Fairy-tale role models like Sheryl Sandberg make career success seem more like a fantasy for women in the ‘pinched middle’, write Fiona Czerniawska and Sandra Guzman

The media loves to celebrate the women who ‘have it all’ and can juggle their high-profile careers and a seemingly ideal family life – people like Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and British tech pioneer Martha Lane Fox. But are these role models doing more harm than good to the progression of women at work?

In the £100bn+ global consulting sector, firms have made huge efforts to introduce family-friendly policies to mitigate what is an inherently difficult working environment: long hours, demanding projects and extensive travel are all the norm. The number of female partners is growing as a result – but the rate of change is still slow. Although men and women join the industry as graduates in almost equal numbers, many women leave in their mid-30s, unable or unwilling to juggle the twin pressures of a stressful job with young children.  

“Ultimately the lifestyle will be the reason I leave – I couldn't have a family and remain in consulting. I just don't see how I can do what I do with a family,” said one, very typical, female senior manager we spoke to. She was one of almost 300 senior managers questioned for a new Source Global Research and Unida report, sponsored by EY, on what we are calling the ‘pinched middle’, where senior managers in consulting companies are expected to be at full-throttle in career terms, just when they’re becoming busier at home, too.

We also found that almost two-thirds of women feel they can’t be honest about the work/life pressures they face. Although they recognise that their employers are trying to do the right thing, a similar number say it would be career limiting for them to take advantages of the opportunities to work more flexibly.  

So, what can be done? Well, many women in the pinched middle look up the ladder for inspiration. In fact, having role models that women can relate to is the single most helpful thing firms could do to retain more women. Two-thirds say this would help a lot, and a further third agree it would help a bit – that’s more than 90 per cent of female senior managers in total.

But all too often, when female managers look up the ladder, they see women who’ve made choices they don’t want to make for themselves, or simply aren’t ‘normal’ enough.  

And our interviews show that when women do hear about other women’s success stories, it makes a big difference to how they think about their careers. One senior manager pointed out that women in leadership roles don’t always feel comfortable sharing stories about their personal lives – but it would really help to have more of them do this because, to visualise the path to senior leadership, it needs to be made accessible.

To facilitate this, we’ve found that women would like to see more networks that encourage them to exchange views with people like them; more mentors, sponsors and coaches of either gender, and the opportunity to provide reverse mentoring for firms’ partners to remind and educate them about how difficult the ‘pinched middle’ years can be.

But the key here will be openness and honesty. One of the women we interviewed said she was asked not to share a story at a networking event – about how upset she’d been to miss the moment her five-year-old rode a bicycle for the first time – because the partner organising the event didn’t want to distress other people.  

Women need to meet more women ‘like them’ – people at the same grade or only slightly higher – who can offer a wealth of practical advice and sympathy when it’s needed most. This means allowing women to find their own role models, rather than foisting corporate ones upon them: a one-size-fits-all approach – assuming the same few role models are capable of championing the cause of many – could actually make things worse because many women will see it as further proof that success is for others, not for them.

If the only role models look like fairy-tale ones, then women will continue to believe that ‘having it all’ is just a fantasy.

Fiona Czerniawska is director at Source Global Research. Sandra Guzman is co-founder and director of Unida

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  • I missed my daughter`s Christmas party at her nursery when she was two because I was told the meeting I was attending was too important. The nursery staff could not understand why I could n`t come and to this day I regret not going because I can never get that time back again. My daughter is now 26 and the pain is as fresh as if it happened yesterday. So you can see how, so many years later I am still affected. My advice to women all over the UK is to be honest with your employer and say you cannot miss your child`s sports day, party etc. because it will never happen again at that particular moment in time. In business there is always an alternative. Being a mother comes first every time. It also makes good business sense to have experienced, qualified happy women in your workforce because they will always remember and give not a 100% when they are at work but 500%. And your business will thrive as a result.