Still facing an ocean of male bias?

An all female team completed the Volvo Ocean Race this year. Sponsored by SCA they battled against the elements and oceans 24 hours a day over a distance of 38,000 miles. The team’s achievement is a high profile example of women competing with men on equal terms and facing equal challenges.

It is a case-study that raises the question of how attainable equality is for women pursuing other careers.


Data from the corporate world suggests significant barriers remain. Across Europe only in Norway does female representation in the boardrooms of listed companies exceed a third and in the US it is around 20%. In the UK representation on FTSE 100 boards has increased to 26.1% this year – double that of 2011 – but most are advisory non-executive Director roles.

Taking time out or moving to part-time employment to raise children is clearly a big factor. But, as a recent press conference quizzing of an all female space crew on how they would cope without men and cosmetics illustrates, the ‘behavioural barriers’ to equality go beyond this. Consider the following influences:

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“The future of space belongs equally to men and women and unfortunately we need to catch up a bit.”

1. Occupational norms remain

Many occupations (including, I expect endurance races) remain socially endorsed as less appropriate for women. Consider how we depict secretaries, primary school teachers and nurses. Expectations are changing, but priming from an early age has guided education and career choices that take many women away from leadership opportunities.

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2. We associate different strengths with gender

It has been shown that women are more likely to be appointed to senior positions when a company is in crisis (Ryan and Haslam 2005). This may reflect ingrained beliefs that women are calmer and more collaborative in a difficult situation or that crisis forces more objectivity in candidate selection!

Whatever the reason it means women end up taking riskier senior roles with their performance judged in more challenging situations.

Angela Merkel is undoubtedly a female leader who demonstrates very effective crisis management skills.

3. Domestic role norms remain

As highlighted (with research in the US) in Identity Economics (Akerlof and Kranton) long established gender norms mean that husbands rarely do more than a third of domestic chores (and significantly less if both partners have a similar income). It appears female career progression comes with retaining the lion’s share of family chores.

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Women spend three times as long on domestic chores despite partners recognising a need for balance.

4. Role models are still relatively scarce

The scarcity of female executive board members in major companies limits the number of positive role models in the UK and beyond. Despite a woman chancellor and rising college enrolment, fewer than 20 percent of the seats on German corporate boards are occupied by women. In Japan it is about 3 percent.

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The UK leads many countries with 26.1% of FTSE 100 directorships occupied by women.

5. Losses loom bigger for women

Findings indicate that women see career progression as just as attainable as their male counterparts, but are more likely to see the negative outcomes of a conflict between family and career. Given we tend to fear losses more than the equivalent gain this is potentially a significant barrier to women accepting a promotion.

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6. Recommendations are more difficult to gain

Male dominated networks are likely to disadvantage women when it comes to personal recommendation.  Studies have also shown leadership strengths such as ambition, self-confidence and assertiveness can be ‘judged’ less favourably due to gender expectations.

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Given these embedded biases the German government’s recent move to enforce 30% of non-executive board roles for females in major companies makes a lot of sense.  A mandated target – as Norway have demonstrated – will force an outcome that our unconscious biases will conspire to prevent.

Mandated targets, however, will not work in isolation. Norway, for example, has not increased female representation in middle management positions. Social norms must therefore be challenged to increase the pool of potential leaders willing and able to grasp wider opportunities. Team SCA have provided a success story and the role models to contribute to this.


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