believe this is the case.

Senior women reported greater challenges to career progression than junior women. Half of senior female employees (50%) said their own workplace culture ‘often’ or ‘always’ presents career advancement challenges for women, compared with 36% of junior female employees.

Ethnicity was found to pose additional challenges, with 56% of women from BAME backgrounds saying their workplace culture ‘often’ or ‘always’ presents career advancement challenges for women, in comparison to 48% of white females.

Jill Armstrong, Collaborating with Men lead researcher and Murray Edwards College bye fellow, said that men must be involved in changing workplace cultures that prevent women from progressing. “Women are well-equipped to excel in leadership positions, but they’re not rising from middle management in the same proportions as men. Those involved in the study have been surprised by the gender gulf in perceptions about the effect of unintentionally gender-biased thinking. It’s workplace culture that has to change if we are to create equality of opportunity. That has to be done in partnership with men,” she said.

She added that the double standards women face are part of a wider cultural issue in society: “Both male and female employees acknowledge that in many workplaces men get away with behaving in ways that are not considered acceptable for women. Female anger is still particularly unpalatable – we saw that with the uproar about Serena Williams at the US Open. What is perceived as decisive and strong from men can be caricatured as bossy or aggressive from a woman.”

Jason Ghaboos, deputy director in the Home Office and and Murray Edwards College bye fellow, added that men and women need to work together to tackle the issue.

Men can sometimes wonder whether it is their place to give a voice to these issues, and I have heard from male allies that their motives for being involved in gender issues are questioned by both men and women. It needs to become more normal for men and women to talk about this,” he said.

“Gender inclusivity is not a ‘women’s issue’. To class it as such is unhelpful and masks the complexity of the issues, and the nuance required of interventions. Often solutions in the past have focused on what women need to do to improve the situation. Meaningful change can only occur when women and men work together to improve the workplace culture for all.”

The study surveyed 5,814 UK male and female employees. It is part of the Murray Edwards College’s Collaborating with Men programme, which delivers research and workshops to large employers to help them identify key gender equality issues and build inclusive workplace cultures.