Last month, Cardiff University released a study which found that, even after controlling for parenthood and domestic duties, male academics in the UK reached more senior positions than their female counterparts. The headline, "Gender not children 'holds women academics back'", leaves a glaring question. If it's not having kids, then what is it?
Whilst the report noted “discrimination against women” as a possible cause, what does this actually look like? It’s rarely as obvious as senior leaders believing that women simply aren’t good enough. I think the more likely answer lies in the qualities we've all come to value socially and professionally.
Let’s consider the findings of two recent studies. The first, a paper from Queen’s University Belfast, shows that narcissists tend to be more successful, particularly in positions of power. Further, men consistently score higher in the first two of three aspects of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory – leadership/authority and entitlement.
Men therefore on average exhibit more assertiveness and a desire for power, are more likely to exploit others, and feel entitled to certain privileges—all traits that get them ahead. Researchers noted that this success might be linked to their mental toughness and belief that they are deserving of reward. Resilience and self-belief are certainly valued highly in society and we’ve seen an increasing amount of focus on building these qualities in children.
Of course, not all narcissists are men and not all confidence is narcissism. But what men and narcissists have in common is that they are less likely to be hindered by self-doubt or other people’s opinions. Whether or not this confidence is well-founded or helpful to society, it leads to success.
The second study from Harvard Business Review reveals that women are more likely to take on thankless tasks at work that don't lead to promotion. For example lower-profile, less skilled “housekeeping”, or social or emotional work, such as mentoring or event planning (or in the world of academia, teaching). Evidence suggests that this is not due to women preferring those tasks or being better at them, but rather “a shared understanding or expectation that women would volunteer more than men”. Where women weren’t present, men stepped up to the plate.
It’s not difficult to see the similarity between the disproportionate housework, caring and life admin women do (2.5 times more than men, according to the UN) and the less-valued tasks they take on at work. It also doesn’t seem too great a leap to think there’s a link between the narcissistic qualities that lead to success and the avoidance of tasks that don’t bring personal benefit. At work as at home, both men and women have internalised the belief that women should pick up the jobs no one else wants.
It's not useful for any of us to value arrogance, blind confidence or self-promotion. Yet many of our attempts to boost the career prospects of women take the existing values of the working world as read. We’re told that women need to be more like the people currently succeeding, ie more female narcissists.
However, narcissism is also associated with an inability to maintain healthy long-term relationships, unethical behaviour, and aggression – not exactly the makings of a healthy or productive organisation.
What if we tried to re-frame our values around hard work, collaboration and humility? These attributes, sometimes viewed as unhelpful to women’s career progression, are actually more likely to benefit organisations.
Leadership is about more than just confidence and resilience, it’s about being sensitive to the needs of a team and getting the best out of everyone. We need leaders who reflect on criticism, can defer to others, and put their hands up for their share of the drudge work. We don’t just need charismatic autocrats—we need leaders who sometimes put the interests of the collective ahead of their own.
Coming back to the original Cardiff study, the female academics had higher teaching loads than their male counterparts, leaving less time for more prestigious pursuits. However, someone has to teach those classes. Universities want to be ranked highly for student experience and wellbeing, but how much of the delivery of that falls to female (especially junior) academics? If student experience is valuable to universities, shouldn’t it fairly compensate staff for teaching, mentoring and nurturing?
Shifting the values of the professional world is no small task. If we’re serious about the challenge, it needs to start from childhood. We hold genetically unfounded but hard-dying stereotypes about what boys and girls are like, which are absorbed early by children. Girls are labelled “good” and boys take risks; girls are more empathetic, boys are naturally gifted whilst girls harder workers. Most of this is nonsense invented by us. But the lasting impact is that “girly” traits aren’t valued as much which leads to them being viewed in the workplace as a hindrance to professional success. For example, female academics who published more research were still promoted less, maybe because they were perceived as being mere try-hards rather than geniuses.
We should build confidence in girls, but we should also be supporting our boys to be reflective and empathetic. Perhaps supporting all children to develop “feminine” qualities will help fight the nebulous “gender discrimination” in our workplaces and even if it doesn't, it will almost certainly make our working world less frustrating and more productive for everyone.
Janeen Hayat is a former lawyer and teacher, and co-founder of You Be You, an organisation working to combat gender stereotypes from primary school.