The sticky floor that holds women back

The sticky floor makes women modify their ambitions, for they become afraid to reach new heights


Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US Presidential elections shows that the challenges that women face remain largely intact. Photo: Reuters
Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US Presidential elections shows that the challenges that women face remain largely intact. Photo: Reuters

Buckets of ink have been spilt on the paucity of women heading corporate houses and on the wage gap. There is little doubt the challenges that women face remain largely intact, a reality that many women shared with Hillary Clinton as she tried and failed to break the ultimate glass ceiling in the US.

However, I do believe there is something else, as fundamental as the glass ceiling, that often holds women back from that top job and from equal pay. It is our own qualms—about what we can do, how successful we can be, what pressure we can manage. It is our own tendency to hold ourselves back that limits our growth.

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I speak from the experience of many years of leadership advisory work, searching for senior women to take on CEO and board roles, as well as from speaking to women about their career aspirations and mentoring them to achieve their full potential. I also speak from my own heart, as I reflect on why I have held myself back from grabbing the many opportunities that have come my way. It is not just the glass ceiling: it’s also the sticky floor that keeps us rooted to the ground, afraid to soar and reach new heights. It is this sticky floor that makes us modify our ambitions.

Where does it come from? Some of the women I have advised described the loneliness and lack of a “tribe” that, empathized with the balancing act they have had to manage, made them throw in the towel. Others told me that simultaneously managing the split personas of mother and wife versus career woman was an extraordinary burden that became too much to handle.

Yet, there is something even stickier on this floor—self-doubt. While counselling men and women on their leadership aspirations, I have seen that women often demur when offered a promotion, highlighting gaps in their qualifications. However, when men with similar experience are offered the same role, they see it as an opportunity and grab it with both hands, embracing the challenge. In fact, a 2012 McKinsey study found that while mid-career women had the desire to advance in their careers, few aspired to make it to the C-suite. The same study found that women opt out of line roles relatively early in their career, moving to “safer” staff roles.

Why does this happen?

Women tend to doubt their own capability more than men do. In a meta-analysis of 99 studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, an interesting observation was that women consistently underestimate their skills and potential, while men overestimate theirs. Several of the women I speak to seem surprised by their own achievements and believe that they got there by accident. In their book Womenomics, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay refer to this as the “Confidence Gap” between the genders. In an excerpt in The Atlantic, they write “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

As I reflect on my career, I know it has been my own inhibitions that have contributed to my non-linear career growth. When I did not have the confidence to politick and brag about myself in banking, I moved to consulting, restarting my career. When I was offered a larger role, I demurred; while I told myself I could not devote the time away from my children, in my heart, I was not sure I had the capability. However, with the good fortune of having had several opportunities for self-reflection, and receiving feedback from colleagues, I realized that actually I did have a lot to offer, and even though I did not recognize it, others did. This gave me the confidence to start “Leaning In”. It also led to a greater action orientation and my taking on responsibilities that I had shied away from earlier, which in turn led to a dramatic change in how not only others, but more importantly, how I perceived myself.

As I counsel young women today, preparing for leadership positions, I advise them to believe in themselves and take charge of their own careers. They must own their achievements, instead of working hard quietly and expecting the results to speak for themselves. While no one enjoys a braggart, it is true that not everyone who works hard and achieves results is noticed. Internalizing what you have achieved also helps build confidence. And this is a virtuous cycle. Confidence spurs one on to action, which in turn leads to more achievement, and greater confidence.

A greater belief in oneself will also drive parity in pay. We women must have the self-assurance to ask for an increase in compensation when we believe it is due. Women negotiate for compensation less than men do, and when they do negotiate, they ask for less. If we don’t ask, no one will give it to us.

Another critical step is to build networks. Women often choose to do their work and go home, rarely spending the after hours at a cocktail. This socializing is not “extra”; it’s a key part of success and should be viewed as part of the job requirement.

My daughter is now 16. I hope that by the time she grows up, we will not be discussing issues of pay for parity or leaky pipelines—and certainly not the sticky floor.

We all have a responsibility and role to play in cultivating the next generation of women leaders. Last year, to mark International Women’s Day, we at Egon Zehnder led a unique global dialogue “Leaders and Daughters”, which we are expanding on this year. I invite all leaders to inspire young women to realize their dreams.

Namrita Shahani Jhangiani is partner and co-lead for diversity and inclusion at Egon Zehnder.

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