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Investigating The “Entitlement Gap”: Women in Business Leadership on International Women’s Day

At The Thrive Lab, we believe it’s important that more women break through into business leadership. Not just for us – we’re a team of three women founders – but for our children too. Between us we have six children, all girls, and for their sake we believe it’s essential that women have equal opportunities.


The fact is that the limitations for women in leadership will affect us all. A lack of diverse perspectives in the board room affects corporate policies, limiting workplace opportunities for everyone. Research has shown this lack of diversity impacts negatively on the bottom line. Additionally, overwhelmingly male-dominated parliaments aren’t able to bring lived experience to bear on legislation-making, resulting in worse protections for those who really need them.


So, for this International Women’s Day, we’re joining the #choosetochallenge and #closetheentitlementgap campaign. In this article, which is based in part on a presentation and workshop we’ll be delivering to TEADS for International Women’s Day itself, we’re going to be investigating the “entitlement gap”, identified by the research commissioned by The Female Lead. This concept is one aspect of what is holding women back in the workplace.


What is the entitlement gap?


While the rate of men and women entering the job market in entry level and early career roles is roughly equal, when you get further up the ranks of seniority, women quickly fall away. Only 8% of FTSE 100 Companies are run by women, and women hold just 17% of board seats worldwide. (Sources: Hampton-Alexander Review February 2021 and Fortune, Jan 2020)


One explanation for this “glass ceiling” effect is the entitlement gap. This is the idea that, due to historic societal expectations, women don’t feel entitled to ask for pay raises and don’t put themselves forward for promotions. Although recent research has demonstrated that women are more focused on their careers than ever before, as it gives them a sense of purpose, fulfilment and financial independence, it also suggests that women are struggling to elevate their careers after they have had children. Persistent bias around lowered expectations following maternity leave from employers and employees leads to women in the workplace feeling less able to go after that job promotion or project that puts them in front. An unentitled mindset is more than women holding themselves back, it is about working culture, leadership and society’s expectations that further contribute to women being less likely to reach those top jobs.


Where women do ask for increases to their pay or put themselves up for promotions, it also seems that they’re more likely to agonise over the decision, causing anxiety or self-doubt. Women will tend to wait until they’ve got a case for a raise or promotion that they’re sure of, whereas men are more likely to ask in a more speculative way.


An unspoken bias


Additionally, while women have made great strides forwards in terms of representation as leaders, and while public attitudes seem to have shifted, with women leading several countries globally, research shows that there is still an unspoken bias against women in leadership.


It seems that, even in countries who have had female leaders for a long time, like Germany, there are still a large proportion of people who report not being comfortable with having a woman as the head of government. In Germany, only 41% of people reported being very comfortable with this.


Another bias is around stereotypes of leadership, which typically default to masculine behaviour. This may lead to people being unconsciously gender biased against women leaders. These leaders may have to risk deviating from gender stereotypes and being labelled as too aggressive, when a man in the same position behaving the same way would be perceived more positively. Alternatively, female leaders feel forced to conform to gender stereotypes and then run the risk of being perceived as having a lack of authority.


All of this is without even touching upon the fact that women’s experiences are segmented, with women from BAME groups or with disabilities being affected even more so by issues of unconscious bias and discrimination. This unspoken, unconscious bias works in different ways, and we have to acknowledge the intersectionality of this issue. While we have changed a lot of practices, the workplace is unfortunately still not a place free of bias, and we need to acknowledge these issues before we can make positive change in this area.


What can we do to help?


At The Thrive Lab, we believe in women helping other women. Many of our coaching conversations with women highlight the real problems experienced in managing the mental load of home and work, how to be authentically visible in male dominated organisations and how to harness the power of compassionate leadership to make a real difference at work. Helping women to realise their goals and succeed in their fields is part of what we do. We believe that mindset, strong role models, and above all togetherness is what’s needed to help close the entitlement gap and create a new style of leadership for men and women.


These connections are vital to create a workplace environment in which women support each other. We believe that women can fix some of these issues themselves through creating space to come together and connect, and therefore feel confident to lobby for changes to their workplaces and business settings where required.


The Covid-19 wellbeing problem


The pandemic has only made these issues worse, while also making it far harder for these kinds of connections to be made and sustained as we have spent so long working remotely.


This impact on women’s wellbeing has been marked and is extremely troubling, especially in terms of its impact on longer term career prospects. Research from LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey has found that women are experiencing stress and burnout at up to twice the rate of men, as it seems women are shouldering more of the home responsibilities without any let up in their busy work lives.


The McKinsey & Co Women in the Workplace report has found that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting or leaving the workplace completely. This is obviously an extremely troubling statistic, as it would have massive knock-on effects on female representation in business leadership for years. And, it’s not good for business. FTSE 350 companies with more than 25% women on their executive committee have three times higher profit margins and 87% better business decisions. (Source: Women at Work Report 2021)


We believe it’s absolutely vital that businesses across the country invest quickly in the wellbeing of their people to help address the burnout and stress crisis that the pandemic has caused.


Finding the positives


While these statistics might feel quite negative, we also think it’s important to end this year’s International Women’s Day on a positive note. We always believe in taking the positives from whatever life throws at us.


As we look around ourselves, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way. And while there still might be further to go, it’s important to take the time to recognise progress. The Women in the Workplace report notes that we’ve made steady progress in the share of women in senior leadership roles over the last 5 years, from 23% to 28% at SVP level and from 17% to 21% in the C-suite.


So, as we look towards a transition away from lockdown and perhaps back to the office, how can we take the lessons learned from the last year and use them to drive change? We believe in the power of coaching, of connections, of networks and togetherness. After all, coaching is about what you can do, it’s about controlling what you can control, and understanding that, for the things you can’t control, it’s your attitude towards them that’s powerful. We believe that with a mindset focused on growth, capability and support, more positive and empowering female role models in organisations, peer support at every level, and workplaces that truly believe in the power of positive change, we can begin to close the entitlement gap. We also believe that this issue begins in the home, with how we raise our children, how we talk about women and how we can encourage our young girls to aspire to more in their careers and lives. At home or at work, we can all begin to take small steps towards positive action to change the narrative about women so that our children can learn a new language about the positive impact women can have in this world.


At The Thrive Lab, we #Choosetochallenge to #closetheentitlementgap.

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