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Why men get more promotions than women

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The media often reports that men secure more promotions at work than women. This was recently evidenced in a survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) which found that men were 40 percent more likely to be promoted in management roles. Last year 14 percent of men were promoted into more senior roles, compared with 10 percent of women.

A report published the same day by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that women who return to work part-time after having a baby are also missing out on promotions and accruing less experience, as well as earning less than men for many years after their return. Despite the fact that companies are increasingly placing greater emphasis on improving female career progression opportunities, this situation has in fact according to this research, worsened of late. 

At Talking Talent, our coaching of 1000s of women and men over the last ten years has given us unique insight and we have heard first-hand what’s going on behind corporate closed doors.  So, it seems men really are landing more of the top roles than their female counterparts. Why? There is talk, and some evidence, of ‘men’s networks’. Men are perhaps better at ‘being seen’ – they simply work the network, prioritise this activity and are more likely to attend external and internal meetings that might be good for their profile. As individuals we tend to gravitate towards others like ourselves and feel more comfortable associating and surrounding with likeminded individuals rather than those with a different mindset or outlook – it almost feels like less of a risk. 

In the recent study, Similarity in Relationships as Niche Construction conducted by Chris Crandall, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, he found that whether or not a relationship develops is dependent on the level of similarity the two individuals share from the beginning. It also highlighted that as individuals we try to create a world where we’re comfortable, where we succeed, where we have people we can trust and with whom we can cooperate to meet our goals – and having similarity is deemed very useful for this. Thus there’s truth in the tendency to ‘recruit in your own image’; so historically a senior level person (and in this case, many industries especially in finance and law, this is simply more likely to be male) can be more likely to recruit a similar candidate as themselves 

In our experience, men are more likely to put themselves forward for a role even if they are not ready – in terms of ticking all the boxes. Whereas women often feel they need to be more than capable of doing the job before they apply. Many business leaders support ‘going for the job and worrying if you can do it later’ – and this does not necessarily come naturally to all women (and of course some men). This is less likely to be an issue early on in careers where there are more structured programmes for career progression. It becomes more of a challenge further down the talent pipeline, especially when recruiting for more senior roles. Women are getting promotions on merit, but many of our coachees say that it feels that it takes longer to get there, whereas some report that male colleagues get the job, rightly or wrongly, in advance of being ready. 

What strikes us most through our coaching, is the need for women to be more confident when putting themselves forward for a promotion or asking for a pay rise. Could this be attributing to the gap between the average full-time salary for male managers and the average female manager’s, which is almost £9,000? It may not necessarily come naturally for women to stand proud and say ‘I am the right person for the job’. Especially if we have perhaps taken time out for maternity leave – career confidence can take a knock. We are inclined to spend our time at our desks ‘doing the job’ rather than working on our profile or putting ourselves forward. And family logistics may mean that we simply can’t (or prefer not to) join colleagues and clients networking on a Thursday evening. So, what can we do to encourage more women to have the confidence to go for more senior roles? Businesses should consider investing in leadership programmes designed specifically for and by women. These programmes are tailored to help women reveal the leadership capabilities required for more senior roles and bring both confidence and capability, with a cohort of like minds who will support them on their progression journey. 

There is a need though for more active sponsorship of women within a business. Sponsorship goes beyond mentoring. Mentoring is great for providing feedback and advice – some women feel that there’s always more and more to work on from their mentors.  Sponsorship is about having somebody who champions you at every opportunity – providing you with visibility and influence. We often see men having an active sponsor throughout their career, while women at the same level seem to be ‘overmentored’ but ‘undersponsored’. Look at company culture. Rather like the gender pay gap, there is something in the traditional ‘culture’ of business which ignores the fact that, regardless of readiness, men feel more confident and capable of going for promotions, and women less so. What part can the women themselves play here? And their line managers? How can we create an inclusive culture so it can be put right? 

Most critical of all is to engage male colleagues in the debate, specifically when focusing on women’s leadership programmes or representation of women in senior positions. They can then support the conversations at the most senior levels within the organisation, and encourage the cultural shift that is so necessary. Focus many of our interventions on building self-belief, confidence and authenticity. We want to encourage women, and men, to take control of their own careers and overcome any potential barriers to progression.

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