April 13, 2023

How Did She Get There?

Read our introductory chapter to understand the current status quo within organisations and why we're having these conversations.

How Did She Get There?

And what organisations can learn from these women

By Jane Sassienie and WeAreLeftfield

The lived reality of women and men at work is vastly different.

These differences for women show up on a sliding scale, from seemingly insignificant things such as noticing the chilly temperature of an office (set to a male temperature norm01), to being spoken over (when asked, 36% of women in senior leadership positions reported being interrupted more than others versus 15% of male senior leaders.02), to being prevented from rising up the ladder (women receive substantially lower ‘potential’ ratings despite receiving higher job performance ratings, and are subsequently promoted less and paid less.03)

And this gap is not getting smaller. Globally, women continue to take on 75% of the unpaid workload,04 such as acting as the caregiver for children and elderly relatives. The pandemic of the past three years, in which women were increasingly more burned out than men and one in four have considered downshifting their career,05 has shown that the inherent biases in organisations and society at large still persist, with divisions that are deeply entrenched.

Despite being aware of this gap, organisations are barely any closer to closing it. The solutions so far have done very little – if anything at all – to shift the reality for women. Many of the initiatives that organisations have adopted over the years, such as assertiveness courses for women, have focused on fixing the women rather than the organisation, asking them to be more demanding, to lean in, to be more like men.

Gender Gap

We’re taking a different approach. There are women within these organisations who – despite the odds – are thriving, and it is these women who have been our focus for the past two years. We interviewed women in senior leadership roles, from CEOs to elected representatives to human rights lawyers, who have succeeded and continue to succeed in traditional patriarchal organisations. We chose women that we believe represent an exception – succeeding without changing themselves to fit the prevailing paradigm. These women aren’t thriving by becoming ‘honorary men,’ rather, they’ve done it on their own terms.

Our intention was to gain an understanding of their common experiences, to surface patterns that emerge from their stories, and to glean how women can reach the top whilst remaining themselves. From our conversations, we identified five key patterns that these women had in common, and from these patterns we were inspired to put forward suggestions and ideas that we hope will act as a starting point for organisations to spark real change, not just for women but for everyone in an organisation.

Why are we having these conversations?

If the status quo remained, what would the consequences be? For those working on Diversity, Equality & Inclusion (DE&I), it is already obvious that doing something to shift the current reality is not an act of benevolence for underrepresented groups, it’s a form of survival, for organisations and for all of us.

Put simply, diversity wins. The business case for gender diversity is clear – diverse teams perform better. McKinsey reported in 2020 that teams who were most gender diverse outperformed those who were the least by 48%.06 FTSE350 companies where women make up more than a third of their most senior jobs have a net profit margin over ten times greater than companies with no women at this level. 07

Our conversations with women revealed an even greater need for organisations to act. As many of us know, the challenges that organisations are facing today are becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable. What we uncovered during our interviews was that the skills that are required to solve these challenges are in fact the very qualities that these women excel at. This may go some way to explaining why they are thriving. It is therefore extraordinary to consider that organisations have an untapped resource that can give them an edge, but most of them are failing to effectively harness it.

The women we interviewed demonstrated skills that are being highlighted by several studies as the ‘skills of the future’. These skills have traditionally been undervalued within a business context, but they are needed today more than ever. Our interviewees built a culture of partnership, collaboration and inclusion around them, which was central to their success. In short, our conversations revealed that organisations should not be trying to fix women, rather they should be learning from them and creating the conditions for them and others to thrive.

The advantages of creating a diverse workforce are huge, not just for organisations and women, but also for men. One might assume that men lose something when we rebalance the scales. But, on the contrary, “men also see strong and significant gains in life satisfaction when the sexes are more equal.”08 A report by the World Health Organization demonstrated that gender equality had a positive impact on men’s health.09 The report focused on how gender norms and notions of masculinity are shaping health outcomes for men and women. Øystein Gullvåg Holter conducted a study that shows that men are half as likely to be depressed in countries that are more gender-equal.10 Moreover, the ‘be more like men’ approach we see directed towards women, doesn’t work for men either. As Michelle P. King, author of The Fix puts it, “it’s easy to assume that there are no downsides for men… But when men put the cape of masculinity on, they lose themselves.”11 Breaking up with ‘Don Draper’, and redefining what it is to be a man at work is remarkably beneficial to all genders.12 (NB. Don Draper is a fictional character in the television series, Mad Men, which in this instance is used as shorthand to describe a deeply ingrained ‘ideal’ worker prototype: white, male, heterosexual, willing to commit most of their time to the organisation, promote their own achievements, take action and tell others what to do, be extroverted and dominant in social situations, assert themselves, speak up, ask for what they want, be decisive even if it means going it alone. Michelle asked 735 men and women in a professional services firm to find out what they thought the ideal worker standard was in their organisation. 70% came back with that response).13

