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

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

  1. “What do you feel about this issue?” — there are definitely not many women in high profile jobs. Does it really matter though. The pace is faster which means more and more motion. This is man’s expression and although I do not agree with the faster and faster space, women do not need to go into more masculine expression to keep up.
    “Have you ever thought about taking on a high-powered role?” I did just recently and my body said no to the level of activity required for the role in and out of work.
    “Did you, only to find it did come at too great a cost?” It honestly did on a deeper level but I did not register it at the time.
    “Do you know women who have?” Yes, I am aware of one .. and they’re much more closed off than what I normally receive.

  2. I think you are right Victoria. Women are just much more aware of what these high pressured roles are asking and don’t want to comprise. And men do, because they are much more identified in what they do even at the expense of themselves.

  3. A true leader is on equal terms with everyone and leads from behind to make sure that everyone is keeping up.

  4. We can begin whatever role we want , as long as we are coming from the true beauty of our womanliness first.

  5. Yes it is probably true that many women don’t feel to change themselves so much to fit the role of being in high position in business. It does beg the question though how men are coping with this and if we could do it any other way.

  6. Until we have organisations that truly support their workers we will continue to have both men and women not step up into the roles that are suited to them.

  7. True leadership is what is missing. True leadership brings everyone up, treats everyone as equally important and holds everyone equally responsible for the whole.

    1. Yes that is a great point Kathleen. The way that leading is done is more of a doing it all approach, being super busy and having no time for family or anything like that but have we ever stopped and asked ourselves if this is true leading? What if we could do all that when there is no emotions like frustrations, stress, anger and drama? We would have way more space and simplicity in having a leader’s role. It also asks all employees to step up and do the same so there is a whole committed unit to do the job.

  8. We have all been mislead by the picture of being a leader. A true leader inspires others to see the leader in themselves and go for it. it’s not about being the boss but knowing who we are regardless of the job, doing what is needed, rather than what we are paid for and seeing the value of what we bring to our work and our lives more broadly.

  9. In many ways saying ‘no’ to high-profile roles is a question of priorities, good and less supportive ones and we weigh them differently. Many men also choose to say no to such roles, though probably a smaller percentage of those who are capable of such roles.

  10. Women have a lot to offer, but running a macho type company in the masculine way is not being true to womanhood. Many women run their own businesses on their own terms and are very successful at it.

    1. Thankfully, you don’t have to run them in a full-on masculine way. There are alternatives and one can have their own style.

  11. ‘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.’ Hard-ly (sorry for the pun) surprising. To see the toughening up is not supporting anyone and is certainly not inspiring. But saying that, it’s not mandatory to become hard – perhaps we should give it a try and bring all the tenderness and delicacy we are to it and then see what the world thinks about that.

  12. I love what you opened up here Victoria! I see a lot of women in hardness and drive because they want to be successful- they want to belong and to be seen. I actually never thought about the very conscious choice that we, and I agree, also take, to not be actually at the top of the management because it would totally destroy us. But how many of us are aware of that? There is definitely a price to pay, when you want to be in high profile roles. Either your body suffers a lot or you are aware of the greater picture and the purpose why you are there and you are living a life that supports you to be on front-foot all the time to be prepared. The price you pay in the second example is the one, where you have to say goodbye to your individualisation. What price are you paying or avoiding to pay?

  13. I think more women in corporate roles is the way forward, and by that I mean more true women, so caring, understanding, delicate, incredibly truthful and unafraid to show their beauty and their power – every business needs that magic touch.

    1. If we live in our daily life who we truly are as women consistently the world gets the chance for a different reflection. Women seek more truth in their life than ever, they just need some true and accessible role models, who have already discovered and reawakened that the true power lies in all the qualities you mentioned above.

  14. It is such a given that to succeed one has to be tough and go it hard. I wonder if there’ll be some women who are connected with themselves who can introduce another way of doing business which does honour them and those they come into contact with that is as productive or more so. This new way of doing business will no doubt inspire women and men to work in a different way that respects themselves, their clients, the environment etc.

