Why women have to sprint into leadership positions

The transition into motherhood also affects how managers perceive caregiving female workers. Women who are mothers receive competency ratings that are, on average, 10{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} lower than non-mothers, and are six times less likely to be recommended for hire. And while 26{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of men are promoted or moved to a better job in the first five years of parenthood, just 13{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of women can say the same.

“There’s a biased perception of pregnant women and mothers – that they’re less committed, less competent and less dependable,” says Christine Spadafor, a visiting lecturer on strategic leadership at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, US. She says these biases creep into performance evaluations, which can hold back women from top spots after the first decade of their careers. Additionally, structural issues, such as no paid parental leave and no available or affordable childcare, also “prevent women from progressing after the first 10 years”.

As a result, women remain much more likely to work part-time than men, facing wage, benefits and progression penalties for doing so. Data from 2019 shows the gap is so significant that only 27.8{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of women in the UK are in full-time work three years after the birth of their first child, compared to 90{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of men.

For ambitious women, sprinting to avoid these biases and their subsequent effects becomes paramount, which means women go full force in the race to the top, while men are more able to take a walking pace.

The mental and emotional toll of the 10-year sprint

Women who manage to sprint to leadership within the first decade of their careers might feel a sense of relief to have secured a senior role. But the achievement is often hard-won.

With statistics showing that working women tend to be more burned-out than their male counterparts, experts emphasise the enormous toll of career sprinting. “Achieving as much as possible in the first 10 years of a career can cause burnout and stress for women as they focus on producing good work, building a good reputation and advancing to leadership roles,” says Spadafor. This can lead to a toxic storm of physical and social stress as well as mental-health problems that can last for years.

And while women who explicitly hope to have children might experience very high levels of pressure to establish themselves early, research shows women generally are often discriminated against depending on their potential fertility – even if they don’t plan to have kids. This means employers often make hiring decisions based on whether they think a candidate is at ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant.