By Anj Handa

Through the course of my work, I network with many professionals at all levels and also mentor two to three young women each year. In recent years, I’ve observed that many young, bright women believe they are making headway in terms of equality in the workplace, but then something gives.

Up to mid management level, women seem to move up in the workplace at a similar pace to men. Then the progression slows significantly. It’s after this point that the barriers to progress for women – internal and external – start to make themselves known. It’s simplistic to suggest this is solely down to discrimination.

Here’s what I’ve found:

Attitude to risk: Across a number of studies, women appear to be more risk averse (with the exception of social risk-taking) and thus tend to discuss available options, which can be perceived as them having a lower level of confidence in decision-making. This is not strictly the case.

Imposter syndrome: Many women (including, for example, a female CEO friend of a multi-million pound organisation) experience ‘imposter syndrome’ in meetings. Here, they are unable to internalise their accomplishments, which can result in them holding back insightful contributions.

Networks: There are fewer women in senior positions than men, which limits the ability to engage with peers or female role models. However, some women tend to prefer more formal workplace networks, rather than use their informal networks to find new opportunities.

Caring responsibilities: Studies show that women still carry the bulk of caring responsibilities and are challenged with balancing work and personal commitments.

Maternity: Some women without children are concerned that if they do have a child, they will have less opportunity at work. A number have reported seeing colleagues who have returned from maternity facing ‘demotion’ or being taken less seriously in their role. This appears to be a particular issue in sectors such as manufacturing, utilities and construction.

Lack of fulfilment: Women tell me there are areas of their lives in which they feel unfulfilled. When individuals feel balanced and resilient, they are able to give more – at work and in their personal lives. Standard professional development courses do not address this need.

Inequality: Actress Jennifer Lawrence recently said she was called a ‘brat’ when she spoke out about the issue of unequal pay in her industry. Like her, women often don’t speak up because they don’t want to seem ‘difficult.’

Unconscious bias: Expectations of how women can and should operate at home and at work still prevail.

Direct, indirect discrimination or bullying: These situations often occur under the radar and are discovered too late, at great cost to the employer (I’m happy to provide more detailed advice on the Equality Act 2010 and Public Sector Equality Duties).

Personal Experiences

I was one of those young women that duped myself into believing that I hadn’t been held back. It’s only with age and some grey hairs (ssshhh) that I realised that at the time I’d been ‘covering,’ leaving the real me at the office door.

Recently, I met a young woman who had studied Civil Engineering at university. Her latest job involved working on the new South Entrance at Leeds train station. So far, she doesn’t feel that she has been held back and I sincerely hope it continues that way.

What I’ve observed, however, is that somewhere between the ages of 35 and 40, many women realise the workplace isn’t the level playing field they imagined it to be; and that sometimes the barrier has been themselves.

How can we support the young women coming up the ranks?

It’s a question that women leaders often discuss at our Inspiring Women Changemakers meetings. There’s a genuine desire from women who have navigated the labyrinth (contact me for more information on my Navigating the Labyrinth talk and workshops) to support and guide younger women coming through the ranks. We’d love to pass on the advice that we would want our younger selves to know.

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues. Join our movement for positive social change!