  15. Women who step up often become hardened and try to follow the previous (probably male dominated) style of leadership. Evolving a new way of working would be great – but because they aren’t towing the line, these woman may not get the possibility of trying this out. And knowing what they are up against, many dont want to fight extra battles?

  16. Often the women I see in these roles have joined the ‘brutal’ culture and have let go of their sensitivity and care and become part of the cold face of business. These are the ones who are often (not always) promoted because they will not expose the systems but will play ball with it.

    1. What a great point. They system is self-serving and will promote those that promote it. But at some point people will say they no longer want to be crushed in this way – or their health will no longer support this lifestyle and something will have to change.

  17. Women in the workplace have so much to offer – when women realise that what is needed in the workplace is for them to simply be themselves. This is not the case en masse today sadly, as women tend to try and compete with the men and in many ways become like men. Not only does that woman lose herself in this, we all lose.

  18. I am currently in the process of stepping up to a new level of leadership at work and it is surprising how much it is challenging me. I can see how I need to let go of any ideals and beliefs around it and just allow myself to just be myself in whatever role I have.

    1. Leadership roles are laced today with expectations we place on ourselves as well as those of others. The very notion of what it is to be a leader is twisted. Because what is it to truly lead? We have mixed it up with the concept of false hierarchies and superiority ideals, whereas a leader in truth is one who inspires others to be in the equalness and grandness each of us are. A leader inspires the leader in others. This is how a leader truly inspires change.

      1. I love how you uncover the pictures of true groupwork. Which working in a company for example always is. Yes, there must be somebody that leads in a sense, but no other is less important than the actual leader. We often put all the responsibility over the one who is on top of importance ( which is a lie in itself and at the same time very comfortable as well because it does not challenge you to step up to your power) , instead of feeling and expressing that everyone carries the same responsibility and is equally important in their expression. The fact that no one has to do it on their own, would take the pressure of someone being head of company and would ask the others automatically to respond to more responsibility. Lifting the blinds of false hierarchies and living true groupwork will release all the tension that is created nowadays in companies etc., that in fact is not serving us but keeping us stuck in the unbalance of people who misuse their power and people who give their power away.

  19. I am a mother who is also a co-founder of a business. This role was not on my plan. I was never heading for ‘the top’ so to speak due to how I had seen women harden and change in these roles and how it is much about knowledge. But I have had a different experience. I have been lovingly supported by my husband and people around me to simply be all of me and express the truth I know. What I notice in myself is a willingness to speak up, to ask questions, to stay curious – to say what I feel. And in this – I do not fear speaking to people with more ‘knowledge’ than me. And I always remember something Einstein said – that if we cannot explain it simply then we have not understood it – and so I don’t doubt myself when I don’t understand something – I see it as a relationship development between me and the other person. That has really supported me to be in the role I am in and not go into a drive or hardness or a need to get it right.

  20. In the managers positions I am in I love to become more solid in my presence with others. especially with men as for long I gave my power away to men and it is very much time to claim myself all the way back and stand there amongst all, and perfectly fine if that will be in higher postion as the good thing about that is that
    I reach more people and more women to go also back to their power as this is what the world and the companies need very much.

  21. You do not see many women in high power positions who are living as the true woman they innately are. The reflection of this sacredness would be too strong for many at this present time and in most cases more pressure is placed on them to be harder and more in male energy to compete and prove themselves in the role

  22. Interesting that I have come back to re-read this blog today, as just yesterday I was speaking with my partner about how common it is to see that people in high-ranking corporate positions have adopted a lifestyle to get there that is not only brutal to their body and health, but they have also ‘played the game’ of manipulation and control of others in order to get to the top at the expense of others.

  23. As I heard a great leader say the other day: the CEO of a (big) company is probably the biggest slave (who let’s him/her self get abused more) then a regular employee. For me it makes absolute sense that women are much aware and sensitive to avoid this, so underlining your theory Victoria.

  24. Fighting for a cause is what actually plays out. All the movements are done with an intention to win and when or if there is change the only movement that is truly noted is that the goal posts are moved and the same game in played once again.

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