The gains are significant for all involved. This is why it’s crucial for organisations to shift their current reality and rethink their approach. Whilst Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead14 was a breakthrough for some, it has to some extent fed this approach of training women to be more like men in order for them to get on in largely male contexts. As Mary Ann Sieghart points out, this doesn’t work for a myriad of reasons, one being that women are held to different standards. Research has shown that women do ask for a pay rise just as often as men. They are just not given it. Moreover, they are punished for being as assertive as men. They don’t get the pay rise because women, unlike men, are rewarded for being likeable as opposed to showing agency. 15 Most importantly, asking women to be more like men fails because it throttles the very qualities that make these women unique and enables them to succeed.

Our conversations revealed patterns that are in line with a new wave of thinking that is emerging from thought leaders such as Michelle P. King (The Fix16), Mary Ann Sieghart (The Authority Gap17) and Caroline Criado Perez (Invisible Women18) who highlight the unseen barriers in the workplace and the desire within organisations to ‘fix’ the women (you shall hear more from these thought leaders throughout this piece). Organisations need to raise their levels of consciousness and listen to the women who are succeeding whilst remaining true to their natural way of leading. Understanding how they are succeeding can hopefully help us create the conditions for others to thrive, which in turn can address the diversity imbalance, and set organisations up for a bright future.

Our Methodology

In our work as leadership and organisational development consultants, we at BRIDGE, have time and time again seen solutions that focus on fixing women. In 2019, having been asked to create a leadership programme for women in a global bank, we realised that most of the literature on the subject was about how women fail. But we were curious about how women have succeeded and we wanted to dig deeper.  

Jane Sassienie, Client Director, at BRIDGE, led our research, interviewing 40 women to date. These conversations started in 2019 and continued throughout the pandemic. The list of women being interviewed continues to grow. The women Jane and colleagues interviewed were kind enough to share detailed stories of their journey. Jane chose women that she believed represented an exception – succeeding without changing themselves to fit the prevailing paradigm. These women came from a variety of sectors and backgrounds.

After these interviews, we surfaced initial observations and hunches that were emerging from their stories. These were sense-checked by releasing a survey that was answered by 128 women. Women self-selected for the survey – they were asked to complete it if they felt they had been successful without compromising who they were or without trying to be more like the men around them.

In collaboration with LeftField, our thought partners, we dug deeper into the interviews to reveal several key patterns and insights. Many observations emerged that may go some way to explaining how these women were able to reach the top whilst remaining true to themselves. Together, we explored the current thinking in the field, highlighting and building on the discoveries, solutions and stories (which we share throughout this piece) by thought leaders such as Mary Portas, Vivienne Ming, Mary Ann Sieghart, Michelle P. King, Caroline Criado Perez, Karen Ellis, The Dialogue Group, Margaret Heffernan, Riane Eisler, as well as studies conducted by consultancies such as McKinsey, and by global universities and institutions such as the World Health Organization and MIT (a full list can be found in our Reference section). In partnership, we combined all the threads to uncover, make sense of and then distil the essence of our findings as well as solutions.

We have put forward suggestions and ideas for organisations that will hopefully enable a broader range of people to rise, and more organisations to thrive. The solutions we share are intentionally directed at organisations as opposed to individuals. We often see a heavy burden of responsibility being placed on the individual to initiate change. Although everyone must play their part for change to happen, we believe that the overall responsibility and ownership must lie with the organisation, or in other words, with those who design the system.

Our solutions are presented as conversation starters and food for thought. The challenges that organisations face, as many thought leaders have stated before us, are systemic. There are no quick fixes. The solutions we share have come from the collective intelligence of our network and our 30 years’ experience supporting organisations and leaders (we are grateful to everyone who contributed to these solutions – you can find their names in our Acknowledgements section). We have also built on the ideas of thought leaders specialising in organisational development, psychology, gender studies and more.

