Blogs / 05 Dec 2022 7 min

Three barriers, double burdens and a restrictive rule book: Life for women in corporate UK

By Sharon Peake, CEO & Founder, Shape Talent

According to the World Economic Forum[1], it will take until the year 2154 to achieve gender equality around the world. In other words, we are currently five generations away from gender equality at the current pace of change. Sadly, this has regressed since the pandemic, with the gains that we had made now eroded. While women start their careers in roughly equal number to men in the UK, at every successive level of the leadership pipeline, women’s representation diminishes. In the FTSE 350 – the UK’s biggest 350 public companies – women hold only 4% of CEO roles and 26% of executive committee roles.

So why exactly is it so difficult to move the needle on this important issue? With women being so woefully under-represented at the top, we recently surveyed 2,352 women in the UK to ask them about the challenges they face in their careers. We wanted to understand what was really going on and how the challenges differed for different women.

Our research has previously identified a combination of societal, organisational and personal barriers holding women back. They feel societal pressure to be primarily responsible for looking after their children and home. They feel the pressure to conform to unspoken gender stereotypes or be penalised in their career. And they experience organisational barriers in workplaces that are still designed predominantly for men.


The 4 D’s holding women back

One of the shocking findings from our survey was that a whopping 98% of women face some combination of these barriers in their career.  When we analysed this data further, we identified four key themes – the 4 D’s.

1. Double burden: Workplace cultures contribute to an impossible double burden for women

The pressure between paid and unpaid work is real: workplace cultures still don’t fully meet women’s needs. At all levels of leadership, women feel expected to work additional hours and this intensifies with seniority. Fifty-two percent of women feel workplace pressure to work extra hours and 30% of women feel inadequate at work.

2. Double bind: To avoid being penalised, women must operate within a narrow range of acceptable behaviours

When women operate outside of gender stereotypes, they tend to be penalised; for example, assertive women might be described as bossy, and women negotiating on their own behalf are less likely to achieve the same outcome as men. This backlash directly impacts their confidence and leads women to operating cautiously[2]. Fifty-four percent of women worry about how they come across in meetings and 48% avoid raising problems to avoid being seen as a problem themselves.

3. Discrimination: Everyday gender biases and sexism continue

Women continue to face everyday sexism and microaggressions: 29% of women often feel undermined or dismissed in meetings, and 21% don’t believe harassment is dealt with appropriately. This barrier exists at every level of leadership and is even more prevalent for women with a disability, and lesbians and bisexual women.

4. Lack of development: Women aren’t getting adequate career support and sponsorship

When it comes to development feedback, numerous studies have shown that women receive more vague, personal and unhelpful feedback than men. This prevents them from getting clear information about their performance that would push them to learn, grow and improve[3]. We found 27% of women don’t feel that their manager provides developmental feedback to aid their career progression, and 25% do not feel they are supported in their career by senior leadership.


Not all industries are equal

Of the seven sectors we surveyed we found the greatest barriers in energy and infrastructure, professional services, manufacturing, financial services and, to a degree, in the consumer industry. Women in pharmaceuticals, technology and telecommunications still experienced barriers but to a lesser degree than in other industries.


Not all women have the same experience

Not all women are the same, so unsurprisingly the degree to which women experience barriers varies enormously. Our survey applied an intersectional lens, looking at how different layers of identity – such as ethnicity, age, parental status, sexual orientation, disability – overlap and influence our experiences.

We found some surprising and disturbing results:

  • Women with a disability experience the greatest barriers. They face everyday biases and microaggressions and feel they have to work harder to prove themselves. They are 64% more likely to be undermined or dismissed in meetings.
  • Women experiencing perimenopause face more barriers than those experiencing menopause. Perimenopausal women are acutely aware of how they are perceived in the workplace and feel heightened scrutiny of their behaviour. 57% worry about how they come across in meetings.
  • Lesbians and bisexual women face extensive workplace barriers. Both lesbians and bisexual women experience significant microaggressions and pressures to conform. Lesbians and bisexual women are 65% and 45% more likely than heterosexual women to feel inadequate at work.
  • Black women walk a tightrope of acceptable behaviour. They are 19% more likely than white women to avoid raising problems, for fear of being deemed a problem themselves. They are also more likely to feel undermined or dismissed in meetings, and more likely to experience bullying and harassment.
  • Working mothers feel they have to make a choice between prioritising work and family. Thirty nine percent find their home situation reduces their time and energy at work and 37% feel guilt that they are not a good parent if they advance their career.
  • The double burden, the double bind and microaggressions increase with seniority of role. A third of women at executive level often feel inadequate at work, and often feel undermined or dismissed in meetings. Over half avoid raising problems at work in order to not be seen as a problem themselves.


So what must organisations do to address these challenges?

1. Design the organisation to meet the needs of modern family set-ups (dual career households and same-sex households). Organisations need to stop perpetuating the traditional ‘male primary breadwinner’ model and start embracing contemporary family set-ups, where all genders share responsibilities equitably at work and at home. This might include offering flexibility as the new norm, equalising parental leave, and prioritising work-life balance offerings, holding your leaders accountable to lead by example.

2. Counteract gender biases by changing processes and systems first. Engrained gender biases are hard to undo. By focusing on addressing processes and systems first, it becomes possible to nudge change at scale and help start to challenge the associated behaviours. Audit your talent processes, frameworks and cycles for biases and stereotypes, embed gender calibration into your talent reviews and address gendered pay disparities with robust data analysis and monitored action planning.

3. Actively nurture a culture that is psychologically safe and inclusive of all genders. Stamp out bullying and harassment, apply equality impact assessments to evaluate job designs, recruitment campaigns and leadership models and frameworks, and update leadership behaviour frameworks to ensure the establishment of psychological safety is a standard expectation of leaders.

4. Structure women’s career development to level the playing field. Build line manager capability in managing aspirational career discussions, look at the gender allocation of high-visibility assignments and projects, and offer targeted women’s development programmes and sponsorship programmes. Without a targeted approach to accelerating women’s development and representation, a level playing field is simply not attainable and meritocracy remains a myth.


The time for incremental change is long gone: real progress requires bold actions from organisations to fundamentally rethink the outdated ways of working that are holding women, and organisations, back. Never has there been a more important time to act.


If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey do get in touch.


Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[1] Global Gender Gap Report, World Economic Forum, 2022

[2] Three Barriers to Women’s Progression: What organisations can do, 2nd edn, Shape Talent, 2021

[3] Three Barriers to Women’s Progression: What organisations can do, 2nd edn, Shape Talent, 2021