Money and an office of one’s own: why do young women still struggle to get a foot on the professional ladder?
I recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and found myself mulling over the words for a while afterwards. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses”, she wrote, “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” How much has changed in women’s professional confidence in the ninety, long years since Ms. Woolf published these thoughts on her career?
Headlines dominating a post-#MeToo age where pay gaps, harassment and intimidation are still rife, would suggest not all that much. Amidst these pressing issues, an equally worrying statistic: women account for only 24% of senior professional roles worldwide. That gives most us just a one in four chance of becoming more than a looking glass, a breeze block holding up an almost impenetrable job market. As a twenty-something graduate beginning her career, I don’t like those odds.
I found myself in a luckier position than most of my friends last summer, with a Master’s place and paid internship starting at the same time. Not usually phased by conventional measures of ‘success’, I felt confident in challenging men’s authority when I felt it was wrong. In all, I was brought up with the belief that I could be anything I wanted to be, irrespective of gender. But in the last few years, my bubble has begun to burst.
I was surprised to learn that my declining confidence was not unusual, with a shocking 3 in 4 women lacking confidence in the workplace according to the University of Glasgow. Another study by Zenger Folkman found that women’s professional confidence is at an all-time-low in their mid-20s, but surpasses men’s in the 60+ age range. Though this provides some optimism for later life, think of the many missed opportunities in a woman’s early career that could have got her there sooner. Similarly, Hewlett Packard’s research suggested that men apply for jobs and promotions when they meet 60% of the criteria, whilst the majority of women only apply if they tick 100% of the boxes.
This shows that women quite literally miss 100% of the shots they don’t take, because of so-called “imposter syndrome”. What’s more, women who are openly ambitious are all too often pitted against each other in a competitive narrative, something that simply does not exist in the same way for men. This negates their ability to support one another through their professional journeys and means that, from the outset, a woman faces obstacles both if she is ‘too withdrawn’, but also if she is ‘too bossy’: an unfortunate Catch 22.
But the problem begins even sooner than the first job or promotion. Men with a degree are set to earn 8% more than those without, whilst women who attended university earn 28% more than their counterparts. This means that a man who leaves school with good GCSEs will generally be on the same wage (£30,000) as a university-educated women by the age of 29. The figures just don’t add up; instead, they point to a wider systemic issue that, even before schooling and university education, male workers still have a considerable upper-hand.
Female undergraduates are primed for these structural inequalities during their degrees. I vividly remember attending numerous careers events which, despite progressive and inspiring panellists, were still dominated by male speakers and students. At an event for public policy, I sat behind two male students discussing their respective, unpaid internships at the French Embassy and the UN. I felt incredibly out of place, but in retrospect, question why you would attend a networking event purely to brag about your existing network of powerful men? How do we approach issues of class and gender which automatically marginalise people from these sectors?
Of course, this depiction doesn’t apply to all the men I studied with, but the factors of network, influence, and self-confidence – which apply less often to women – are certainly at play here. They continue into the professional sphere with tangible effects, leading not only to disproportional statistics, but also to harassment and intimidation. One third of women face sexual harassment at work, for example. 22-year-old Olivia Bland recently made headlines for outing a male interviewer for abusive and intimidating interview techniques. The barriers to confidence and success thus don’t disappear, they just change shape.
Where do we go from here? Change starts by women and men being aware of the problem, not being afraid to speak out when something seems wrong and being unapologetic about repeating ourselves. Giving women additional opportunities and exclusive roles to redress the continued imbalance is also important, and something many organisations are now on board with.
NLGN’s International Women’s Day speed-mentoring event will harness this proactive approach to change by bringing together women of local government, encouraging them to share experiences and explore how much has changed in the last century. From A Room of One’s Own to an office of one’s own, we will have the opportunity to empower one another and foster the confidence we need to shine.