Breaking through the Double Standard on the Way to the Top

Since 1972, women’s share of professional jobs has increased 49% and their share of “managerial” jobs grew to 46%. Despite the movement of many women into managerial and professional jobs, they are still concentrated in administrative support, service and retail/personal service sales jobs.

While women have made significant inroads in the workplace, they are still underrepresented in many specific professions such as engineering and in senior management and leadership positions in government and business.

According to a research study published by Pew Research Center, women’s progress in top leadership positions in private sector business has actually been slower than in government.

“As the 114th Congress gets underway, a record number of women (104) will be serving in the House and Senate. Today women make up 19% of the Congress, about double the share from 20 years ago. Progress has been slower on the corporate front. Only 26 women are now serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—roughly 5%. In 1995 there were none. Women are slightly better represented in corporate boardrooms than they are at the CEO level. About one-in-six board members of Fortune 500 companies (17%) are women, up from 10% in 1995.” (Catalyst, Workplaces That Work For Women, Aug. 11, 2016)

Most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, so it is not mental ability or business acumen that is keeping women out senior level management.

Only about one-in-five say women’s family responsibilities are a major reason there aren’t more females in top leadership positions in business and politics. (Pew Research Center, Dec. 11, 2015)

A double standard still exists for women seeking to climb into the higher echelon of politics and business. Women are held to higher standards than men and many businesses are not ready to hire women for top executive positions.

How can women break through that double standard and climb to the top?

Women need to stop limiting their ambitions. Women managers tend to be stymied in their careers due to low ambition and expectations. All to often women get stuck blending into the background because they are less confident in their own abilities and too cautious in applying for more challenging roles in the company.  Preferring to remain at safer junior management levels, women are setting their career progression expectations at a lower level than their male counterparts.

Women tend to rely more on their work performance and less on relationship building.  In today’s fast paced world, senior managers are pulled in many directions and tend to get buried in their work and management obligations. To get noticed, you need to step up, get out there and build relationships with the people you want to notice you. Doing a great job is admirable; however it doesn’t win you a seat at the senior management table. A personal referral from a senior manager or superior will earn you that position. Many a career has been launched over a round of golf. Women are notoriously timid when it comes to networking with men in powerful position, but that is exactly what it takes to move into the big leagues.

Women need to be willing to take risks. Sometimes women have a difficult time taking on areas of responsibility that may involve risk. But that’s the only way that you can gain attention and support within your organization. Peers and superiors see women as being better than men when it comes to fair pay, equal benefits, working out compromises and holding to ethical standards. However, when it comes to being willing to take risks and negotiating profitable deals—women are viewed as falling short of men. Driving the revenue and profitability of an organization involves taking risks and tough negotiation to win large, competitive deals and land high profile clients. How do you develop the ability to take risks and be a tough negotiator? Forge a bond with a mentor in the senior management levels by showing your confidence in being able to do that job.

Becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role. It involves a fundamental identity shift. Women need to learn to live in the “skin of a leader” by establishing their credibility in a male dominated workplace culture by ramping up their ambition and confidence and building relationships with those in senior management that can give them a nudge up the ladder.


Julia is a Career Strategist and Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach based in the Bay Area. She helps career-focused professionals showcase their unique abilities and talents in order to amplify their presence in their chosen fields and when re-entering the job market. Julia uses her extensive leadership experience in executive management, business development, team building and recruiting to help her clients have the career they always wanted. Learn more about Julia at, (@JuliaHolian) and

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