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Through a very thick glass ceiling

Published on Sunday, 17 Apr 2011
Theresa Hall
Director, ALS International

Are senior management roles in multinational organisations less attainable for women or just less desirable? Has the slow progress made by talented, educated, ambitious women deterred other women’s efforts or could women’s lacklustre advancement be due to the simple fact that they hold lower aspirations to senior management than men? Have women with children lowered their expectations of being promoted or given senior leadership opportunities in view of the social roles they are also expected to uphold?

The past 20 years have witnessed women make substantial progress in the corporate workplace. Trends indicate women are entering the workforce at the same rate as men and more than half of graduate degrees are now awarded to them. Research has also established that companies with women in their top management teams have been found to return positive financial and ethical outcomes for organisations.

Yet women’s real progress remains slow and they continue to be under-represented in the top echelons of senior management in international organisations conducting business in Asia. Moreover, the number of women progressing up the corporate ladder becomes increasingly unequal and the number of women in the senior executive positions is actually decreasing.

Large Western multinational organisations continue to lose talented Asian women despite creating opportunities for upward mobility and substantial investments in training and development. For organisations competing to attract and retain critical talent in the face of a fierce labour shortage, especially in Asia where deep experience and proficiency is lacking, this can be detrimental. Losing female talent is even more serious when one takes into account that companies with few women in the upper levels of senior management can pose ethical issues and provoke confronting questions for large multinational companies. Increasingly, senior management and HR functions are being held accountable.

Although the workforce has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, the workplace has changed very little and women are at a particular disadvantage when attempting to conform to the traditional career model and organisational cultures, which generally works against them. The former are often characterised by competitiveness and hierarchical relationships, where managerial decisions are based on masculine values of rationality, orderliness and conformity to authority. These values are often contrary to feminine values which include openness, consensus, positive feedback, peer cohesion, and equality and empowerment.

Litzky and Greenhaus (2007) found that women’s lower desired aspirations for promotion to senior management were due in part to the perceived personal characteristics and strategies they would have to adopt to rise to the senior ranks, and therefore were less likely than men to desire promotion into senior management positions.  Although gender stereotyping of management positions does appear to be declining, clear perceptions of the managerial characteristics of women and men still persist and the preference for managers with masculine characteristics prevails. Either way, these perceptions present negative impacts for women who are often devalued for not demonstrating ambition and other masculine traits – or stigmatised if they do.

Many women cite discomfort working in organisations where they feel pressured to adopt behaviours that are diametrically opposed to the relational values that most women hold, and feel personal conflict in workplaces where they do not agree with the decisions made by the typical male majority. Additionally, women often profess to being restricted from attaining top positions because they have less access to formal mentoring and career developmental opportunities, and believe they have limited right of entry to inner circle career-enabling relationships. Often, these experiences are central in their decisions to leave their jobs. 

Apart from organisational disadvantages, many women reveal they are also negatively impacted by the constant disruptions by the gender roles they have to emulate at home. Women have not escaped the stereotype of primary caregivers, regardless of whether or not they have children. While half of the workforce is now made up of women, societal norms still expect her to shoulder the majority of family responsibilities in the home. 

Work and home lives have become highly interconnected and it is important for organisations to understand the impact of family commitments on an individual’s desire – or lack of it – to attain a position in senior management. Positions with high-level responsibility require an extraordinary commitment, long work hours and a single-minded devotion to career, and for some an excessive amount of travel. Despite all the advances in technology and accessibility, an individual’s responsibilities at home may restrict the amount of time or energy one has to expend on career-related tasks. 

As primary caregivers, women’s non-work responsibilities make it difficult to adhere to the norms of the traditional career model, and Asian women are often at a prominent disadvantage during the more advanced stages of their careers as filial duty may require her to leave the workforce.

Not surprising, individuals who are highly involved in their home lives may perceive positions in senior management, and the lifestyle that such positions entail, not sustainable long term and a negative relationship between home involvement and desired aspirations can arise. Therefore, holding a mid-management job could just simply provide women with more contentment than a senior level decision-making position whereby the costs to work-life balance may reduce career satisfaction.

In weighing the costs and benefits of following a traditional career, women – especially mothers – decide the costs of advancing to a higher level at work is simply just too great.  As a result, women, particularly in their 30s and 40s face a choice gap – the difference between the career choices they would have made and the choices actually made given the realities of their combined work-family roles. The difficulty of fulfilling both family responsibilities and work demands compel women to shift their career priorities to suit family and work factors as required and this is becoming especially salient in Asian societies where family life is traditionally highly valued and, as a result, women often have to downsize their career expectations.

Unlike in Western societies, part-time or job-share opportunities rarely exist in Asia, so women across the region are often compelled to take roles with reduced responsibilities or completely withdraw from the workforce for a period of time in order to meet their family obligations.

It is also proposed that the reason for women leaving senior management positions, to some extent, is due to the innate waning of ambition as part of the career life-cycle of women. In O’Neil and Bilimoria’s (2005) paper on “Women’s career development phases”, they explain that women naturally move through three career phases: the idealistic achievement phase, where women are optimistic, determined to be successful and look for challenge in their work; the pragmatic endurance state, whereby women become disillusioned with organisational barriers, whether perceived or real, while trying to balance family roles; and the re-inventive contribution phase, where women look for authenticity in their work and seek to positively redefine their careers and lives. 

Rather than opting out of the workforce altogether, many women are opting out of the workplace and out of the traditional career model, often in the prime of their careers. An increasing number of women who have built their careers in international organisations are shunning the traditional linear definitions of success and are crafting out customised careers that leverage the commercial knowledge and experience they have gained while achieving a higher level of personal equilibrium. Though these alternatives quite often provide fewer monetary rewards, the promise of flexibility from entrepreneurship allow women to achieve higher levels of objective success.

Companies that recognise that flexibility and women’s career breaks are valuable and respond to the need to reshape how work gets done and how careers are built will achieve a competitive advantage by retaining valuable female talent.

Though the amount of research on careers, women and family issues have increased significantly over the past two decades, this has predominately concentrated on Western countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia. To date, research on the career impediments of Asian women has not received the empirical attention it demands.

With the increasing importance of China and other emerging Asian economies, it is critical for the growing number of Western firms investing and conducting business in Asia – or wishing to – to better understand women’s career drivers and hindrances so that meaningful changes can be made, resulting in the improvement of the attraction and retention of female talent.

Theresa Hall is director of ALS International, which has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi

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