Women & High-Profile Roles: Why do they say No?

by Victoria Lister, Brisbane, Australia

Of late, I’ve been pondering the choices I’ve made throughout my working life a lot. I’ve also been exploring the reasons why I’d taken on roles that weren’t natural to me as an individual or as a woman, and how I’d aligned with the energy of driven-ness that permeates so much of the working world, depleting myself in the process. It also started me thinking about women and high-profile jobs, and why there are (relatively speaking) so few of us in them.

Indeed, in this country right now there’s consternation in parts of the corporate world (echoed in the media from time to time) around the lack of women in high-calibre board roles. The ‘suggestion de jour’ is that the issue be resolved by legislating for a fixed percentage of female directors – as happened in Norway earlier this year, where a 40% quota is now mandatory.

There’s also been a fair amount of press surrounding the release of a book called ‘Lean In’, by Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook. I haven’t read it, but from articles on it I’ve gleaned she believes the reason why there are so few women at the top is because we generally lack confidence when it comes to seizing what we want, and we have a tendency to compromise too much of ourselves in favour of our partners and children. Her exhortation is that rather than back away from the boardroom table, we need to ‘lean in’ and assert ourselves.

But it occurs to me to ask: in all  the years this issue has been debated, has anyone thought to check in with women as to what they really want? Granted, there are lobby groups agitating for change, representing those women who are keen to participate in the same decision-making arenas as men. However this push for ‘women at the top’ overlooks one thing: women have been steadfastly ‘failing’ to fulfil the promise of a generation of feminists for years now – refusing top roles and opting out at mid-management levels, seemingly for family reasons.

But I’ve often wondered about this ‘phenomenon’, and feel the real reason women aren’t well-represented in top roles is not always because they’re torn between home and work, eventually deciding in the favour of the former (though it might end up looking that way), but because deep down they know what the true cost of such a role would be. I suspect most women intuitively feel the demands of a high-powered position in today’s workplace are too great, and aren’t prepared to pay the price – and that’s the reason why there are so few of us ‘at the top’.

It would seem some of this country’s most influential women agree. An article, ‘Facebook boss: what women do wrong’ in the May 2013 edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly examines this very topic, surveying a number of women in high-powered roles. Many of these women felt “…the gender gap at the top will never be resolved if we continue to try to force women to adapt to the work culture by behaving, well, more like traditional men”.

ABC newsreader Juanita Phillips would also seem to concur. In a quote from her recent book (from the same article) she says, “I seriously question whether many women want to be involved in the business or political world the way it is now… It’s brutal and soul-destroying, and almost completely incompatible with a balanced life. Obviously, women have the skills and desire to be in positions of power, but, because that world is generally hostile to women, they tend to drop out, or not even try in the first place. It’s no surprise that women choose more life-affirming career paths, like starting their own businesses or working from home.”

I know for myself, the thought of doing what it might take to obtain and maintain a role in a high-stakes environment as it currently exists feels like a bad idea. Something in me says quite clearly, “No, I don’t want that, it doesn’t feel right… it feels like if I chose that, I would have to give up something precious and fundamental within me”. From what I observe of women in top roles, many seem to go into a hardness to deliver what is expected of them… so I don’t feel inspired – more saddened – by the compromises I sense they are making.

I don’t feel this possibility – that women might actually prefer not to get involved with the demands of a high-profile career – gets explored. Instead, we either silently go along with the notion that women ‘just don’t have what it takes’, or – as the women in business lobby groups have promoted in recent years – we make it all about a lack of opportunity, being passed over for promotion, and the glass ceiling (although there is a reality to these issues too).

But I don’t feel these reasons represent the whole or true story, and I suspect if you asked a random bunch of women if they’d like a high-powered executive or blue-chip board role, many would say no. It would be even more interesting to also ask them why, and include in the sample group of respondents women who don’t have children or other dependents and therefore aren’t necessarily needing to choose between family and career.

