6 Pain Points that Keep Women from Advancing

November 20, 2019 | Angela Huser

Young female businesswoman in the office

If women display behaviours that keep them from advancing, companies need to understand individual pain points more intimately. Angela Huser, Talent Manager and Business Coach, discusses six common themes from her qualitative research and coaching practice. She, in line with McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, claims that a woman’s biggest career pain point is becoming first-time manager. 

Why do women struggle to get to manager level? Female talent is lost at the bottom of the pyramid for two reasons: lack of talent or diversity management for women in early career, and individual behaviour.

Interviews were conducted with 35+ high potential women from global companies like Microsoft, IBM, BCG, Novonordisk, Accenture, Maersk, UBS etc. Questions were open-ended and in-depth. Participants were asked about a) their biggest career pain points, b) aspirations and c) the ideal solution to their career challenges. 

The six biggest challenges to get to management level are: 


1. False belief that over-performance leads to advancement

Women often believe that if they work hard, their performance is recognised and this leads to a promotion. However, achievements don’t speak for themselves. Literally. Bosses and peers are busy with their own things - achieving their targets, managing a team and dealing with burning business priorities. If we don‘t bring our achievements and strengths to their attention, they won‘t know. Paired with this false belief often comes discomfort to verbalise achievements. Most women would rather run than self-promote. 


2. Externalising success and low self-confidence

Management or reaching for a new opportunity requires confidence. Confidence comes from being aware of our own skills and qualities. We gain more confidence by integrating success. That is, recognising success as directly related to our own contribution and input. My interviews often revealed some version of “by chance I had a good CV”. We are talking highly accomplished employees that attribute past success to external circumstances like chance, colleagues or a favourable economic situation. Self-confidence is also a recurring theme in my coaching practice. Coachees are hesitant when opportunities come up because they display a strong negative self-bias.  For extensive research on women and self-confidence, refer to The Confidence Gap


3. Extreme personal investment and perfectionism 

In all my interviews I found that women were not just strongly committed to their jobs but also displayed an extreme personal investment that I have not seen to the same extent with men. This meant that women would often spend tremendous thought and time considering their next moves, their behaviours, their opinion. In one case a woman working for Maersk, a global shipping and logistics company, said ‘I am not asking my manager for a promotion because I am afraid of embarrassing myself’.

Other effects of personal investment and perfectionism are women tiptoeing around when expressing their opinion or not expressing it at all out of fear of backlash or saying something wrong. Being a manager requires making decisions, expressing opinions and the risk of not being liked at times. 


4. Getting caught up in operational work 

Moving to managerial level also requires strategic work and the ability to prioritise. Women often don’t want to accept that they can’t do everything (perfectly). They are doing all the work, but potentially not the work that is important to get to the next level. Adding to that, women are often picking up everyone else’s jobs without really being conscious of it. Firstly, because they say yes to new requests before considering if it is a) their priority or b) their responsibility. Secondly, because they want to be strong team players and thirdly, because they hate if things do not get executed properly (perfectionism) and so they also catch the balls that other people drop (read one example here).

All of this leads to getting caught up in operational work, instead of freeing up time to practice or acquire more strategic skills that would qualify them for the next hierarchical level.


5. Modesty and unclear expectations of what a manager does

Men often already have a clear picture of where they want to go in the hierarchy when they start out their career while women are focussed on the job at hand being motivational. “It’s more important that I am passionate about the job than where in the hierarchy or what I earn”. Side remark here: doing a job you love, doesn’t mean you have to accept a lower salary or position, on the contrary.

When I asked women in my interviews about their career aspirations they were often denying wanting a managerial position, but then went on to describe exactly that. They mentioned enjoying managing and motivating a team. Digging deeper, not voicing the desire for a management position was a mix of unclear expectations of what managing a team means, paired with not voicing ambition because it could be seen as displaying ego. For women it’s still socially less acceptable to overtly aspire a position of power, and so we are not explicit in our management ambition. 


6. Hesitation to tap into a broader network

Career advancement not only comes with good performance but also requires sponsorship and a strong network. Women often feel they need to have a close relationship before asking for an introduction, a favour or a knowledge exchange. A personal eye-opener from attending a mostly male conference earlier this year: The format for networking was ‘Hi, I am … This is what I am looking for. You? Let’s help each other out’. Contacts, tips, introductions were openly traded without any prior connection. Building relationships remains important but not all cases require a deep and established relationship. On the self-bias side, women sometimes don’t reach out for support because they fear being seen as incompetent. 



To sum up, if those six individual career pain points are addressed in early career, it can provide women with lessons for an entire career that senior women had to acquire the hard way. 

A woman’s biggest career pain point is not the glass ceiling - it’s getting to manager level. If companies are serious about advancing more women they need to a) shift talent and diversity efforts to pre-manager level, b) truly understand pain points at the individual level and c) provide coaching and training to address these pain points that keep women from advancing.

If you are like me, you can‘t help but feel a sense of urgency. If you do, take a piece of paper and a pen. Write down one thing you will do today to move yourself or your company towards more female managers. Or get involved under www.angelahuser.com/limitless.

Want more insight about how you can advance as a woman in tech?

The author, Angela Huser, will be giving a workshop at the upcoming European Women in Technology on the topic 'Forget the pay gap - start negotiating'.

Hear from her and high potential women from some of the global companies she interviewed at this unmissable event for women in tech. 

With just one week to go, there are less than 30 passes still available, so book your place now and join the movement to better the current and future landscape of the tech industry!



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