Behind every successful woman...

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Society's norms around caregiving and the ideal qualities for leadership need to change

There are more CEOs called John in the FTSE 100 than CEOs who are female. So why is executive leadership still a man’s game, even though firms compete so intensely for top talent?

Perhaps companies simply balk at the idea of placing women in key leadership roles. Scholars have certainly found evidence of bias against women in organisations. This bias could occur either because firms explicitly believe female leaders aren’t as effective, or because people implicitly associate leadership qualities like assertiveness and decisiveness with men.

But bias can’t be the whole story. Consider that the average dual-income couple still doesn’t divide childcare equally, even if they have very egalitarian views. It’s true that the average father spends more time with his children compared to the previous generation – but the average mother still spends two to three times that amount. And what is demanded by this time varies by gender as well.

The pressure on mothers to be available for their children above all else means that – regardless of their earnings potential – they are often the primary caregiver, managing the logistics and planning, while dads are on hand to 'help out'.

For women who need to log enough hours to make partner, get tenure, or earn a top bonus this is a huge constraint. As is the fact that taking time off from work hurts women’s career progression, especially if they are well-paid, highly skilled, leadership material.

What is clear is that men need to be part of the solution. Some of my research shows that mothers’ earnings increase when their husbands provide more childcare – an effect that appears relevant for mothers throughout the pay scale. It is possible that it makes the time they spend working more productive too .

The implication is that a large-scale transformation is necessary. Society’s norms need to change: men need to be leaving work early to pick up their children as often as women do, which means shrugging off the stigma of male caregiving. Until that happens we are unlikely to see a meaningful shift in the number of women in the C-suite

Eliot Sherman is assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School

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