Come to think of it, we have the opportunity to do some research right here and now. What do you feel about this issue? Have you ever thought about taking on a high-powered role? Did you, only to find it did come at too great a cost? Do you know women who have? It’d be great to read your comments, women and men both, below.

Further Related Reading:
Stress & Work: Learning to Trust Myself As a Woman

860 thoughts on “Women & High-Profile Roles: Why do they say No?

  1. The moment you find yourself fighting for a cause, you need to stop and question what is driving you, for whilst there is a time when “fighting for a cause” is sometimes needed, more often than not, it is a mere distraction and in itself provides a form of identification for someone who is otherwise lost. In other words, it is often nothing to do with the “cause” at all. When lost at sea, any port will do, as they say.

    1. Beautifully said Adam – it takes away our focus and distracts us from our purpose when the cause we are fighting for is not a true one.

  2. Most positions at the top are highly demanding and competitive and I agree that in most cases a woman would have to compromise herself to live up to the demand. It makes sense that the drive to achieve this would be less in women in consideration of what may be sacrificed in holding such a position. This is something that should be addressed by industries worldwide… for the qualities that a woman can offer cannot be denied and positions should be adjusted accordingly so that hardness and drive are not a necessary component in their success at the expense of what else they can bring.

  3. Great blog and great discussion to have. I actually want to flip this completely on its head and look at it a different way, not looking at why women are not in so many high-profile roles, CEO’s, Directors etc but instead look at the relationship as women we have with ourselves as I feel this is where is starts. Quality not quantity! I have never been a career driven person but what I have observed in my own life is the more love I have myself and the more committed I am to life generally (not just one aspect) a lot has unfolded for me including being present in meetings that in the past I would not have felt important enough to attend let alone share my opinion! So could it be instead of saying who’s at the ‘top’ and who’s not and why, we need to stop the whole gender inequality thing, take a step back and look at the relationship we have with ourselves and with life as a whole (both men and women) I am sure if we all did this we would see many beautiful changes happening. Sometimes its the smallest things that make the biggest changes.

    1. So true and so well expressed, Vicky. Everything starts with ourselves though rarely do we start from there when there is an issue. When we do magic occurs.

  4. Change starts with our selves first. I have run my own business and worked for other people but in each job I can feel where I reach a ceiling and don’t want to go past it, I feel this is to do with not wanting to take on responsibility and not being confident in taking on roles that I felt I could not deliver. I don’t think I can pin point it to one particular thing but the more confident within myself and the abilities I know I have and understanding that work is about people and not about money and success has changed how I view my job. Appreciation is key at work and we don’t bring enough of this into the work place.

  5. Regardless of being a man or a woman, there is still the ‘drive’ issue to tackle about working,there is still the quality family relationships challenge to look at, there is still the challenge of balancing work life, family life and care, respect and nurturing of self. Anyone who works full time or more, still has to learn to balance and live all areas of their life with quality regardless of how ‘high profile’ the job is. But it is a given that in a high profile job much more hinges on the person – however the true success so to speak will only come from the person having a balance and connection with all parts of their life.
    However, in some ways I feel women can very much have a hand in leading the way in how this can be done. Victoria you are spot on in sharing that how this is currently done with the drive, the ‘need’ for equality, the need to ‘prove’ that women are at a par to men – this boxes women into the role in a way that cannot truly lead the way. When boxed in, a woman is simply asked to turn into a man and run the show in that way with detriment to her body and family and society. Now this is not to say that men run the show poorly, it is to say that it is not natural for a woman to run things like a man – and this is the first key foundational stone in understanding that whilst men and woman are equal, the qualities they bring to reflect are in many ways different and hence the expression of these qualities is different. Women and men can certainly lead the way but this way does need to be revised for everything that we have tried thus far in the majority of society has failed. And yet there are pockets where this leading the way is being lived as an example – such pockets have come from the inspiration of Serge Benhayon and Universal Medicine and with The Way of The Livingness.

