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Why preconceptions can put up barriers to promotion

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 09 Aug 2023

On one hand you’re told to be your authentic self, on the other that rising through the ranks requires certain behaviours. And while this double standard continues to persist, it’s often women who lose out.

If you feel like you have to behave and speak in a certain way, and even have lunch with the right people to get ahead in your job, you’re not alone. “Bring yourself to work,” management experts tell us. And yet bias towards a narrow, supposedly professional selection of characteristics means that authenticity at work is often little more than a pipe dream. 

This matters because research has highlighted the relationship between authenticity, wellbeing and work-related outcomes. In contrast, the absence of authenticity at work can result in a disconnect that primes individuals for negative outcomes, such as presenteeism, boredom or, worse, indifference.

Women, specifically, are often told they need to display more stereotypically masculine attributes if they are to climb the career ladder. But denying them the opportunity to be authentic means that, instead, many women choose to leave their jobs. It’s also one of the reasons why gender imbalances at senior levels are still rife, says Shivani Uberoi, founder, equality consultant and coach at The Wallflower Academy.

Uberoi qualified as an accountant with PwC 20 years ago and went on to pursue a career in finance at Tesco and then Sky. From the outset of her career, she was acutely aware of the absence of senior female role models in industry. “I was often the only woman in a room full of men. I remember thinking it was a generational thing that would sort itself out over time, but as I went through my career, I understood that women were dropping out.”

The experience piqued her interest in gender equality, with first-hand experiences further galvanising her desire to challenge the status quo. “Throughout my career, I was told my work was great and I had all the right skills to gain promotion, but that I needed to behave a certain way, take credit for team successes and even hang out with certain people to help my personal brand. I did it for a while but it felt like bragging. It was really uncomfortable and it was mentally exhausting.”

Uberoi became involved in a women in leadership programme at Sky in anticipation of the introduction of gender pay gap reporting in 2016, a programme she would go on to lead. It was to prove a pivotal moment in her career, leading her to the job she does today. Uberoi left Sky last year to set up her coaching and consultancy firm The Wallflower Academy. “It’s all about being yourself at work and helping companies to create a culture where employees can be authentic,” she explains. 

Just how much an organisation values authenticity really depends on those in charge, Uberoi says: “The people who embrace authenticity are usually the ones who don’t fit in themselves and see the benefit of it. I think people value what they see in themselves. We’ve still got a long way to go – but I am hopeful we will get there.”

Things such as policies and role models have an important role to play, but it’s the culture of your work environment that will dictate whether diversity prevails at all levels of the business. The trick is to use data to see what difference your strategies make, she says. 

“I’ve seen a lot of companies promote at the senior level to get more women in the door, but if you don’t change the culture those women don’t feel like they belong and then they leave. They may have implemented things like the shared parental policy, but it isn’t being used by men. You can’t just put in a policy or hire people – you need a constant loop of measuring where you are. The devil is in the detail.

“For example, if you don’t think [taking] maternity leave or part-time working is a blocker to promotion, look at your data over the last five years. Looking at things like percentage of promotions, retention, absence days will help you understand what’s going on.”

Don’t assume that there’s one simple fix to ensuring women in the organisation get equal opportunities or feel valued in the same way as their male counterparts, Uberoi warns. Companies need to focus on the whole employment journey. 

It was the return to work from maternity leave that opened her eyes to the concept of the mental load – the invisible work involved in managing a household and family – which typically falls on women’s shoulders. “I was doing all this work to accelerate gender equality, but no one was talking about the mental load. When you’re a working mum, you never switch off. Loads of women come back to work after becoming a parent and have challenges around self-esteem and tiredness, but they don’t want to talk about it because of the stigma. 

“Because women have babies all the time, I feel like we normalise the challenges around going back to work, but everything changes. The person you are when you go on maternity leave, and the person you are when you come back, are two different people. As women, we put on a front because we’re still ambitious and we’re still capable, but we don’t talk about it. Women don’t feel as if they can show the chinks in their armour, because they feel that it’s going to be held against them.” 

Uberoi also co-founded a multiculture network at Sky and says it’s important to factor intersectionality – a key part of her work at Wallflower – into the mix: “Women who are mothers, women from ethnic backgrounds, or any other intersectionality, can find that their sense of not belonging is amplified. Building inclusion and a culture of belonging will enable all employees to be their authentic selves and succeed.” 

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