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Female confidence sabotaged

Henrik Naujoks, partner at Management Consultancy Bain & Company in Germany, on the question of why so few women make it into the C-suite. 

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Picture: Henrik Naujoks

Your American colleagues have published data showing that many women lack the confidence to be able to make it into top management ranks within the first five years of their careers. It's not starting a family that wears them down, but the lack of support of their immediate superiors. Do these observations also apply outside the U.S.?

It is impossible to draw valid conclusions for all developed societies in one go, but the facts in other western industrialised economies resemble the situation in the U.S. For example in Germany. The study shows how decisive the first five years in the job really are. In this phase, the ambition of female workers often gets cracked. Having asked 1000 men and women, my two American colleagues found that 43 per cent of women entering the workforce were still convinced that they might make it into the top executive ranks, whereas 5 years later only 16 per cent still held on to these beliefs. Whereas for men it is different: 34 per cent start aiming for the C-suite, and years later the same number still believe in their chances to actually make it to the top.

What happens to the women?

So far, the common assumption was that getting married and starting a family slow down female careers. The Bain study contradicts this. Neither marriage nor parenthood decide if a woman is ambitious in her career or not. The real problem is rather that her confidence at work gets sabotaged. Their direct superiors do not praise and support them enough. Women get fed the notion that they do not fit with the image of the ideal employee.

What does that mean, the ideal employee?

The corporate world tends to convey the notion that only the “always available” superheros in the fast lane can take over responsible leadership roles. Also, there are still too few female role models in top management to act as guiding examples for other women.

Not all companies are the same. What can be done to support more women on their way through the ranks?

Top management has to signal commitment and that means they have to accept more women into their inner circles. Amongst women themselves the conviction that they can really make it to the C-suite is shockingly low. Only 30 per cent of females in middle management and 24 per cent in more senior roles – and that includes women who already have reached general management positions – believe that they have the same opportunities as their male colleagues to proceed in a timely way through the hierarchies. To reign in the stereotype of the always delivering, always-on executive, we need more leaders who are prepared to openly discuss the issue and to report back what was really important for them in their own professional development.

What can organisations do to motivate their staff – in particular the men leading female employees – to provide the women with more acknowledgement and support?

One hurdle is that most women still report to men. And many men have no idea how their way of communicating is understood by women. They do not attempt to see the world through the eyes of the females who report to them. Awareness of the different female point of view is best raised through panel discussions. At Bain we have been organising such talks for a number of years where women from all hierarchical levels explain how they perceive their environment. I personally profited a lot from these discussions. Also, the Bain study showed that many bosses really do not invest enough time to meet their subordinates to try and understand how they think and feel. In fact many male bosses regard it rather as a difficult duty than a chance for better understanding to go through one-to-one interviews with female employees.

That is asking for a lot, isn't it? Many executives embroiled in operations do not have the resources to get that deeply into their subordinates needs.

Well, it is working well enough amongst the men, or at least it is working a lot better than between the genders. I don't think it's asking too much if you expect a male boss to give women equal opportunities to work on interesting projects. Every employee should have the same opportunity to present ideas. And it is certainly not asking too much if you expect a leader to have the occasional chat over a cup of coffee with their individual staff to get to know them properly. Also, top managers know a lot more individuals within their organisations. To give female talent a chance to meet more role models in the company they could introduce the women or help them make contact.

In most studies analysing female career patterns, the U.S. looks more advanced in regards to equal opportunities than many other countries. Does that mean Germany has some catching up to do?

Look, the data varies from country to country. Scandinavia is a lot more advanced when it comes to equal opportunities. In France the idea that mothers work has been present a lot longer than in Germany. Here, we have the famous Mittelstand, small and mid-sized companies. They might be quick and agile in business decisions but maybe embarking on new ways in human resources takes a little longer.

What does Bain do in regards to female employees and equal opportunities?

Bain in Germany has been focussing on the issue now for five or six years and has decided upon quite a few measurements to embrace female participation. Today part time roles are as normal as regular talks about equal opportunities. When recruiting, we always team male and female consultants to meet with the potential new employees. That is important to let female candidates know from the start that they will not be the only women far and wide within the organisation. The times in which female management consultants were regarded as exotic are long gone.

What does that mean exactly? Can you give us some numbers?

Our colleagues in the U.S. regularly recruit the same number of male and female consultants. In Germany the intake of females starting a career as consultant is about 30 per cent. Bain USA now has about 24 per cent female partners. In Germany and Switzerland we are in the middle of a cultural change. With Mareike Steingröver and Christina Ellringmann both in our insurance practice, Velina Peneva in Private Equity and Melanie Bockemühl in our technology, media and telco practice, we have now four female partners on board. In the future we will see more women become partners, we have enough ladies amongst the managers and principals who have what it takes.

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