  6. “From what I observe of women in top roles, many seem to go into a hardness to deliver what is expected of them” – this is the woman going into the man’s role, abandoning her natural self in the process. More often than not the environment is not set up to support the woman presenting as it is truly needed. And at the same time, so many women have forgotten what it is like to be themselves and to live and work from this space, hence why they are so quick to adopt a drive to perform. What is interesting is that women are very good in support roles. But we can also take this one step further, to say that a great leader is only one who knows how to be a great supporter too – it comes from the connection with all others. So as women we certainly have the capacity, it is just a question of how we activate this in order to bring about true change in the world.

  7. I work in the Health and Social Care sector in the UK. In my experience there are a higher proportion of women to men in this line of work and many in senior positions. I do feel that in many cases, to get into those higher management roles, women have to make a choice to use more masculine strategies rather than stay in the fullness of their innate femininity. Equally, I know men, who have rejected these roles because it requires them to negate their own life balance and sell out their natural tenderness. There comes a point it seems where we are faced with a choice to honour our natural sense of who we are, or contort ourselves into a ‘shape’ that fits the system in order to get on.

  8. What does this ‘brutal and soul-destroying’ business world produce? Results – but at what cost?

    1. Stressed, exhausted and depleted people is the by-product of the business world. In a comparison, American football grooms boys to men to play the game! There is no retirement plans or workmen’s comp for injuries. If you are injured and can no longer play you are efficiently disposed of. In all aspects of our working world, there is always someone in the queue behind you that is that little bit more hungry. Why would women willingly want to enter this meat grinder?

  9. Working as a manager of a big team as a woman I am invited to go for the next step as a higher manager.
    I feel that I was avoiding those positions to hide myself. To act that I could not do that but the fact is that for me it is a challenge to be all of me, with no contractions or stress and to honor me and my body during my work in those roles. But at the same time, I love to to make it work. To bring the difference in this level of working as a woman. To not go with the momentum of stress lived by my companions but to bring me in my stillness even when working hard. If we want to make a different we have to be there. And it is important that women take the positions what are needed for the service for all. We have this quality of stillness we can bring if we go back to our connection.

  10. From a very ‘safe’ distance I have always felt that the way people conduct themselves in big business is very unappealing and I was never interested to enter the arena to invent myself to fit the requirements. However to break this cycle there is much wisdom in participating in the more challenging areas of life, be it business or what ever as our complete selves, living true balanced lives, offering a reflection that perhaps there is another way.

  11. I see some women at work in a high-powered role whose body has already very clearly indicated how it’s not working for them, yet they feel very strongly against saying ‘no’ to a potential of going even more higher up in the ladder. And they may be well known and highly respected in their field of professions and get paid a lot of money, none of them look joyful or well. Who knows maybe that’s putting out a message to a younger generation that this is not the way to go.

  12. I would only say yes to a high profile role if I knew, absolutely, that I was strong enough within myself, in that I could give it everything while never compromising the quality and beauty in my life.

  13. Women have the power to do things differently and break through the monotony that we don’t even realise that we are stuck in.

  14. There is little of appeal to me in a high-powered position, however my decision to take one on or not today (free of children) would depend much more on how much could be achieved by doing so. During the years of raising a child however, I would not have been likely to consider such a role, particularly as a single parent.

  15. Women are often quite good and seeing all of life and knowing all the commitments they have in life. Our role in society has allowed for this whereas for men, their role has been more focused on being the provider. Focus, solely (or mostly) on providing has meant that it’s ok for them to shirk other responsibilities in life and can be justified so much so that the responsibilities can seemingly get taken away from them to allow for their provider role to be fulfilled. With women we have kept our role where we see more of the roundedness of life and can feel the impact of a life lived out of balance. From that place, we are more able to see the impact taking on a high powered job will have on all areas of our life.