We are extremely grateful to all the women who shared their stories with us and contributed to this paper (their names can be found in the Acknowledgements section). Although we spoke to women from different walks of life, we are aware that our research does not cover the whole spectrum of voices and experiences. For this study, we focused on the experiences of senior leaders who identified as women and who have worked in organisations that one could argue are traditional and patriarchal. Our scope did not extend beyond these parameters. We did not proactively hone in on the additional difficulties and complexities that certain populations face, such as non-binary or transgender people, or women of colour. Neither did we interview men. Our research is still ongoing and expanding and we hope to capture more and more voices and insights as we continue. This piece was always intended to be an initial exploration, with the hope that it would spark a conversation. We hope that the insights we share are helpful to everyone.

Watch Out For: “Isn’t it just…?”

The challenge of reading – and indeed of researching and writing – about any topic is the fact that we are likely to come with a certain degree of conditioning. In order to make quick decisions in a timely manner, our minds often unconsciously take mental shortcuts (heuristics) to avoid being overloaded with information. This can be helpful in our day-to-day lives, but it can also result in shortcuts that are no longer nuanced, which in turn can lead to biases being formed. This is especially challenging when dealing with complex issues. While writing this piece, we have had to actively remind ourselves to stay open to avoid jumping to conclusions. We invite you to remain open as you read what follows, letting go of assumptions and allowing your imagination to freely consider new possibilities.

A couple of example comments we heard from readers during the beginning of our research:

  • “Aren’t the qualities that you’re describing, just qualities found in all good leaders, not just women leaders? Isn’t this study just about broad personality traits, skills and developmental levels rather than specifically women-issues?”

    It is important to stress that we are by no means suggesting that it is only the women who possess certain qualities that have enabled them to lead effectively. We did not interview men for this study, only women. Our research was intended to see if there were any common experiences among women leaders who are thriving. And we noticed a pattern: many of these women possess similar qualities to one another – qualities that are considered by numerous studies (detailed in the piece) to be ‘skills of the future’ – and yet these qualities are, in our experience, often overlooked by organisations. With this observation we are posing a question to organisations – why is this the case?
  • “Haven’t we already covered the women? Isn’t it time to move on now?”

    We sometimes hear this comment from the DE&I department within organisations – a desire to move on to other challenges, with the assumption that this box has already been ticked having implemented some initiatives for women. A certain amount of fatigue has set in. The insights we share, however, show that organisations are very far from closing the gap and resolving the significant issues that women face at work. If anything, looking at how the recent pandemic has disproportionately affected more women than men when it comes to their working lives, one could argue we are even going backwards. In this study, we demonstrate how business-critical this challenge is for organisations.

None of the insights we share are being presented as indisputable truths. Rather it is our intention to share our observations from the stories of our interviewees, to join the dots, and to put forward what we have learnt in order to open up a dialogue for everyone to contribute to and to explore.

Download the full paper here

How can organisations learn from these insights and enable more women to thrive? Download the paper to explore several powerful and actionable recommendations that we put forward.

HDSGT Study October 2022

Download the complete 'How Did She Get There?' Study


01 Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez, March 2019, Preface

02 Women in the Workplace 2021 Report, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, 2021

03 Potential” and the Gender Promotion Gap, Alan Benson, Univ. of Minnesota, Danielle Li, MIT & NBER, and Kelly Shue, Yale & NBER, October 2021

04 COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects, Anu Madgavkar, Olivia White, Mekala Krishnan, Deepa Mahajan, and Xavier Azcue, McKinsey Global Institute, July 2020

05 Seven charts that show COVID-19’s impact on women’s employment article, McKinsey & Company, March 2021

06 Diversity wins, How inclusion matters, McKinsey & Company, May 2020

07 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P78 from WOMENCOUNT 2020, Margaret McDonagh and Lorna Fitzsimons

08 (E)Quality of Life: A Cross-National Analysis of the Effect of Gender Equality on Life Satisfaction, Andre P. Audette, Sean Lam, Haley O’Connor, and Benjamin Radcliff, October 2018

09 The health and well-being of men in the WHO European Region: better health through a gender approach, World Health Organization, 2018

10 “What’s in it for Men?”: Old Question, New Data, Øystein Gullvåg Holter, November 2014

11 The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work, Michelle P. King, P224

12 The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work, Michelle P. King, Chapter 8

13 The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work, Michelle P. King, P25

14 Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, 2015

15 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P96 from “Determinants and Consequences of Salary Negotiations by Graduating Male and Female MBAs”, Barry Gerhart and Sara Rynes, 1991

16 The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work, Michelle P. King

17 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021

18 Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez, March 2019