group oo people having a meeting

Drawn from research by Shenomics . First published on YourStory co-authored by Bhavna Toor (Founder, Shenomics) and Shravani Prakash (Founder, Ellenomics)

What will it take to get more women to top leadership roles?  With only 15% of C-suite roles being held by women in India, this question remains as relevant in 2023 as ever. As we continue the work of reducing the leadership gap for women, one place to begin is to bust certain myths that persist and create misleading narratives around women in the workplace. Here are three such narratives that we would like to reframe this year, based on insights from our research at Shenomics.

Myth 1 – Women leave organizations because of their inability to cope with caregiving responsibilities

Most assume that women leave organizations or quit their careers altogether, even after being incentivised with flexible work policies and development opportunities, because “the pressure of caregiving responsibilities drives women to give up their professional aspirations”. Caregiving has been identified as the primary cause of women’s exodus from the workforce en masse, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our research tells a different story. While “not being able to balance the competing demands of work and family”  is often the “socially acceptable” reason to give employers, evidence strongly suggests thatwomen quit when they don’t feel incentivised to stay back in the organization.

Conversations with over 300 aspiring and senior women leaders revealed to us that the vast majority of them – over 90%, in fact – had actually figured out how to manage their responsibilities at home (by taking support from extended family or paid childcare for example). When we surveyed another 120 women who had taken career breaks, we found that the reasons they had quit the workforce were a combination of personal and professional factors but the top reason wasfeeling undervalued at work” (identified by 49% of respondents). “Caring for family/kids” was identified as a reason only by 20% of respondents. A few other reasons that women brought out included “lack of new opportunities and recognition”, “constant comparison with male peers”, “unfair promotion and appraisal benchmarks”, and “no growth compared with male counterparts.”

Blaming women’s personal responsibilities creates a misleading narrative. We have to reframe the narrative from “caregiving responsibilities push women out of the workforce” to “workplaces need to create a stronger incentive for women to stay”. With this understanding, organisations can focus their retention efforts on making it attractive enough for women to persist despite any personal challenges.  This will require supporting women at all stages of their personal and professional journeys, laying out aspirational career paths for them, as well as consciously valuing their work with tangible appreciation and rewards.

Myth 2 – Women don’t take on leadership roles because they lack ambition

A longstanding perspective is that women have lower levels of ambition than men when it comes to their careers – that they do not aspire to reach top positions of responsibility but remain satisfied with taking on just enough workload that allows them to simultaneously manage family duties. A “leadership ambition gap” is blamed for the dearth of women in top roles.   

Our data from a number of surveys shows that the majority of women, in fact, have high levels of ambition, have clear short- and long-term roadmaps for their career trajectories, and are taking strategic and conscious actions to achieve their next career milestones.

 While women begin their careers with similar levels of ambition as their male counterparts, their ambition levels fall in due course because of a range of factors that include lack of challenging work, being made to take on mundane tasks like note-taking at meetings, not having their voice heard and not being able to see relatable role-models in top leadership. In fact, previous research studies have found that women have a greater level of ambition than men when they join the workforce but their ambition levels fall as they progress in their career when a true culture of inclusion is lacking within the organization, and not because of factors such as age or parenthood.

Instead of blaming the “ambition gap” for lower numbers of women in leadership, we need to shift the focus to preventing women from paying an “ambition penalty”. What we need to do is create enabling workplaces that act as “ambition boosters” by creating the right organizational culture that promotes the aspirations of both men and women. Workplaces must expose women to success stories of relatable role models to show that leadership is possible, give them challenging work and critical projects, address internal barriers to self-confidence through targeted development efforts and give them due acknowledgement and appreciation by removing gender biases from performance evaluation systems.

Myth 3 – The Queen Bee syndrome stops successful women from helping other women rise

Another erroneous idea is that there is something inherent to the female nature that causes successful women to act like “Queen bees”, who “undermine their female colleagues instead of using their power to help them advance at the workplace”. One often gets to hear that “women don’t support other women to grow in their careers” and that women are, in fact, “mean” or “catty” with their female peers. When women hesitate to reach out to help other women, it is often because they see other women as competition in an already opportunity constrained environment for women. At other times, they distance themselves from other women as a response to the prevailing sexism in their environment. Also, when women themselves don’t feel empowered, there may be a tendency to criticise or attack other women because it’s hard to see in others what we may not be allowing for ourselves.

But here is another perspective born out of our research, one that we believe should become the more widely propagated narrative – women want to help other women. Almost all women leaders and aspiring women leaders whom we spoke to, as part of our work and research, expressed a clear interest in supporting other women. In fact, many of the women who have graduated from our leadership, coaching and mentoring programs often go on to pay- it-forward by becoming mentors and sponsors for other women, and starting women-focused programs in their organisation. 

 Women can be powerful allies for one another in the workplace. Let’s shift the narrative from the infamous “Queen Bee Syndrome” to “Shine Theory”, which says “when women help other woman rise, we all shine”.  For this to happen, organisations would need to create a culture that discourages competitiveness and conflict between women. What has also shown to be helpful are structured development programs that support women in building their self-confidence and affirming their self-worth. Most importantly, to support women’s desire to build a sisterhood and pay-it-forward, organisations can proactively provide platforms and opportunities that encourage women leaders to support, mentor, sponsor and coach their peers.

It’s time we shed archaic myths that no longer support the objectives of closing the leadership gap for women. Not only are these myths damaging to the perception of women, they actually lead us astray and take us farther from where the actual problems are. Instead, let’s embrace narratives that are more conducive to creating the kind of inclusive culture and practices that truly support women and a wider diverse workforce to thrive in the workplace.