  16. I am currently working in a career that may lead me to be in a high powered role. For me the focus of my ‘career development’ is to maintain and deepen my integrity. Working in the business world can be high pressured and hence many temptations present like take short cuts and compromising the level of care and service others deserve to get the job done and meet your KPI’s, becoming competitive with your colleagues, becoming resentful of your seniors or the systems you work in, developing an attitude that you don’t even like your job etc. etc. I could go on and on but you get the point. The only things that I have found that works when the pressure and intensity presents is deepening my commitment to work and my clients – they deserve absolute attention, thoroughness and connection and I deserve to enjoy what I do. Its all those extra bits of detail that you bring to the workplace where you really grow and blossom.

  17. Where I work there are plenty of women in high profile jobs and their bodies are showing the effects of this. Most, if not all are carrying extra weight and a sense of hardness in their body that does not reflect the delicate and precious beings that they are. Most are surviving on coffee and sugar to get them through the day.

  18. Such great questions posed here Victoria, there is a lot I see in my working life where women are so capable of being in very senior roles, yet they opt out and choose to be at home or raising their families. There is a lot of pressure put on women to be everything to everyone and that can be a challenge for all involved.

  19. From what you’ve shared here Victoria it is not such a bad thing that so many women are passing senior roles up. There can be no true value added to our communities if women are prepared to sacrifice the quality they can bring for the sake of a position or achievement.

  20. As I read this tonight I feel deeply that to take on such roles from the driven and exhausted way of living we as women are faced with in today’s society would certainly make a woman feel like not wanting to accept the extra pressures and stresses of high profile roles. But a woman claimed in her essence, feeling fully at home in her body, with the vitality and strength that she naturally holds her living way, a high profile role would be a walk in the park. From this I feel a great importance in supporting women today to again remember who they are and that living from this brings the steadiness and confidence needed to take on the world.

  21. I was recently conversing with someone who had been to a health care conference which had called for the following year for more women to present. This female stated that she would rather go see the best presenters/presentations regardless if they were from a woman or a man. I have to agree.

  22. I have had many opportunities to have high powered roles but the cost has been too high for me. I am part of a team. Also, there is a lot of ego and self aggrandizement that goes on that gets in the way of it actually being about people and purpose.

  23. Another well-written blog on how we are at work by Victoria Lister. From my observation I agree with this — “Obviously, women have the skills and desire to be in positions of power, but, because that world is generally hostile to women, they tend to drop out, or not even try in the first place.” We are not in full support of women being in power. There is too much competitiveness rather than bringing out the best in another. We are attacking each other’s talents and skills. The way out is to claim that inner-knowing within and feel what feels right to you. Can I lead by how I need to live in full support of the woman I am or am I fully content leading in support – this goes for men too? We are no different within.

  24. Reading through some of the comments here is really interesting. They’re all valid, pointing to a multifaceted issue. I feel overall though nothing will change unless we make it change – by leading a gentle but claimed and powerful revolution that says ‘No, that is not how it should be done – this is how we do it’.

  25. This article is a snap shot of how women are treated in general. Yes, high profile roles come with demands and conditions many do not wish to live by, but so to does general life. Could this be why we have women and children needing refuge, women and young girls being trafficked for sex and countless other horrific treatments of women. Could it be that what we see and feel in high profile roles is a direct result of the disregard and disrespect that women are treated with?

  26. i have been a Trustee/Director of a charity for many years but have never felt it was ‘high-powered’ but a responsibility for a shared care of the purpose of the charity and support and care for all the employees. No different to being a mother within a family.

  27. I am a director of my husbands business – and although I started off in one area of the business – I am now seeing the pull to be a lot more involved in the whole business and support people in general. I don’t see myself in a high powered role – I just see an increased responsibility and need to be with people. In fact most of my day is becoming about having conversations with people and supporting them – and I am loving this role and what I am learning about humanity.

  28. Sometimes women make decisions to get a job in reaction to what is going on around them so it is vital to be honest with what truly supports us and those around us. Getting a job just to tick boxes doesn’t work and in the long run catches up with us in one way or another. What we may think is support whether it is for ourselves or others can be in truth for self gain and not for in service to the all.

