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

835 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.

  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?

  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.

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