Myths, Misconception, and Evidence-Based on the Professional Advancement of Women– May 2015 Deliver More for All

As we celebrate the start of a new year, I ponder what 2015 may have in store for professional women engaged in the labour market as well as for those seeking employment.  Around the world, the economy and labour markets are in transition, but as the saying goes “in every crisis lies an opportunity”.  Women, work and mobility is the primary focus of this page, and while reflecting on some key questions regarding the issue of women’s advancement and career satisfaction, I encountered some interesting material, in particular evidence-based research. With the advancement of communication, especially the internet, our channels for communication and information exchange has increased exponentially, but with it also a great deal of opinion disguised as fact, as well as individuals’ experiences being generalized as social patterns.  Precisely because we live in a world of information overload, nowadays discernment may be one of the most important abilities we need to cultivate while engaging in personal choices, as well as in all levels of decision-making affecting us as a group and beyond.

Through the course of my research and discussions on the issue of highly skilled women, mobility, and career development, I every so often encounter the assumption of a non-frictional professional world in which the sky is the limit, and merit as well as equality is the norm. As I continued to reflect on those who question the validity of looking into gender equality issues, in particular on the subject of professional women’s advancement, here is one point to consider – Tertiary education has long being assumed to be one of the main vehicles for women’s advancement, particularly in the professional field. No doubt this holds a great deal of truth, however some of us are still wondering – why is it, that despite the large numbers of female graduates, we are still faced with issues such as disadvantage and lower than expected participation of women in the labour market, or lack of equal representation, to name a few?  As stated by the Member of European Parliament and Rapporteur Mariya Gabriel “Women represent 60% of graduates in the EU but their role in the labor market does not reflect this potential which is available. The objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy cannot be achieved without breaking the glass ceiling.”[1]

When addressing questions related to gender equality and integration of women in the labour market, there are many explanations available and factors to be taken into account, especially when examining tertiary educated professionals. For example, it is worthwhile to consider evidence-based research focusing on alumni, in particular those from prominent universities and in sectors which (at first sight) gender segregation may be less pronounced (i.e., business, law or academia). Amongst other things, these studies call into question the assumption that gender equality outcomes can be achieved primarily through parity of human capital; instead, they emphasize that it is other factors, such as influential practices and structural barriers, which act as de facto obstacles in the path of progress for female professionals.

As we carry on into a new year, it would it be worthwhile to foster a greater dialogue on the barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace with a view towards concrete measurable goals that would see a greater participation and advancement of women in the labour market in positions commensurable to their skills and experience. The “opportunity in the crisis” lies in reconsidering some of our own assumptions, unconscious bias, practices and ideas of women’s progression in the workplace vis-à-vis the empirical evidence available today which could lead to better outcomes. At the heart of gender equality rest the on-going gaps, particularly in women’s representation and leadership positions.  It is a well-known fact that change demands more than only evidence-based studies; sometimes, decision-makers need a dose of inspiration and a great deal of will to tread through the process. “Women on Boards” in Europe is one, among many other examples demonstrating that positive change is possible, hence confirming the saying “where there’s a will there’s a way”.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a thought-provoking presentation by Dr. Robin Ely[2] based on the “Life and Leadership After HBS” survey, which was carried out as a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of women’s admission to the Harvard Business School (see video below). In her presentation Dr. Ely focuses mainly on the results of the HBS survey which examined the experiences of the school’s male and female alumni across career, family and life paths. In essence the survey aimed to make a contribution to the dialogue on “gender and work and to gain a new understanding of the aspirations of alumni, the realities they face, and the decisions and tradeoffs they confront.”[3] In general, the preliminary findings of the survey were noteworthy. However, for the purpose of this piece I shall focus on the answers related to factors impeding women’s advancement, regarding which the “Alumni – women and men – believe that prioritizing family over work, an internal factor, is the top barrier to women’s career advancement… Findings indicate that women’s and men’s perceptions of structural barriers differ substantially, with women much more likely to agree that such barriers have limited women’s career advancement. Women’s and men’s agreement diverges most sharply in their perception of women’s exclusion from informal networks and lack of influential mentors and sponsors.”[4]

Despite differences in geographical coverage, sector or field of study, results like the HBS survey, are much in line with other studies focusing on highly skilled women and the gender dimension regarding institutional barriers for women and imbalances in the division of labour (in particular family care) between male and female professionals. Moreover, one feature in common among many studies in the topic of highly skilled women, in particular affecting female migrant/mobile groups, is a call for concerted action to tackle what some simply called a “waste” of talent.

If the assertion of the 21st Century rests on the belief, that “human capital is replacing financial capital as the engine of economic prosperity”[5], society cannot afford to not “Mind the Gap”.

Ps. This piece is an opinion, but I hope you have a chance to consult and consider much of the evidence-based research available.

Reference: – Prof. Robin Ely speaks at the HBS W50 Summit

[2] Harvard Business School,
[3] Life and Leadership After HBS, A Preview of Findings, Harvard Business School, April 2013, page 4.
[4] Life and Leadership After HBS, A Preview of Findings, Harvard Business School, April 2013, page 9.
[5] Global Talent Risk: Seven Response, World Economic Forum, 2011