  29. How I developed now I would say yes to higher positions as I noticed the influence is bigger and I like that. Not for me but for the whole, my reach is wider.
    And yes I feel the huge demands and I do not like that but I want to deal with it. To learn to be gentle and loving in all situations as there i find the true power of me as a woman.
    As a manager I work a lot with mens’ college’s and I can feel how I gave my power away to men for long and how much I love it to break that pattern and to bring all of me.

  30. The ‘traditional’ driven-ness that business men are often expected to take on or act out isn’t natural for men either. There is a big difference between true purpose vs being driven; there is a way for us to be totally committed to work and it’s something that begins outside of the work in all other areas of our life too.

  31. It would be great to see women in top positions who don’t succumb to the brutality and dog eat dog mentality of life in the realms ‘above the glass ceiling’ and support each other with the changes that are clearly needed.

  32. There are many demands on women, specially with home life, family, children and running a home, to add to the stress of a high profile job is for many women too much, because it puts a great strain on the family, however my feeling is that if more women built a support team around them, which means asking for help and accepting help, and realised that it’s more about managing rather than having to do everything oneself, more women would take on more high profile jobs.

  33. It is very rare to see a woman in the higher echelons of the business world being a woman – and this is a sad state of affairs indeed, because it is exactly what business needs in order to evolve. Rather than a woman remaining connected to herself and knowing that it is in and from this connection that she can inspire real and sustainable change, she sells herself out to a model that she does know is false to the core.

    But there will one day come a time when women will go into senior levels of management and executive positions without selling themselves out in the process of doing so. This is an inevitable fact that awaits the evolution of women returning back to who they are and for the business world to turn itself around from being based on the pillars of competitiveness and scarcity to one of real collaboration and evolution for all.

  34. The present corporate world, and especially the top is destructive for both men and women. The demands, the normal long working days, the double day evening dinners, the seemingly normal always-on mentality, the corruption, the egoistic hidden agenda’s and the political games are just some examples of the destructive forces at play.
    It just feels that women are smarter and avoid those kind of destructive forces, while men are used being crushed every now and then (getting used to that in sports like rugby) and just accept that as a normal.
    Who is the more intelligent gender you could ask.
    But it seems there is a different way. Many, if not nearly all companies are in need of different kind of leadership which requires feminine, intuitive all encompassing qualities that see that a company makes it about people first and then profit and results. Leadership like that is something women are very well capable of. The question is then: how should women adopt a life style that make them able to withstand those destructive forces before they can execute power that will rid of those destructive forces?
    The answer lies in living in a different way, a way that is, also for careers presented by The Way of The Livingness.

  35. The irony is that for the business world to truly change and transform itself, we do need women in higher positions – women that stay true to themselves as women while being in these senior executive roles. A woman’s influence and power is not in how much she can act like a man – that is a brutal force no better than what the business world thrives on today. Her power comes through her grace and her stillness, her natural capacity to hold herself and others in this quality. When that is brought into a boardroom, it is amazing what can take place and transform.

  36. Society tends to see the lack of women in power positions as a problem. If we consider what that package brings to women who are not in the livingness, it is fair to ask whether this is really a problem we have to be concerned about it or whether the problem that has to concern us is why are they not in their livingness and what can be done about it?

  37. Simply great article and one that brings some light to what is something that is moved around the media. Has anyone actually asked the women what they want is a great question and one we shouldn’t ignore and it make sense that anyone seeing how things play out in the higher profile and pressure roles wouldn’t want a bar of it as it currently stands. Maybe a group of women should start their own group called the “The true reason women are in the positions they are in” or similar to bring some more light to what is really going on and also to knock out some of the agendas flying around. I loved this article and it simply brought some awareness to me around a subject that I just assumed was true because I heard it and yet I am not sure I ever truly asked a women why.

  38. When reading this writing the saying came to mind ” if you cannot beat them join them ” . Any person is well capable of been all that they are if they want in what ever work they do.
    A sold out woman in a job , that was once held by a sold out man will be of no service to anyone . The only change will be a physical gender. Truly it makes no difference who is in ” charge ” if they live from their energetic truth.

