Blog - Management speak

Why women struggle at work

Women are primed to play a supporting role at work, which gets in the way when they get to executive status, says Joella Bruckshaw.

Women can end up in a supporting role Tyler Olson

I have worked with women for many years now and wondered why we often feel so uncomfortable on the journey towards stepping into executive roles. Our resilience seems to be a key factor and from my research - How to do it by women who've done it -  the women who, in their upbringing have overcome some challenging experience and have learned to trust their own judgement, are the ones who do best. 

Preparation for life

Men and women are prepared for life in very different ways. Boys are encouraged to be tough, to get out there and take risks. When you think about it, the encouragement to play team games where they are assessed every week, with changes of position or even being dropped from the team, helps them take, not making the grade more philosophically. Sometimes they're up, sometimes down but hey that’s life, nothing to get upset about.

Not so for women. We are discouraged from playing competitive sports, our role is to be nice girls, who don’t openly compete and make sure we come straight home after school. We are trained to become better and better at the same thing in isolation, making us ever more sensitive to being seen to do well. The valuable experience of pitting ourselves against others and surviving is not often experienced, even though we are expected to be able to compete with the men in the world of work. 

The consequences

It is no surprise then that many women feel uncomfortable in the work culture. They strive diligently to meet the criteria for success, expecting far more of themselves than the men ever do. When they don’t get promoted they feel aggrieved, self critical and often mystified. A significant percentage come to the conclusion that the only way forward, rather than pushing to win, is to be satisfied with playing a support role or if they are more in touch with their ambition, in order to make their contribution, leave and build their own company. 

I don’t wish to suggest that playing a supporting role isn’t a valid thing to do per se, if that’s really what floats your boat, I am talking about the women who choose a supporting role because they wouldn’t know where to begin if they entertained their desire to do more. 

Women can do more

I passionately believe women can actively address the whole resilience question and find inner resources they had no idea were there! They can only achieve this if they take on tasks that seem insurmountable and scary. With enough support and encouragement we can tick off the milestones of greater visibility, being strategic and asking for appropriate reward and as we take ourselves more seriously, be taken more seriously by others. 

It seems ironic that women who consistently demonstrate their grit and determination in so many areas of life, having families, getting the vote, rowing in the boat race, are suddenly regarded, even by themselves as being unequal to the challenge of making executive decisions!

The bigger picture

Recent research suggests that men too struggle but in a different way from women. Some of this research has resulted in two very thought provoking films: Missrepresentation and the State of Masculinity in America by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. These powerful films illustrate how men and women are pushed into straight jackets of gender self expression that discourage their trust in their own contribution as people rather than just representatives of their gender. 

A better understanding of the part that culture plays in keeping the received gender expectations in place and a recognition of the need to question them when it comes to considering how men and women can make an equal contribution, is vital in encouraging both men and women to challenge the stereotypes and find ways forward together. The more we do this, not only does the work culture benefit, but our children, both sexes, are given permission to shoot for the stars and indulge in their fair share of successes and failures on the way. 

Joella Bruckshaw  is an executive coach who works with women to help them gain recognition and reward.

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