  39. The way we have let our life be, is obscene. We have tolerated outright abuse, complete corruption, injustice and indecency. No wonder then, that when it comes to the crunch many of us just can’t play ball with this energy. I feel like women represent the delicate, vulnerable and precious part of us, whether they realise it or not. So their failure to comply with ‘industry’ is not a failure at all but a signal that something is not right. After all, our companies and organisations are just a reflection of the way we choose to live. I wonder if we were to look at our own choices whether they would have integrity? Perhaps this is what we need to ‘work’ on? Thank you Victoria for this powerful blog.

  40. To ask the question, ‘what is the cost of having a high-profile role?’ is a pertinent one for both men and women. I would agree that many women are perhaps not choosing this because they feel the consequences of ‘cut throat’ pressure on their lives. My question is one regarding men… the consequences are the same for them… being in drive, competition, stress, looking for constant recognition and the trampling over others to get to the top of the tree mentality. Why is it ok for them to be working in this way, this is not natural for them either? It seems that a whole culture shift needs to happen from top to bottom with how we work and interact with each other, making the quality of respect the bare minimum, moving onto consideration, care and then love.

  41. I know I have avoided going for positions with more responsibility. One of the reasons was because I felt I would be compromising myself since most of these jobs seem to take over your life and leave no room for balance. What I like about this blog and all the comments is seeing that there can be another way to be in a leadership role that does not have to necessarily be like its always been.

  42. ‘The notion that women ‘just don’t have what it takes’, is busted apart in this article. Yes, it is absolutely possible that women to not want to contort themselves for a high pressure, high stakes position (excuse the pun) at the expense of their well-being, their health, their sanity, themselves and their families. It’s possible that other priorities are more important than the prestige of a high earning, leadership role.

    1. That is true. It is also true that a person of either gender can make a huge difference and if one half of humanity downplays their role then we are all the poorer.

  43. Who created the brutal and soul-destroying place women have a problem being part of, unless they are willing to dance with the devil, it was us men. Not only do women have to sell their soul, but their essence is also part of the deal to join the club. Many women have risen to the top without hardening or giving up anything. It has taken generations to build what we now have, but change is in the wind.

  44. Yes the issue is not whether woman occupy high profile positions or not, but rather women (and men) choosing to live true to themselves and then whatever it looks like will take care of itself…

  45. Women definitely have what it takes to be in high profile roles, the problem I see is that most of the women that have worked their way into such roles have done it in male energy, and thus what they bring to the role is little different from that which a man would bring. What we really need is more and more women taking such roles but doing so in female energy, thus bringing more of a balance to corporate life.

  46. Woman think they need to out man, men, we think this is the way we will gain respect of men. Ironically, we have it so wrong, men are crying out and waiting for women to be women. If we were to surrender to this grace, they do not have to try so hard to compete with us. Even though I am not in a corporate position, I consider myself in a high-power role. I own three business with about 35 staff in total. To be honest, it has not always been easy being in my authority when it comes to men that are working for you. Not all men but some still hold a belief that working for a woman means they are a joke or less of a man. The key is to express with the caring nature that we naturally hold as women, when I step away from that and go hard in anyway, I have found men react badly. We prefer to make it about men not accepting us and rejecting us but the true rejection starts in our own backyard.

  47. “I suspect most women intuitively feel the demands of a high-powered position in today’s workplace are too great, and aren’t prepared to pay the price – and that’s the reason why there are so few of us ‘at the top” I love what you have identified here. We innately know, it is not healthy to live like this, as we need to go into such overdrive of our true natures.’.

  48. Looking at the recent revelation of endemic sexual harassment and worse, it can make sense not wanting to be involved in such an atmosphere.

  49. There are many roles women can take on and thrive at but are they truly successful? True success is feeling healthy, joyful, appreciative and in love with the world. I am not sure if many women who have made it to the top so to speak can say that feel all of these. The problem is we measure what is successful in all the wrong forms.

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